Tiberias:Jews Lived in the City during most of its Existance/ RD.Rivka Shapk Lissak
Jewish occupancy continued unbroken from Raqat and Hammat to our days.
Tiberias today is a Jewish city with a population of 40,000. The city’s tourist sites include the Old City and the graves of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness, Rabbi Akiva, and the Maimonides. A row of hotels are situated along the shore of the Lake of Galilee (the Kinneret). The city is built in three sections: The lower one is located on the site of the ancient city; the middle level was built during the British Mandate period and includes Kiryat Shmuel, Don Yossef Hanassi, and other neighborhoods; the upper level was built after the establishment of the State of Israel.
The Bronze Period (3300BCE – 1200BCE)
Tiberias’ ancient name is Raqat, one of the most ancient cities in Israel. It began during the early Bronze period (3300 BCE – 1200 BCE). The Raqat mound is located a few hundred metres north of Tiberias, in an area distinguished by its dolomite rock. Raqat sat on one of the important routes from the north of the Fertile Arc to its south and its inhabitants made their living from fishing, farming, and international trade.
Raqat is mentioned in the Book of Joshua 19:35, as one of the cities in the estate of the tribe of Naphtali, but there is no information about its conquest by the tribes of Israel in the 13th century BCE, or about its existence as an Israelite settlement.
The remains of another settlement, named Hammat, have been uncovered south of Tiberias’ lower city. Hammat is mentioned in a document (Anastasi I Papyrus) from the 13th century BCE, the time of Rameses the 2nd. In his book “The Land of Israel During Biblical Times”, Yohanan Aharoni argues that this letter was written by an Egyptian scribe who described the main routes in Canaan, mentioning Hammat near the Kinneret.
The Book of Joshua mentions Hammat along with Raqat as fortified settlements in the estate of Naphtali. Scholars are divided, however, over whether the settlements mentioned in the various tribal estates were all conquered by the Israelites in Joshua’s time.
The First Temple Period (1000 BCE – 586 BCE)
An archaeological survey has been carried out in Raqat although full excavations are yet to be done. Archaeologists have determined that Raqat existed in the First Temple period (first in the Unified Kingdom and later on in the northern Kingdom of Israel, but it is not listed among the cities conquered by Assyria in the 8th century BCE) up to the time of the Persian period, i.e. around the middle of the 6th century BCE. The causes of its destruction or abandonment are not known.
Hammat, on the other hand, existed continuously throughout the First Temple period and further. S. Klein and William P.Albright dated the lists in the book of Joshua, chapter 21 and in the First Chronicles, chapter 26, to the time of the Unified Kingdom (King David and King Solomon’s time). These are lists of the Levitic cities that served as centres for administration and worship, and Hammat was one of them. Hammat in the estate of Naphtali is also listed among the Biblical cities that have been identified in modern times (ref. Aharoni, p.348)
The Second Temple Period (538 BCE – 70 CE)
Following Herod’s death the Hasmonaean kingdom was divided among his heirs. Herod Antipas inherited the Galilee, and established Tiberias in 17-22 CE as a Polis, named in honour of the Emperor Tiberius. A public bath house was built in the city as well as a harbour that was used for boats carrying agricultural produce from the Golan and the Bashan. Herod Antipas moved the Administrative center of the Galilee from Tzipori to Tiberias and invited non- Jews to settle there.
The city was built on the ancient cemetery of the Israelite Hammat, which was famous for its therapeutic springs and was situated south of modern Tiberias’ lower section. Hammat was a Jewish settlement throughout the Second Temple period and is mentioned in Josephus Flavius’ “The Jewish Wars” in the context of a visit by Yohanan of Gush Halav (one of the heroes of the Great Revolt) and as the site of Aspasianus’ camp at that time. The Romans developed Hammat’s therapeutic springs and built bath houses that attracted vacationers from all over the Roman Empire.
Jews avoided settling in Tiberias for it was considered defiled, having been constructed on the site of a cemetery. However, Herod Antipas transferred the Galilean administrative centre from Tzipori to Tiberias and strove to settle it with both foreigners and Jews. According to one source, he forced the Jews to settle there, and according to another he attracted them to the city by offering free lots of land.
