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In first, Sanhedrin-era building found in Yavne, where sages fled Temple’s ruin

Israel Antiques Authority says structure contained items identified with Jewish community of 2nd century CE; cemetery nearby poses riddle over who is interred

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

  • The first building ever discovered in Yavne from the Sanhedrin era. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities
Authority)
    The first building ever discovered in Yavne from the Sanhedrin era. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Excavation director Daniel Varga with the glass vials discovered. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Excavation director Daniel Varga with the glass vials discovered. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Excavation director Pablo Betzer beside a sarcophagus from the Sanhedrin era in Yavne. (
Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Excavation director Pablo Betzer beside a sarcophagus from the Sanhedrin era in Yavne. ( Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Aerial photo of the excavations at Yavne. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Aerial photo of the excavations at Yavne. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • One of the measuring cup fragments found in Yavne. (Pablo Betzer/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    One of the measuring cup fragments found in Yavne. (Pablo Betzer/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Work on the ancient cemetery in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Work on the ancient cemetery in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Tombs from the time of the Sanhedrin in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Tombs from the time of the Sanhedrin in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Tombs from the time of the Sanhedrin in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Tombs from the time of the Sanhedrin in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Remains of a building from the time of the Sanhedrin have been uncovered in Yavne for the first time, the Israel Antiques Authority said Monday. Yavne, in the central plain, is the ancient city where the supreme Jewish legislative assembly relocated to escape the destruction of the capital Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE.

“For the first time ever in Yavne, the excavations discovered an industrial building dating from the 1st–3rd centuries CE,” the IAA said in a statement.

Inside the building, archaeologists found chalkstone cups that the IAA said were “clear evidence that its occupants were observing Jewish laws of ritual purity.”

“The floor contained several fragments of stoneware known as ‘measuring cups,’ vessels that retain their ritual purity and are identified with the Jewish population in the late Second Temple period and 2nd century CE,” it said.

IAA Yavne excavation Pablo Betzer and Daniel Varga called the discovery “a direct voice from the past, from the period when the Jewish leadership salvaged the remaining fragments from the fall of the Temple, went into exile in Yavne, and set about re-establishing the Jewish people there.”

A cemetery from the same period was also discovered 70 meters from the building, which is located close to a large Byzantine-era wine press that was previously found at the site. At that distance the graveyard would likely have been outside the boundaries of the ancient city, in accordance with Jewish and Roman law, the researchers said.

The careful arrangement of tombs at the site probably indicated there was “some official body that was responsible for burial.”

Work on the ancient cemetery in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Most of the sarcophagi are made of stone, but one was of lead.

Because there are no ethnic symbols on the coffins, archaeologists have not yet determined if those interred were Jews or pagans, but “archaeological finds raise the possibility that these are the tombs of the city’s Jewish community,” said the statement.

“If this hypothesis is correct, then at least some of the tombs, perhaps the most elaborate, may belong to the sages of Yavne, contemporaries of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Gamliel,” the archaeologists said, naming three of the most famous rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud.

The cemetery also provided a surprising find, with over 150 glass vials discovered on top of the tombs.

Yael Gorin-Rosen, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s glass department, assessed that the vials were likely to hold precious liquids such as fragrant oils. Half the vials appeared to be locally produced, and the rest imported from Alexandria in Egypt.

“Vials of this type have been recovered in excavations at both Jewish and pagan burial sites from the 1st to the early 3rd centuries CE,” she said. “It is a mystery why the vials were placed outside the tombs in Yavne and not inside them, as was usual.”

An ancient city, Yavne was one of the most important towns in the southern coastal plain, the IAA said. During the Hasmonean period, in 140 BCE to 37 BCE, it was a key strategic location in the struggles between Jewish Maccabean forces and the Greek Seleucid rulers. The ancient historian Josephus makes multiple mentions of Yavne in his writings.

At the end of the Second Temple period, though it had a mixed population, most of the residents of Yavne were Jewish. According to Jewish lore, before the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai fled the besieged capital and obtained permission from Roman emperor Vespasian, who was leading the invading army, to set up the Sanhedrin in Yavne. Ben Zakkai famously framed his plea with the phrase “Give me Yavne and its sages.”

In the decades after the destruction of the Temple, Yavne became a major spiritual center, adjusting Jewish life to the reality of a nation without its central holy site.

“It can be said that the foundations of Judaism as we know it today were laid in Yavne,” the IAA statement said.

“It is exciting to see ancient accounts of the Sanhedrin translated into actual evidence in the field, with vessels, installations and buildings,” said Eli Eskozido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “We are sure that Yavne has not yet had the last say. Wherever archaeologists scrape the surface here, they encounter a find of national importance, with all that that entails.”

During the eight-day Hanukkah festival, which began on Sunday night, the IAA is holding Israel Heritage Week events, which include tours of the Yavne site.

Archaeological work began at the site due to development work to expand the modern city of Yavne which was initiated by the Israel Lands Authority and the Yavne Municipality. The plans are for 12,500 housing units and 450,000 square meters of commercial and employment space in the area.

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