Signs of Jewish Life, and Death, Discovered at the Ancient Capital of Rabbinic Scholarship

November 30, 2021 | Aaron Reich
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In an oft-retold talmudic story, Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, a leading rabbi at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction, negotiated with the soon-to-be-emperor of Rome, Vespasian, for the preservation of the village of Yavneh, along with its sages. Thus Yavneh, located about 15 miles south of Tel Aviv, became the center of rabbinic learning and the seat of the high rabbinic council known as the Sanhedrin for the next 60 years. Archaeologists have, for the first time, excavated a house from this era of the town’s history, writes Aaron Reich:

The findings of this excavation . . . indicate that the occupants of this home kept kosher and other Jewish purity laws. This was evidenced by the presence of “measuring cups,” vessels identified with Jews in the late Second Temple era that were used to retain ritual purity.

But another impressive find was found just 230 feet away: a cemetery dating back to the same period. On top of these tombs were over 150 glass phials.

The excavation directors add that, . . . “With all due caution, the historical records and archaeological finds raise the possibility that these are the tombs of the city’s Jewish community. If this hypothesis is correct, then at least some of the tombs, perhaps the most elaborate, may belong to the sages of Yavneh, contemporaries of Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabban Gamliel.”

The city of Yavneh has a rich Jewish history, and was a vital point in the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid empire in the story of Hanukkah.

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