After Herod Antipas’ removal in 39 CE, the Galilee was handed over in 41 CE to his nephew Agripas I, grandson of Herod and Miriam the Hasmonaean, who had already been given control of the Golan by the Romans. Agripas I died in 44 CE, and in 54 CE the Romans handed the Golan to his son Agripas II, who then received the Galilee, including Tiberias, in 61 CE, although according to another source he got Tiberias only, where he ruled until his death in 96 CE. Agripas II was crowned King of the Jews by the Romans and was their ally during the Great Revolt (66-70 CE). After his death Tiberias was annexed to Provincia Judaea.
Tiberias was fortified by Josephus Flavius in 66 CE in preparation for the Great Revolt, but being a city of mixed population, the majority supporterted Agripas II and Rome. Plavius arrested the members of the city council and 1,000 citizens as hostages to secure the city's cooperation, but the supporters of Rome overcame the rebels and Tiberias surrendered to the Roman army without battle.
The Roman and Byzantian Periods (70 – 640CE)
Tiberias was the only Polis in the world with a Jewish population majority, but in 120CE the city’s government was expropriated from its Jewish citizens and given to non-Jews. A stadium in honour of Emperor Adrian was built in Tiberias during his time.
After the Bar Kokhba revolt (132- 135 CE) the graves on which the city was built were purified (according to tradition, the purification was carried out by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai), and according to Shmuel Klein’s research “Land of the Galilee”, priests from the priestly clan of Ma’azyah settled in Tiberias. The purification made it possible to transfer the Sanhedrin from Tzipori to Tiberias after Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi passed away in 220 CE. It seems that transferring the spiritual center made Tiberias attractive to scholars, among them Rabbi Yohanan Bar Naphtha.
Tiberias’ neighbour, Hammat, is mentioned in the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud, attesting to the continuance of its Jewish occupancy. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Hammat became a suburb of Tiberias as a result of the the city’s growth. This apparently relates to the period following the Bar Kokhba revolt (135 CE) or perhaps the beginning of the 3rd century, when the Sanhedrin moved to Tiberias and its Jewish population grew. Hammat was discovered in 1920 when the Works Battalion was given the job of paving the road from Tiberias to Tzemah. The Society for the Study of Israel and Its Antiquities excavated on site in 1921 and found a stone Menorah. Excavations carried out in 1963 uncovered the remains of a synagogue with a mosaic floor, considered one of the oldest in the country, and an Aramaic inscription.
Several synagogues were discovered in Hammat, built one on top the other. The remains of one date to the first century CE, and its mosaic floor depicts the Zodiac, the names of the months in Hebrew, a seven-branched menorah, a holy ark, palm fronds and citruses. Another mosaic was discovered underneath this floor, and another synagogue was discovered about 500 metres from where the menorah was found in 1921.
Tiberias increased greatly in size from the second half of the 2nd century CE, merging with neighboring Hammat and becoming the largest Jewish city in the Galilee. About 40,000 people lived in Tiberias during the 3rd century. The city prospered economically and supported 13 markets, each of which specialized in a particular trade.
Tiberias was the Jewish spiritual centre in the Land of Israel for many years, and was home to scholars, liturgical poets, and writers. The Jerusalem Talmud was mostly the work of the Jewish spiritual center in Tiberias where it was sealed in the year 400 CE. Following the Byzantine government’s dissolution of the Jewish religious leadership and autonomy in the 5th century, the Yeshiva "The Land of Israel" was established in Tiberias as the Sanhedrin’s successor, and Tiberias continued to serve as a spiritual center. Excavations have uncovered a small mosaic, which is presumed to have been part of Rabbi Yohanan the Amorai’s 4th century school.
Archaeological excavations in Tiberias unearthed a section measuring about 70 metres of the main colonnaded street, the Cardo, and nearby remains of the city market and a Byzantine bath house (which was in use from the 4th to the 11th centuries). Houses, a stadium and an aqueduct that brought water from the Yavne’el area to Tiberias were excavated as well. Excavations to unearth the Byzantine city wall unearthed a section of the wall built by Emperor Justinian on Mt. Berenice during the 6th century. Another section of the Byzantine wall was discovered close to the bath house and near it was found the southern city gate, dated by archaeologists to the first century CE.
