Built along the shore of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), near seventeen natural hot springs, the northern Israeli city of Tiberias is known as the "City of Water." It is considered one of the four "Holy Cities" in Israel.

Some 2,000 years ago, Tiberias was the center of Jewish study and the last seat of the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court of Jewish law). After enduring constant wars throughout the Middle Ages, the city was revived by an influx of kabbalists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The city's major attractions are the Kinneret, its natural hot springs and the graves of many historical luminaries.

History of Tiberias

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, built the city in 17 BCE, naming it in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Tiberias became the capital of the Galilee, replacing nearby Tzippori.

The new city was set in a beautiful locale, along the shore of the Kinneret, near natural mineral hot springs with health giving properties. However, it was also the site of an ancient cemetery. As such it was ritually unclean, and Jews refused to live there. Antipas forced some Jews from the Galilean countryside to move into his showcase town, but for the next two centuries most Jews shunned Tiberias.

Meanwhile, the Jewish nation was undergoing a crisis. In 69 CE, Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed. Shortly before Jerusalem was destroyed, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai snuck out of the besieged city and established Yavneh as the new center for Jewish learning and leadership (click here for the full story), a response which later inspired German poet Heinriche Heine to call the Torah the "portable homeland of the Jew."

Tiberias, hugging the bank of Kinneret, as it was depicted in 1862.
Tiberias, hugging the bank of Kinneret, as it was depicted in 1862.

For the next seventy years, the Sanhedrin would meet in Yavneh and then later in the small agricultural village of Usha. After the Bar Kochba rebellion was quashed in 135 CE, virtually all Jewish life was wiped out of the entire southern Judean region. At this point, the Jewish center moved to the northern Galilee region. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai purified Tiberias of its graves (see below), and Tiberias, as well as neighboring Tzippori, became the main centers of Jewish learning and culture.

Following the death of Rabbi Judah the Prince in c. 220, the Sanhedrin made its final migration from Tzippori to Tiberias. From then on, Tiberias would remain the center of the diminished Jewish society of the land of Israel until the tenth century.

In 358, following another Jewish revolt (known as the War against Gallus) the Roman emperor disbanded the Sanhedrin. Despite these persecutions, the sages worked on compiling the Talmud. Around 400, the "Jerusalem Talmud" was canonized in Tiberias.

In the latter half of the millennium, Tiberias, now under Muslim control, was the home of the Masoretes (Mesorah means "transmission"), scholars who were concerned with the accurate transmission of the biblical texts. These grammarians also introduced the vowel notation system for Hebrew that is still used today. The Aleppo Codex, which can now be seen in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, is credited to the greatest of the Masoretes, Aaron ben Asher. During this era, Tiberias was struck by several major earthquakes which devastated most of the city.

The Aleppo Codex, considered the most authoritative text of Tanach (Hebrew Bible), was produced in the school of Masoretes that flourished in Tiberias until the 10th century.
The Aleppo Codex, considered the most authoritative text of Tanach (Hebrew Bible), was produced in the school of Masoretes that flourished in Tiberias until the 10th century.

With the Crusaders' first conquest of the Holy Land in 1099, they demolished the ancient city of Tiberias and built a new city just a few kilometers to the north, the site of modern-day Tiberias. The Muslims soon took over the Holy Land again, and Tiberias continued to be ruled by various Islamic dynasties. But as a result of the constant wars, the entire region underwent a decline. In the twelfth century, the Jewish traveler, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, found only fifty Jewish families living in Tiberias.

In the 16th century, Doña Gracia, and her nephew, Don Joseph Hanassi, former Portuguese marranos, restored the wall around the city, built a yeshiva and encouraged Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition to settle in the city. Tiberias flourished again for a hundred years. However, it was again destroyed and abandoned by the Jewish community due to fighting between local farmers and Bedouins.

In the 1740s, Rabbi Chaim Abulafia, a kabbalist from Turkey, resettled Tiberias. He collected money from the Diaspora to sustain the straggling community, built yeshivas and synagogues, and renovated homes. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Tiberias received an influx of rabbis who established the city as a center for Jewish learning.

