Holy Jewish Sites in Israel
For lovers of Jewish history, religion and culture, you could spend a lifetime exploring the endless sights that Israel offers - all over the country are dotted fascinating spots at which Jewish pilgrims come to worship. Whether tombs, synagogues or villages, they can really evoke the spirit of centuries ago, long before anyone even dreamed there might one day be a State of Israel. Below, we look at a some of the main Jewish holy sites in Israel:
City of David Excavations, Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Holy Jewish Sites in Jerusalem
- King David’s Tomb - Considered to be one of the holiest sites in Israel, this tomb is located opposite the Old City’s Zion Gate and is considered to be the burial place of King David. Above it is the Room of the Last Supper, (sacred to Christians) and a roof complex with a minaret and observation point over Jerusalem.
- Temple Mount - For Jews, this incredibly holy site is the place at which Abraham is supposed to have been ready to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God’s request. It is also the place where both ancient temples (built by Solomon and Herod) once stood.
- Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery - Over 500 years old, this is the oldest and most important cemetery in Jerusalem. It contains anywhere between 70,000 and 140,000 tombs and many notable rabbis are buried there. The tombs of the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are also on the Mount of Olives and have been venerated by Jews since medieval times.
Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery, Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Dan Porges
- Western Wall - Probably the most sacred site for Jews, the Western Wall (aka the Kotel) is the last remaining structure from King Herod’s Second Temple. Jews come from around the world here to pray and place notes between the cracks in the wall. Even for those with no religious faith, it is a moving and emotional experience to stand at this spot.
- Foundation Stone - This rock, at the center of the Dome of the Rock, where Mount Moriah (the highest point in early Jerusalem’s proximity to the City of David) once stood, is considered to be the place that the world began. Jews all around the globe pray in its direction.
- Cave of the Ramban - Nestled in the Upper Kidron Valley, this is believed to be the tomb of the notable scholar from medieval times, Nachmanides (aka The Ramban).
- Tomb of Simeon the Just - A Jewish High Priest at the time of the Second Temple, this is considered to be his grave and today the tomb is a pilgrimage site for Jewish worshippers, particularly those who bring their 3-year old sons here to give them their first haircut (a ritual known as ‘upsherin’).
King David’s Tomb, Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Holy Jewish Sites in Central Israel
- Tomb of Rabban Gamaliel of Yavne - Rabbi Gamaliel was the first person to lead the Sanhedrin (an assembly of Rabbis, formed after the destruction of the Second Temple). According to Jewish tradition, his greatest achievement was putting an end to the disputes between the philosophical schools of Hillel and Shamai. (Even so, according to tradition, a voice from heaven was heard in, stating that although both views had merit, Hillel’s carried more authority).
- Tomb of Benjamin, Kfar Saba - Benjamin was the youngest (and much loved) son of the biblical patriarch Jacob and his wife Rachel. His tomb, located in Kfar Saba, called Kever Binyamin in Hebrew, is covered by a small building with a domed roof. Over the tomb entrance is an image of a goblet, harking back to the biblical story of how his brother Joseph placed a goblet in Benjamin’s luggage, in order to bring charges of spying against him.
Western Wall, Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Holy Jewish Sites in Northern Israel
- Hatzor HaGlilit - Close to Safed, this village is home to the tomb of Honi the Circle-Maker, and next to it are the two graves of his grandsons. According to tradition, Honi had the power, through prayer, to make rainfall, and today many Hassidic pilgrims worship here.
- Mount Meron - Located in the Upper Galilee, Mount Meron (and the village of the same name) is where the burial tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai can be found. Each year, on the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews visit the mount as part of a pilgrimage.
- Kfar Hananya - This village is named after one by the same name mentioned in the Mishnah (a Jewish holy book) and supposedly home to the burial site of Rabbi Hananya ben Akshaya, who lived hundreds of years ago.
- Mount Betarim - According to Jewish tradition, this is one of the peaks of Mount Dov and the site at which Abraham entered into a covenantal relationship with God.
Mount Meron, Upper Galilee, Israel. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
- Peki'in - In this village, legend has it that two stones in its synagogue were taken from the walls of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Pilgrims also believe that the synagogue was built on the site where Rabbi Joshua ben Hananya taught before the Bar Kokhba War.
- Safed - A historic center for Kabbalah (an esoteric Jewish train of philosophy) Safed became a holy city after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 who flocked here. Moreover, according to Jewish philosophy, the town was founded by one of Noah’s sons, after the biblical flood. Many Jewish leaders are buried in its cemetery.