Excavations carried out in 1990 uncovered the remains of the Roman theatre built at the foot of Mt Berenice, dated to the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.
Excavations in 1981 unearthed one of Tiberias ancient synagogues, from the 6th century CE, the Proclos Synagouge. A structure from the 4th century was excavated in 2006 and identified as the Sanhedrin building, now called the Tiberias Basilica.
The Christian population in the city grew during the 5th century, and a Byzantine church and monastery were built in the 6th century on top Mt. Berenice (named after the wife of Herod Antipas, Tiberias’ founder).
Tiberian Jews and Galilee Jews aided the Persians in their invasion of Israel in 614 CE in reprisal for the Byzantines’ religious persecutions and pressures to convert, but the Byzantines managed to push the Persians back in 628. Emperor Heracleus visited Tiberias and stayed in the home of Benjamin, a leader of the Jewish community. He received a delegation of Galilean Jews and promised to avoid punishing them for their aid to the Persians. Benjamin, who apparently agreed to convert to Christianity in return for this promise, left with him to Jerusalem. Under pressure of the church, however, the Emperor broke his promise and the Christians massacred Galilean Jews and particularly the Tiberians. Consequently the Jewish community in Tiberias dwindled considerably (ref. Michael Avi-Yona, “In the Days of Rome and Byzantium”, pp. 235-237).
The grave of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness, one of the great scholars of the Bar Kokhba period (his wife, Brurya, was the daughter of Rabbi Hanina Ben Tradion), is situated in Tiberias, although according to another tradition he drowned while on a mission to Asia Minor or was murdered on his arrival there. According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva and the Maimonides were also buried in Tiberias.
The Arabic Period (641—1099)
Under Arabic rule Tiberias became the capital of the Jordan region (Jundi Urdun). Arab rulers reconstructed the Roman and Byzantine city’s walls, and built a fortress and their winter palaces. According to Arabic historians, the Arab conquerors demanded half the area of Tiberias and other cities (ref. Hayim Zeev Hirshberg, The Arab Conquest and Rule, 634-1099).
Jews formed the largest community in Tiberias during the Arabic period, and the city maintained its status as a central Jewish city in the Galilee until the end of the 10th or 11th centuries. One of the occupations of Tiberian Jews was the Hebrew book industry: they copied, punctuated, and bound Hebrew manuscripts that were sent to Jewish communities around the world. The Tiberian Punctuation was developed in Tiberias during the Arabic period. Proclos's synagogue was damaged during the earth quake of 749 and was restored.
The Christian community in Tiberias was next in size, inferred from the fact that five churchs were built there. The one mosque attests to a considerably smaller Muslim community (ref. Roth Peleg, ed., Israel’s North – Galilee and Golan Through the Generations).
The city’s population suffered from inter-Arab wars, Bedouin pillage and murder, and earth quakes, the worst of which occurred in 749 and 1033 and caused wide-spread damage, including the destruction of the church on Mt. Berenice (later reconstructed).
The insecure situation harmed Tiberian Jews’ economic conditions, and by the 11th century the community dwindled.
The remains of a synagogue from the 8th century were discovered when the foundations of the city’s Plaza Hotel were excavated. Other finds include remains of houses and a treasure of jewelry and coins from the Arabic period, and the home of a 10th century Arab merchant containing hundreds of copper and bronze utensils, cooking pots, lamps and candles.
The remains of a synagogue from the Muslim period discovered in 1963 attest to Hammat’s existence during the Arabic period.
The Crusader Period (1099 – 1260)
Despite the hardships endured by its population, Tiberias survived the Arabic period and was conquered without battle by the Crusaders in 1099. Its Arabic residents fled to Damascus following rumours of massacres carried out by the Crusaders.