One of these was Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitbesk, one of the leaders of the third generation of the Chassidic movement, who, in 1765, emigrated from Eastern Europe together with a group of several hundred followers. During this time, because of its concentration of Jewish scholars and mystics, Tiberias became known as one of the four "Holy Cities," along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed.

The refurbished grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (Horodok), who led the Chassidic Jews who settled in Tiberias in the late 18th Century (credit: Ori).
The refurbished grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (Horodok), who led the Chassidic Jews who settled in Tiberias in the late 18th Century (credit: Ori).

In 1837, Tiberias was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake. More than five hundred Jews were killed, and the wall surrounding the city was destroyed. While many of the survivors moved to Hebron, Tiberias was again resettled by Chassidic Jews. In addition to the earthquake, the Jews of Tiberias also suffered from poverty and the ravages of cholera. Jews in the Diaspora would regularly send money to enable them to continue living there.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Tiberias had a population of 3,600, two thousand of whom were Jews. Tiberias expanded beyond the old city walls onto the hills above the old city.

During the War of Independence in 1948, Israeli forces kept Tiberias, while all the Arab inhabitants fled, leaving the city completely Jewish.

Why Tiberias Is Spiritually Significant

Tiberias is located in the Jordan valley, the lowest valley on earth. The Sea of Galilee is nearly 700 feet below sea level. The rabbis note that Tiberias is the lowest of all cities, and attribute mystical significance to that. Tiberias symbolizes the lowliness of our exile, when our institutions have been eradicated and we have been driven off our land.

Therefore, our rabbis teach, Tiberias will "arise" even before Jerusalem. Just as the glory of Torah last sat in Tiberias, so will it reappear there in times of Moshiach—according to tradition, the Sanhedrin will reemerge in Tiberias first, and will then relocate to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Tiberias in the 1920s.
Tiberias in the 1920s.

Visiting Tiberias

Tiberias has a population of about 40,000 residents, many of them immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe. It is a major tourist attraction and a very popular resort area. In addition to its drawing power as one of the four "Holy Cities" of the land of Israel, Tiberias is popular for its rich archaeological remains, gravesites of holy people, the Kinneret and hot springs. There are many hotels to choose from, ranging from luxury hotels to youth hostels as well as a selection of kosher restaurants. The beautiful Kinneret can be seen from virtually the entire city as a result of its location on top of a hill.

Water Attractions:

South of modern Tiberias is the Hamat Tiberias National Park, which includes the seventeen natural hot springs whose healing powers have attracted people for thousands of years. You can see and even touch the hot water which still streams forth from the ground. Aside from the remains of the hot springs, the main focus of the park is a synagogue which was in use at the time when the Sanhedrin court was situated in Tiberias. The synagogue features a mosaic floor with a zodiac motif. You can also see the remains of ancient courtyards and walls, and even sit on the stone benches where our greatest sages may have sat.

In the park, you can visit a Turkish bathhouse from more recent times.

The waters from the springs feed the luxurious Tiberias Springs Spa, where you can bathe in the waters of the famous hot springs. For the modesty-conscious, there are separate hours for men and women.

The Kinneret is a popular destination for boating, fishing, and assorted water sports.

Sacred Spots:

Just above the National Park lies the gravesite of Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNes ("The Miracle Worker"). Rabbi Meir was one of the most important 2nd century sages and a participant in the Bar Kochba revolt. Although he died outside of the Land of Israel, he was brought to Tiberias to be buried.

Partial view of the complex that houses the Tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, which draws prayerful visitors from all over the world (credit: Avishai Teicher).
Partial view of the complex that houses the Tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, which draws prayerful visitors from all over the world (credit: Avishai Teicher).

Further north, closer to the modern city of Tiberias, there is an old cemetery. Famous graves include those of many chassidic rabbis, including Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk.

Within the city itself, a short walk from the city center, is the gravesite of MaimonidesRambam (1135-1294). He died in Egypt but, according to his wishes, his body was transported to Israel for burial.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (see above), is also believed to be buried nearby.

