Tiberius

Beneath the pebbly beaches and relaxing hot springs of Teveriah hides a secret city. The city’s dull streets are but a veneer that conceals a glorious past, a magnificent future, and an intense holiness. So writes Rav Moshe Kliers (5634/1874 – 5694/1934), one of the town’s leading rabbonim a hundred years ago.

THE NAVEL OF THE WORLD

Rav Kliers wrote many seforim including the small volume, Tibor Ha’aretz, which collects all the sources pertaining to the unique sacredness of his beloved city.

He begins by citing the Gemara (Megillah 6a), which discusses the significance of the town’s name.

“Its [real] name is Rekes,” states the Gemara. “And why is it called Teveriah? Because it sits in the navel (tabor) of Eretz Yisroel.”

Is this a mere geographical fact, or is this symbolic of the town’s centrality and importance, similar to Chazal’s description of Yerushalayim as sitting at the center of the world? Although Rav Kliers does not discuss this explicitly, he seems to lean towards the latter interpretation that Teveriah’s central location hints at its unique qualities, which he discusses later in the sefer.

Interpreting the word tabor as meaning “center,” Rav Kliers raises the problem that Chazal elsewhere describe Yerushalayim, and not Teveriah, as the center of Eretz Yisroel, apparently contradicting our Gemara, which gives Teveriah central status. Perhaps one can answer that tabor does not imply centrality, as Rav Kliers assumes, but rather refers to the city’s location in the round, navel-shaped Kineres valley.

Why does the Gemara need to explain that Teveriah is named due its location in the tabor ha’aretz? Don’t Chazal give a much more prosaic reason for this name elsewhere (Bereishis Rabba, Chapter 23) where they explain that Teveriah was named after the Roman emperor, Tiberius, who ruled at the time it was rebuilt?

Rav Kliers answers that Chazal were puzzled why Jews continued calling the city after the wicked Tiberius centuries after his demise. Why did they not revert
to calling it by its original name, Rekes? Chazal explain that Jews retained the name, Teveriah, to hint at Teveriah’s unique, central status.

A SPECIAL LAKE

Much of Teveriah’s sacredness derives from Lake Kineres, which has special distinction as the Medrash Shochar Tov (Tehillim 92) states, “The Holy One said, ‘I created seven lands and of them all, I only chose Eretz Yisroel… I created seven seas and of them all, I only chose the sea of Kineres.” Just as Eretz Yisroel is the holiest of all lands, so the Kineres is the holiest of all seas.

Rav Chaim Abulafia, the famous eighteenth century kabbalist, whom the Turkish emperor ordered to move from Izmir to Eretz Yisroel in order to rebuild Teveriah, went even further, stating that the placid blue waters of Lake Kineres hint at the Shechinah.

Rav Kliers explains that the holy lake helped the people of Teveriah reach the high spiritual plane mentioned in the Gemara (Megillah 6a): “ Rekes is Teveriah, and why is it called Rekes, because even the empty people (reikanin) in it are filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate.”

The Chida finds this statement surprising. Chazal (Keilim, Chapter 1) say that the mountains of Yerushalayim are the holiest location in Eretz Yisroel. If so, why does Yerushalayim not imbue its inhabitants with the same propensity towards doing mitzvos?

The Chida explains that Teveriah has an advantage over Yerushalayim, as it lies in a deep valley where the sun sets early and forces the populace to accept Shabbos earlier than anywhere else (Shabbos 18b). Since Shabbos is equal to all the mitzvos combined, this helps even the emptiest of Teveriah’s Jews become as full of mitzvos as a pomegranate.

The sefer, Shaar Hachatzer, offers another solution, suggesting that the people achieve a special holiness by drinking the holy waters of the Lake Kineres, which Hashem chose above all the seven seas. In addition, the Well of Miriam in its depths pours into the lake, purifying the local people who drink its waters, making them more conducive to the observance of Torah and mitzvos.

As an illustration of the powers of Miriam’s well, the Shaar Hachatzer cites the famous story related by Rav Chaim Vital, foremost talmid of the Arizal:

“When I went to my teacher, zt”l, to learn this wisdom, my teacher went to Teveriah and took me with him,” Rav Chaim writes. “There was a small boat there, and when we went in the boat in the water by the pillars of the old shul, my teacher took a cup and filled it with water from between the pillars and gave me that water to drink. He said to me, ‘Now you will achieve this wisdom, because these waters you drank came from the Well of Miriam.’ From then on, I began entering the depths of this wisdom.”

Just as the waters of Miriam’s Well purified Rav Chaim Vital and enabled him to absorb the secrets of Kabbalah, so too they raise the purity of the town’s inhabitants and cause them to fulfill more mitzvos.

THE FRUITS OF GINOSAR

The lake’s holy waters have yet another positive effect on their environment.

In Brachos (44a), Chazal praise the fruit of Ginosar (the fruit growing at the Kineres) to the highest degree, ruling that it is such an important food that a person saying a blessing over it is exempted from saying another blessing over bread. The fruit of Ginosar is ikar (principle) and the bread is tofel (subsidiary to the fruit).