The Crusaders demolished Tiberias’ Roman Old City and turned Tiberias into the Crusader kingdom’s Galilee Principality and its administrative center. A new section, containing palaces, a Crusader fort, and a wall, was added to the city. Remains of towers and walls from that period, built in 1100, can be found around Tiberias. The city’s economic state during the Crusader period was low, however, and the baths were no longer frequented by vacationers. The number of Christians in Tiberias grew under the Crusaders.
The Jewish population, who also heard the rumours about massacres, fled to the mountains but some returned after a while. In the mid-12th century the Jewish market became the center of Tiberias’ economic activity. Benjamin of Tudella who visited Tiberias in 1171 tells of 50 Jewish families living in the city. Rabbi Ptahya of Regensburg visited in 1180.
In 1187 the city was besieged by Saladdin, and the Crusaders fought him in the Horns of Hattin nearby. Following the battle the city came under Muslim rule again. Saladdin demolished the Crusaders’ fortifications and destroyed large sections of the city. Tiberias became a small and neglected town. In 1239 the Crusaders managed to recapture the Galilee (ref. Benjamin Zeev Kadar, Continuity of the Jewish Settlement in the Land of Israel).
During the 13th century, Jews from France, Germany, and Spain immigrated to Israel, and some of them settled in Tiberias (ref. Benjamin Zeev Kadar, Waves of Jewish Immigration and the Revival of the Jewish Population, Between Crusaders and Muslims 1187-1291).
The Mameluke Period (1260 –1516)
The Mamelukes conquered Tiberias in 1260 (according to one version) or in 1247 (according to another version), expelled all the Christians from the city and destroyed it, leaving it in ruins through the period. In fact, the Mamelukes expelled the Latin (Crusader) Christians from the whole of Israel, allowing only Byzantine Christians to remain.
The Ottoman Period (1516 – 1918)
The traveler Moses Bassoula visited Tiberias in 1522 and reported 10 Arabic families living among the city’s ruins. A Christian traveler describes a small Jewish community in Tiberias in 1549 – perhaps Jews from Saffed who settled in Tiberias (ref. Nathan Shorr, Galilean Jews During the Ottoman Period).
In 1560 or 1563, the Ottoman Sultan gave a permit for Tiberias and its surrounds to Donna Grazia and her son-in-law Don Joseph Nassi, in return for an annual fee (ref. an article by Zvi Sahayek, “In Donna Grazia’s Footsteps” for more on Donna Grazia’s enterprise). Donna Grazia and Don Joseph were both ex-Marranos (Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Christianity) who fled the Potuguese Inquisition to Antwerp. They were both active in organizing the escape of Marrano Jews from Portugal, and for that had to flee to Italy and from there to Constantinople.
Donna Grazia and Don Joseph began the reconstruction of Tiberias with the aim of turning it into an independent Jewish center. Joseph Ibn Arditi, their representative, reconstructed the city’s walls, and settled in it Jews from the Spanish Exile. A traveler who visited Tiberias in 1561 found a Jewish community, a synagogue, and religious students. Rabbi Yihye Al Dahari from Yemmen visited Tiberias in 1567 and reported a large Yeshiva there.
According to Yitzhak Ben Zvi’s book, “The Land of Israel and Its Settlement”, the synagogue was built on the foundations of the ancient synagogue where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai used to pray. A Yeshiva led by Sephardy scholars was also established in Tiberias. Ibn Arditi planted mulberry trees around the city to develop a silk industry, and merino sheep were imported from Spain to develop a textile industry.
The tax data of the years 1555/6 – 1572/3 indicate an increase in Tiberian population. According to Nathan Shorr this increase was not due to Muslim population growth, and based on the evidence by Rabbi Yihye and another traveler, it was due to the growing Jewish community, albeit of small size.
Harassment by the Pope’s representative in Constantinople and by the Arabs and Turks in Tiberias, however, combined with Donna Grazia’s death in 1569 in Constantinople, brought the project to a halt.
In 1579 the Sultan handed the permit to another Marrano named Alvarro Mendes from Portugal, whose Jewish name was Shlomo Ben Ya’ish. Ben Ya’ish, who held a diplomatic position in Constantinople, sent his son Jacob to Tiberias. Jacob took on more construction and business enterprises as well as the study of the Torah and Kabbalah.
