Places in Israel: Visiting the Tomb of Rabbi Yehuda bar Iloi

    May 2011          
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Yehudah Bar Ilia

By Vardah Littmann

Not far from the entrance to Tzfat is a medium-sized ancient building with a courtyard, built over a burial cave. This is the grave of RabbiYehudah Bar Ilia.

Yehudah Bar Ilia was born in the city of Usha in the Galilee. He was one of the five pupils of Rabbi Akivah and among the greatest of the fourth generation of Tanaim (scholar of the Mishna). Of all the many Rabbi Yehuda's mentioned in the Talmud he is the only one referred to as Rabbi Yehuda.

One day, while in Yavne, Rabbii Yehudah Bar Ilia praised the Romans to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabbi Yose Ben Chalafta. Rabbi Yose remained silent but Rabbi Shimon criticized the Romans bitterly and claimed all they had done was purely egoistic to serve their own needs. When the Romans heard of this conversation they exiled Rabbi Yose to Tsipori, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai they condemned to death and they made Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilia the head spokesman for the Jewish people. This appointment of Rabbi Yehudah saved the Torah. The Romans looked with disfavor at the office held by the Nasi (prince of the nation) and therefore did not allow the Mesivta (assembly of sages) to meet. But now the sages could meet with Rabbi Yehudah at their head.

Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilia would always stop what ever he was doing to fulfill the good deed of preparing the dead for burial and helping a bride [also financially] prepare for her wedding). He would dance before brides waving a branch of Haddasim (myrtle), he would always say the bride was "noeh ve' chasudah" "beautiful and pleasant".

There is an ancient tree behind the building of the grave. It is claimed that if one carries a splinter from this trunk in one's purse, one will always have money this purse. Saying ten verses of psalms on Yehudah Bar Ilia's grave is also a remedy for livelihood . There is a huge stone near the entrance of the building. On it is engraved instructions to walk around the building 7 times in an anti-clock wise direction, as one recites Psalm 29 and the passage Ana b'Koach (please with strength) and so by to obtain a livelihood.

These remedies for livelihood abound at Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilia 's grave-site regardless of the fact he himself was a pauper suffering from the direst of poverty. He and his wife shared the same outer-garment. When Rebbi Yehuda went out she had to stay at home and visa versa. One time there was a meeting of the sages and Rabbi Yehuda could not attend as his wife was using the cloak. The Chief rabbi sent him a very expensive cloak. Rabbi Yehuda refused to accept it. He lifted the mat he was sitting on and exposed millions of gold coins. He said, "If I wanted to be rich I could, but this would mean I would detract from my next world. I prefer to save my riches for there."

It is asked how they could both wear the same article of clothing? What about the Torah law forbidding one sex to wear garments of the other sex? The answer is that this cloak was so non-de-script that it could worn by any gender. Despite all this Rabbi Yehuda's face was always illuminated with happiness. His happiness made him appear very well nourished even though the land was suffering the after effects of the war of Beitar and from the persecution of the Romans and was ravaged with poverty.

Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilia lived to a ripe old age. He outlived all of his teachers and all of his colleagues. Among his disciples who paid him the last respects was Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi. Rabbi Yehuda's day of death is the 14th of Iyar.

During the Middle Ages many pilgrams visited Rabbi Yehuda's grave and wrote about their visit. For example Rabbi Menachem HaHevroni mentioned it in his book "By The Vineyards" in 1218.

Steep steps go down into the burial-cave, where a stone placard proclaims: "In this place was buried soap that was made from Jews, May G-d Avenge their deaths, murdered by the Germans, May their names be eradicated". In 1949, there was a public burial ceremony at Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ila'i's cave. Many Jewish residents from Tzfat came and buried the soap made by the Nazis from the fat of murdered Jews. This soap was brought to Israel by an immigrant who survived the inferno.

To reach the tomb of Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilia travel on road 89 until the Etz Zetim Junction, turn up north to Road 886. After about 950m on the right side of the road is the resting place of Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilia.

Photos by Rimonah Traub


from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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