The Gemara relates that the sages ate this fruit in incredible quantities.

Rabba bar Chana relates how “each one of us would take for himself a basket of three sa’in and eat them all, and swear that they had not tasted food.” Rav Avihu ate the fruit until his face glistened so much that a fly would slip off his forehead. Rav Ami and Rav Assi (both of whom are buried next to the Rambam’s tomb in Teveriah) ate it until their hair dropped out.

Obviously, there is more to these unusual stories than meets the eye.

Commentators, such as the Shalo”h Hakodosh and the Alshich, explain that besides its physical benefits, food also possesses sparks of spirituality that enhance its taste. By praising the superlative desirability of the fruits of Ginosar, Chazal are really describing its high degree of sanctity.

Indeed, all the fruit of Eretz Yisroel possesses such a degree of sanctity that according to the sefer, Chesed L’Avrohom, the monn stopped falling after the Jews reached Eretz Yisroel since it was no longer needed, as the fruits of Eretz Yisroel possessed no less sanctity than the monn. Nevertheless, the fruits of Ginosar absorb even more kedusha from the lake’s waters.

The huge amount the sages consumed of this fruit is also expressive of the fruit’s sanctity, since their extra sanctity made them more rarified and less glutting. In a similar vein, Chazal state that the amount of monn that came down for Yehoshua was equal to that which fell for the whole of Klal Yisroel (Yuma 76a). Yehoshua could only eat a huge amount of monn due to its supreme spirituality.

Amongst Teveriah’s most famous landmarks are its famous hot springs. According to Rabi Yochonon (Sanhedrin 108a), these are one of three hot springs left for mankind’s benefit after the flood; Hashem sealed all the other springs that had brought up the waters of the deep.

This seems puzzling considering Rabi Yochonon’s statement elsewhere (Zevochim 113a) that the flood never came down in Eretz Yisroel at all, and when the posuk writes that all animals on dry land perished, this was not through drowning
but through havala (boiling vapors) of the flood that entered from outside.

One answer is that Rabi Yochonon only said that the flood did not come down in Eretz Yisroel. But he may agree that the floodwaters rose up from below through myriad hot springs. However, the spring water alone was insufficient to flood the whole of Eretz Yisroel and therefore he explains that the creatures there perished from these hot vapors that seeped in from elsewhere.

Teveriah’s hot baths have yet another distinction. According to the medrash (Bereishis Rabba, Parsha 79), these are the baths Rabi Shimon bar Yochai visited after his thirteen-year seclusion in order to heal the wounds he had incurred by spending every day buried in the sand.

GEDOLIM OF THE PAST

In addition to the sanctity derived from its location and lake waters, Teveriah is known as one of the four holy cities because of the many gedolim who lived there in the time of the Mishnah, Gemara and later generations, and because the Talmud Yerushalmi was written within its walls.

It is also not only the last seat of the Sanhedrin before its final dispersion, but also the place that the Sanhedrin will return to in the future redemption before moving to Yerushalayim (Rosh Hashanah 31a).

The town’s distinguished kevorim also contribute to its holiness.

The sefer, Emes L ’Yaakov, is puzzled at the longstanding minhag of donating funds to Eretz Yisroel in the merit of Rabi Meir Baal Haneis, whose famous tomb is located just beyond Teveriah’s hot springs. Why is Rabi Meir chosen above everyone else?

To answer this question, he cites the debate in Bava Basra (10a) where Turnusrufus the wicked challenges Rabi Akiva that if Hashem loves poor people, why does He not give them parnassa. Feeding a poor person should be a sin since, if a king locks his servant in jail to starve, he will be angry at anyone who dares supply him with food.

Rabi Akiva replies that feeding the poor is similar to a king who was angry with his son and locked him up to starve. Would the king not be grateful to whoever supplied his son with food?

The Emes L ’Yaakov then cites another debate (Kiddushin 36a), this time between Rabi Meir and Rabi Yehuda, where Rabi Yehuda insists that Yisroel are only called Hashem’s sons when they do His will, while Rabi Meir maintains that they are always called Hashem’s sons whether they do His will or not.

Jews give tzedakah in the merit of Rabi Meir Baal Haneis, he concludes, since Rabi Meir holds that Hashem is always pleased when Jews receive tzedakah. But, according to Rabi Yehuda, who knows whether the beneficiary of our tzedakah is doing Hashem’s will and considered His son? Perhaps he is only a servant whom Hashem would prefer that we ignore.

Reading Rav Kliers’ sefer paints a new picture of the sleepy city lying next to Israel’s largest body of water. In the center of Eretz Yisroel, located by a wondrous lake, home of the Yerushalmi and the greatest gedolim, and first stop of the Sanhedrin in the times of the Moshiach, is it any wonder that Teveriah ranks among the four holy cities of Eretz Yisroel!

(Source: Rav Moshe Kliers, Tibor Ha’aretz.)

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