The grave of Maimonides sits in the center of bustling Tiberias.
The grave of Maimonides sits in the center of bustling Tiberias.

Higher up on the hillside, also within the modern city, under a white dome, is the grave of Rabbi Meir's teacher, the legendary Rabbi Akiba, who was brutally executed by the Romans during the Bar Kochba Rebellion. His wife, Rachel, who inspired him to study and become the great teacher he was, is also buried in the Tiberias area, between the National Park and the old cemetery.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1747), known as the Ramchal, author of Mesillat Yesharim is buried adjacent to Rabbi Akiba.

Archaeology in Tiberias:

Ancient Tiberias, just south of the modern city of Tiberias, is where most of the archaeological remains of Roman and Byzantine Tiberias can be found. A bathhouse has been found that is thought to have been the main bathhouse of Tiberias mentioned in the Talmud, as well as many other public buildings. Excavations are ongoing and anticipation is high. Unfortunately, aside from the ancient synagogue in the National Park, these archaeological sites have not been developed for visitors as of yet.

Tiberias Facts

  • Tiberias was built on the site of the destroyed village of Rakkat, mentioned in the Book of Joshua (19:35). Rakkat was located along the ancient trade route from Egypt to Damascus. Its economy centered around fishing, agriculture and trade.
  • In 324 CE the Roman Empire accepted Christianity as the official religion, marking the beginning of the Byzantine period. Tiberias became a major destination for Christian pilgrims.
  • The Kinneret is the largest source of the country's drinking water. The sea also supplies water to the West Bank and Jordan. The receding water level of the Kinneret is often a cause for concern.
  • Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk founded the Chassidic community in Tiberias in 1777, raising the hopes of many that the Redemption was imminent. Shortly after he arrived, a deranged man climbed the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and sounded a shofar. A rumor quickly spread that the shofar's call heralded the arrival of Moshiach. When news of Moshiach's arrival reached Tiberias, Rabbi Menachem Mendel was informed, "Rebbe, the shofar was sounded on the Mount of Olives! Moshiach is here!" He slowly arose and walked to the window. He threw the shutters wide open and sniffed the air. He sadly closed the windows and remarked, "No, he has not come; I cannot smell the scent of Redemption."
  • Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai spent thirteen years in a cave hiding from the Romans. Due to a dearth of clothing, he spent most of the time buried up to his neck in sand (click here for the full story). As a result, his skin wasn't in great condition when he finally left the cave, so he went to bathe in the hot springs of Tiberias and was cured. When he gratefully asked the people of Tiberias what he could do for them, they asked him to find a remedy for the city's ritual impurity, so that Jews would want to come and live there. He miraculously caused all the corpses in the city to rise to the surface of the ground, and they were removed.
  • Lately archeologists have discovered tomb entrances reused as paving stones. Historians speculate that if these tombs were no longer needed because the bodies had been reburied at a different site, the entrance stones could have been recycled as paving stones. This somewhat corroborates the aforementioned Talmudic account of the re-burial that following Rabbi Shimon's purification ceremony.
  • According to tradition, "Miriam's Well," the boulder that miraculously supplied water to the Israelites in the desert, ended up in the Kinneret. Recently, an Israeli archeologist, based on centuries-old texts and legwork around the sea, claims he's found the long-lost site of the well.
  • There are various traditions regarding the source of the hot springs of Tiberias. According to one source, during Noah's Flood, "the wellsprings of the great depths burst forth, and the windows of the heavens opened" (Genesis 7:11). The waters that spewed forth from the depths were boiling, and thus obliterated all that existed. Eventually, most of the wellsprings were closed, but the springs of Tiberias remained.
  • The atypical quality of the Tiberias hot springs, i.e. waters that are heated, but not by means of fire, consumes a considerable amount of space in halachic literature. Examples: Is one culpable for cooking food in the hot springs on Shabbat? Can one kosher utensils in its boiling waters?
From the Talmudic era until this very day, the hot springs of Tiberias are a source of wonderment and pleasure (credit: Avishai Teicher)
From the Talmudic era until this very day, the hot springs of Tiberias are a source of wonderment and pleasure (credit: Avishai Teicher)