Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rabbinic Tomb Inscription

Here's an interesting story about a man who found a rabbi's grave in his back yard. The grave may belong to the 3rd century Palestinian amora R. Yehoshua ben Levi. Or it may not. According to legend, Yehoshua ben Levi never died but was taken directly into heaven (like Elijah - with whom he hangs out a lot, again according to legend). There was a bit of a struggle going on between the owner who doesn't want it excavated and the Israeli Antiquities Authority who wants to excavate. Apparently, they've come to an agreement of some kind. Here's the account of how he found the grave.
While digging through the mud he discovered a wall and stone door bearing inscriptions in hard rock with the name of the famous rabbi and the name of the town, Tzipori.

Pilcer said the door to the structure was ajar, and after looking inside he immediately re-covered the site with dirt and built an iron fence around the structure to protect it.

A terra cotta sarcophagus was clearly visible lying in mud inside the grave, said Pilcer.

If the grave does belong to Levi, the presence of a sarcophagus could complicate the issue for some haredim who believe Levi never died because of his attentiveness to the Torah.
The inscription apparently says, "This is the grave of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi ha-Qappar." (source)

Here's some interesting background info on R. Yehoshua ben Levi from the Jewish Encyclopedia.
In legend, Joshua b. Levi is a favorite hero. He is often made to be the companion of Elijah the prophet in the latter's wanderings on earth (Pesiḳ. 36a); he likewise has dealings with the Angel of Death (Ber. 51a). While yet alive, he is permitted to visit paradise and the nether world; and he sends thence a description of what he sees to R. Gamaliel through the submissive Angel of Death (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa i., end).
More background on the news story can be found at Paleojudaica. Odds are it's not the grave of the famous rabbi anyway. (Remember he never died, so it can't be him.)

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