Although small in size, the Sephardic community in Tiberias continued to exist, as Rabbi Isaiah Halevy Horowitz reported in 1624, drawing to it Jews from Saffed.
In the middle of the 16th century, the Galilee was invaded by the Bedouin tribe Tararbai. In the 17th century the Bedouin tribe Ma’aniye invaded the Galilee from Lebanon, and a war broke out between the two tribes over control of the Galilee (ref. Yousouf Soua’ad, “The Rule of Bedouin Sheikhs in the North of the Land of Israel”). There were also skirmishes between the Bedouins and the Fallahs (the farmers). The unsafe situation forced the Jews of Tiberian to leave it temporarily and hide in neighbouring villages. In 1656 the Druze destroyed Tiberias .
In 1738 the Galilee was conquered by the Bedouin Sheikh Dahar El Omar, who rebuilt Tiberias. He erected a fort north-west of Crusader Tiberias, reconstructed the wall and built two mosques, one of which, Al Amri mosque, is named in his honour. He invited Rabbi Hayim Aboul’afia from Izmir and other Jews back to the city. Rabbi Hayim’s father was the city’s Rabbi before its destruction and so he accepted the invitation and returned to Tiberias in 1740 despite his advanced age.
Sheikh El Omar gave the Rabbi a glorious welcome and appointed him Head of the Community. The Jewish Quarter was rebuilt and Rabbi Aboul’afia brought about the renewal of the Jewish settlement in Tiberias. He built the synagogue “Etz Hayim” (Tree of Life) on the ruins of the ancient synagogue, or according to another version, on the site of the Sanhedrin. A public bath house and other community buildings were also built. Rabbi Aboul’afia looked after the city’s development and sought to create sources of income for its Jewish residents. He died in 1744 and was succeeded as community leader by his two sons, Rabbi Yitzhak and Yissakhar. Rabbi Aboul’afia is buried in Tiberias’ ancient cemetery.
After Saffed was hit by the earthquake of 1759 some of its Jewish residents moved to Tiberias.
Tiberias was besieged by Souleiman Pasha, the Sultan’s “deputy”, who was sent to remove Sheikh El Omar from the Galilee. Damascan Jews found out about his plan and advised the Tiberian Jews to leave the city, but Rabbi Aboul’afia decided to stay. The siege ended when Souleiman Pasha left for Damascus for some reason. After sorting his affairs there he embarked on his journey back to Tiberias but died on the way from stomach poisoning.
In 1765 the city was still under Sheikh Omar’s rule and Rabbi Simcha son of Rabbi Joshua of Zalazitz visited it and found 36 Sephardic families. At that time Ashkenazi Jews from Poland began settling in Tiberias, and when Rabbi Moshe Yerushalmi visited in 1769 he found more than 150 Jewish families there(about 900 people).
Sheikh El Omar was removed by the Turks in 1775 and Tiberias returned to Ottoman hands.
A group of Hassidim, students of the Baal Shem Tov settled in Tiberias in 1777. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav also settled there. Students of the teacher Dov Baer of Mazaritz arrived a little later.
At the beginning of the 19th century Tiberias’population numbered about 4,000 persons, 2,600 of them Jews and the rest Arabs. Rabbi David D’Veit Hiller visited Tiberias in 1824 and found 200 Jewish families (1200 persons based on an average of 6 per family) and 13 synagogues.
At the beginning of the 1830’s Mouhamad Ali and his son Ibrahim Pasha took over control of the Land of Israel. Ibrahim reconstructed Tiberias’ city walls, but the earth quake which hit the Galilee in 1837 caused considerable damage: sections of the walls, the whole Jewish Quarter, and many houses were destroyed, and 700 of the city’s residents were killed. Synagouge "Etz Haim" was damaged and restored and a new synagogue, named "Senior" in honour of rabbi Haim Shamuel Hachohen was built.
