Sometime in the first century BCE, Israel suffered a terrible drought. People and animals were parched, the land cracked and the crops failed.
There lived in the Galilee a sage named Honi who was so righteous that when he entered the Temple the courtyard would shine brightly. But could he make it rain?
Honi came out of his house and prayed to the Lord for rain. When nothing happened, Hony took a stick and drew a circle on the dry, dusty ground. Standing in the middle he informed the Lord that he wouldn’t leave until the drought came to an end.
Tiny drops fell and this really upset the sage. He said: I prayed for a good solid rain that would water the fields! This isn’t it! I am staying here!
Finally, wonderful, thirst-quenching, life-giving rain began to fall. The drought, which had gone on for three long years, had ended. Honi came out of his circle and gave thanks to the Lord. And that is how he got his name: Honi the Circle-Maker (Honi Hame’agel).
Jewish pilgrims from all over the world flock to Honi’s tomb near the town of Hatzor HaGlilit in the Galilee, along with others like it in the Land of Israel and abroad. Some come to pray, hoping that the righteous one (tzadik) connected to the site, or interred within, will intercede with God on their behalf: they may be asking for God to send a marriage partner, or to reverse a cruel fate. They can be seen at all hours of the day, reading the scriptures, praying and, not infrequently, weeping softly.
Here is a short list of other holy sites that are often visited by pilgrims hoping for an answer to their prayers.
Tomb of Benjamin, son of Jacob
Traditional site: Kfar Saba
Benjamin was the youngest of Jacob’s sons. His mother, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, died giving birth to the boy, who played a major role during a famine in the Holy Land.
When Jacob’s children went to Egypt for food, they were received by their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery but now was a high Egyptian official. Joseph pretended that he didn’t recognize his siblings, and maneuvered to ensure that the next time they came they would bring brother Benjamin with them. He then played a trick on them in which they successfully demonstrated that they had improved in the area of brotherly love and were determined to protect young Benjamin, unlike their ill-treatment of him.
That’s when he made himself known to his brothers. The Bible tells us that he “fell upon his brother Benjamin’s necks and wept.” An ancient Jewish commentary wonders if perhaps Benjamin had two necks instead of one. It offers the following interpretation: Joseph was crying because he knew that two Temples would be built in Benjamin’s territory, and that both would be destroyed.
Tombs of Shemaiah and Avtalion
Maronite village of Gush Halav in the Galilee
Shemaiah and Avtalion, converts or the offspring of converts to Judaism, lived in the late first century BCE. The two were fourth in a line of eminent sages, spiritual leaders, who worked in pairs over a period of nearly 200 years.
Shemaiah is famous for declaring that people should “Love work, hate religious authorities and stay far away from the government.” Avtalion is known for strongly counseling scholars against using their words unwisely.
Legend has it that Shemaiah was directly descended from the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib, whose troops were wiped out by angels in 701 BCE when he tried to capture Jerusalem. Despite his antecedents, both Shemaiah and Avtalion were greatly revered, especially by the common people. In fact, one day at the close of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the two ran into the high priest as he was returning from the Temple with a crowd in his wake. As soon as the people saw Shemaiah and Avtalion, they deserted the high priest to follow the beloved couple.
Tomb of Rabban Gamliel II
Yavne, central Israel
Following the destruction of the Second Temple and a ban against practicing Judaism in the Holy City, the Sanhedrin, or Jewish judicial council, moved from Jerusalem to the town of Yavne. Its president, Rabban Gamliel II, worked tirelessly at making sense of the religious chaos that reigned after the catastrophe, aiming all of his considerable efforts toward abolishing differences and restoring Jewish unity. He is known for issuing lenient decrees regarding women and, as well, for his humility. Indeed, it is said that during at least one large feast he stood up and served the guests himself.
In sharp contrast to many other gravesites, the one attributed to Rabban Gamliel is a beautiful domed structure also known as the Mausoleum of Abu Huraira (a companion of Mohammed, famous for his photographic memory). Located on a burial ground used by the Jews of Yavne since Roman times, the tomb also serves as a Muslim shrine.
Tomb of Judah Nesiah
Just north of Safed
Grandson of the better-known Rabbi Judah Hanasi, Judah Nesiah lived during the third century CE. According to a Talmudic story, one day he entered a Jewish village. After finding the educational system unimpressive he asked the town elders to bring him the guardians of the city. Indicating the finest of their soldiers the elders proudly declared “Here are the guards, as you asked.”
“No,” responded Nesiah. “These are not the guards. It is the teachers who are the guardians of the city. You have to invest more money in education!”
Cave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
Druze village of Peki’in
Every year, on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, tens of thousands of Jews ascend Mount Meron in the Galilee for a vast celebration marking the end of a plague that occurred in the Land of Israel 2,000 years ago. They also hold festivities at the traditional burial site of Shimon Bar Yochai, an eminent mystic who was a pupil of Rabbi Akiva, a famous sage who was flayed alive by the Romans in the second century.
Like his teacher, Shimon Bar Yochai also spoke out against the Romans, decrying anti-Jewish edicts. Soldiers were sent to execute the brilliant rabbi, who fled with his young son to the northern village of Peki’in, the only town in Israel to have maintained a continuous Jewish presence for the last 2,000 years. The two spent at least a decade afterward hiding in a minuscule cave within the town. They subsisted only on the fruit of a carob tree that miraculously appeared nearby and water from a spring that providentially burst through the ground. Together with the tomb on Mount Meron, both the cave and spring are considered by many to be holy sites.
Tomb of Yossi, son of Halafta
Kfar Hananya in the Upper Galilee
In 132 CE the Jews in Israel rebelled once again against the Romans in an uprising known as the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135). After squelching the revolt, the Romans banned Jews from Jerusalem and destroyed Jewish cities in the center of the country. They forbade Jewish learning inside the remaining towns, and the Sanhedrin, which was headquartered in Yavne, was forced to move its seat to an obscure little village called Usha in the Galilee.
City boundaries were engraved on rocks so that Jews would know how far they could walk on the Sabbath while staying within the roughly 3,000 feet of city borders, beyond which it was not allowed to stray on the holy day of rest. The rabbis brought their pupils to these outskirts for ordination and Jewish studies. One day, Rabbi Yehuda ben Babba led his students to the border between Usha and Shfar’am and was discovered by the Romans. After ordering his pupils to run away — for they were the future of the Jewish nation — ben Babba was stabbed to death.
Ordained earlier by ben Babba, Yossi ben Halafta was one of the students who fled the scene. He became so prominent over the years that the hundreds of mentions of the name “Rabbi Yossi” in Jewish sources refer exclusively to him.
Tomb of Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura
When Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, Italy, reached Jerusalem by donkey in 1488, he found it to be a miserable little town. So poor was the Holy City that its Jews didn’t even own a Torah scroll.
Both a prominent rabbi and successful banker, Rabbi Ovadiah was soon recognized by the country’s Mameluke rulers as a leader of the Jewish community, and by his fellow Jews as their spiritual leader. And while he managed to abolish an oppressive tax on the Jews, his main concern was the state of their relationship to Judaism — or lack thereof. He worked nonstop to get the younger generation interested in Jewish study, established a religious seminary, and is famous for writing one of the Jewish world’s best-known commentaries on the Mishna, a vastly important written collection of Jewish oral traditions. His tomb is near other holy sites in the valley: Yad Avshalom and Zechariah’s Tomb.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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