The Turks took over the country in 1840 and in 1877 granted Tiberias the status of a municipality. At that time Tiberias had become a small town whose inhabitants suffered poverty and disease. But, the establishment of Jewish agricultural settlements in the Galilee at the end of the 19th century improved the conditions of the Jews of Tiberias.
In 1911, the Jewish Colonization Association together with the Baron De Rothschild, established 3 large farms outside the walls of Tiberias and handed them to Jewish farmer families for cultivation. The renewal of Jewish settlement in the country, under Zionist leadership, brought the gradual increase in Jewish population in Tiberias, and the city expanded beyond its walls. The first suburb outside the city walls was built in 1912, and was first named “Moarris” but renamed “Akhva” later on. The suburb bordered on the three farms which eventually merged with it.
When World War I erupted, 6,000 of Tiberias’ 8,000 inhabitants were Jewish.During the war the Jews found themselves in dire straits as many were dependent on monies donated overseas (the Halouka system) which ceased when relations with Europe were severed as a result of the war. The Zionist movement approached the American Jewish community for help and the American aid relieved some of the duress. During the war, Jews deported by the Turks from other cities and towns settled in Tiberias (ref. Yitzhak Ben Zvi, The Land of Israel and its Settlement).
The British Mandate Period (1918 – 1948)
Tiberias was conquered by the British in September 1917. Throughout the Mandate period, Jews formed the majority in Tiberias. A new Jewish suburb, Kiryat Shmuel, was built in 1920. A storm hit the Galilee in May 1934, causing Tiberias’ sewerage system to collapse under the deluge of rain that flooded the city. Houses were damaged, 32 people were killed, and about 100 were wounded.
During the 1936-1939 Arabic Revolt, Tiberian Jews were harassed by their Arab neighbours.
The Massacre in Tiberias, 1938
The Arabic version: About 300 Arabic El-Mujahideen fighters broke into Tiberias on 2 October 1938, blocked all entrances to the city with large rocks, cut off telephone lines and began shooting the Jews’ homes from all directions. They set fire to the magistrate courts, the Mandate government building, and Jewish shops, and caused damage estimated by their commander at 30,000 pounds. About 70 Jewish civilians and 3 Jewish guards were killed and their weapons taken. Three Mujahideen fighters were killed and 5 wounded.
The Jewish version: At 9 o’clock in the evening, in a pre-planned operation, 300 Arabs from neighbouring villages along with Iz Ad’Din El Kassem’s band aided by Tiberian Arabs invaded the city. After blocking all entrances and cutting off the means of communication, they divided into two sections. One section headed for the British Police building and the magistrate courts and set them on fire. The other section entered the city north of Kiryat Shmuel, broke into the synagogue, plundered the holy books and burned the place with its service officer, Yaakov Gal, who was locked up inside. Following that they headed towards the residential blocks. They entered 4 apartments and murdered their occupants. In one apartment they murdered a mother and her 5 children (the family of Yohanan Mizrahi), burned their bodies and danced on them. Two Jewish guards who rushed to the aid of the civilians were killed as well. In total, 19 Jews were murdered, 11 of them children.
The Mandate government Speaker who reported the incident noted: “The massacre was methodical and organised and was carried out with extreme cruelty”. A plaque commemorating the massacre was mounted in the neighborhood synagogue.
According to the Nacba web site (a Palestinian-Arabic site) there were 6,160 Arabs and 6,000 Jews living in Tiberias in 1948. The Arabs fled Tiberias on 18 April 1948.
According to the Jewish sources there were 7,000 Jews and 5,000 Arabs living in Tiberias on the eve of the War of Independence. Tiberias was the first mixed city to be freed, on 15 April 1948, a month before the establishment of the State of Israel, by units of Golanni and the Palmach. Representatives of the Arabs approached the British the following day and requested to leave the city. Escorted by the British army (which mediated between them and the Jewish command) the Arabic population of Tiberias left, some to Nazareth and the rest to Trans-Jordan.
After the establishment of Israel, new immigrants were settled in a refugee camp near Tiberias and latter new suburbs were being built for them. The new immigrants became the majority in the city. In 1950 Tiberias’ population numbered 12,500, and in 2008 40,000.