- Tomb of Nachman Chatufa at Kfar Baram - Nachman Chatufa was the son of Rabbi Pinchas and, according to legend, began speaking as a newborn about the Torah. At the age of 12, the boy began revealing prophecies of the future that were once recorded in the book Nevuat Ha Yeled, in Aramaic (the vernacular at that time). He died shortly afterward and was buried in Baram, a village now close to the border with Lebanon.
- Tomb of Prophet Ovadiah - Baram is also home to the grave of the prophet Ovadya (Obadiah). In the Bible, it is said that he hid 100 prophets in caves, from the wicked King of the day. Obadiah is also famous for acting as the intermediary in an important meeting between King Ahab and Eliyahu.
The city of Safed. View from above. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
- Tiberias - Tiberias has great significance in Judaism, being one of the four holy cities (along with Jerusalem, Safed, and Hebron). Located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, it is known as the place where the Jerusalem Talmud was composed. It was founded around 20 CE by the son of Herod the Great and according to Jewish tradition was built on the site of the ancient Israelite village named Rakat. Tiberias was also home to Masoretes (Jewish scribes, who lived in the area between 5th and 10th CE). Today, Tiberias retains its status as a holy city not just because of the above but also because of the large number of rabbis who established the city as a center for Jewish learning in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Tomb of Maimonides - This is the burial spot of the renowned scholar and philosopher Rabbi Moses Maimonides, known by the acronym Rambam. He lived in Spain and Egypt and died 800 years ago, at which time his body was brought to Tiberias. He was a world-famous sage and scholar who organized, codified, and analyzed many ancient Jewish religious and ritual laws. Today, it is a place where thousands come to pray and show respect to a man who is considered to be the greatest rabbi, philosopher, and doctor of his time.
- Tomb of the Matriarchs - The Tomb of the Matriarchs in Tiberias is also a place where many come to pray, particularly religious women who visit in order to receive blessings for their fertility and to ask for safety for their husband if he is away. The matriarchs are considered to be Yocheved (Moses’s mother), Zipporah (Mose’s wife), Elisheva (Nachson’s wife), Bilhah (Rachel’s maid), and Avigal (the wife of David).
At the Ancient Synagogues in the Old City of Safed, Israel. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Synagogues in Israel
- Beit Alpha Synagogue - Located in the Gilboa region, this 6th-century settlement (of which the Beth Alpha synagogue was a part) survived into Islamic times. Today it is part of a national park. Discovered in 1928, by kibbutz members, excavations show that it once stood on two floors, containing a courtyard, vestibule, and prayer hall. The Torah Ark (from which Jews prayed) was facing southwest, towards Jerusalem. The floor mosaics are intricate and beautiful, depicting the Binding of Isaac (from Genesis) a Zodiac Wheel, and a synagogue scene. Above the synagogue door are inscriptions both in Aramaic and Greek. Flanking the inscriptions are a lion and a buffalo, representing the synagogue’s ‘guardians.
- Korazim Synagogue - Korazim was a town in Galilee that continued to prosper after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. It is home to a particularly beautiful synagogue, constructed of black basalt and intricately carved columns. The synagogue also boasts a number of Jewish symbols, inscriptions both in Hebrew and Aramaic, and some beautiful carvings. An interesting find made there was a stone seat, inscribed in Aramaic, and today referred to as the ‘Chair of Moses.’ The building itself is believed to have been built between the late 3rd and early 4th century, but then destroyed and rebuilt in the 5th century.
- Kfar Baram Synagogue - Meaning ‘Son of the People’ in Hebrew and dating back to the 3rd century, this is one of Israel’s oldest synagogues. Located in the north of the country, close to the Lebanon border, it was built out of basalt stone. One unusual inside feature is a portico containing six columns and inside is a sculpture depicting two stone lions (similar to the lions at Chorazin). The front entrance has three doorways, facing Jerusalem.
The Ashkenazi HaAri Synagogue, in the Jewish quarter, in Safed (Tzfat), Israel. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
- Anim Synagogue - Half an hour’s drive from Arad in the Negev desert, this ancient Jewish village once housed a synagogue. Anim was used as a house of prayer between the 4th and 7th centuries. It was discovered during an excavation in 1987 - remains include a prayer hall (facing Jerusalem) a portico and a courtyard. Underneath the stone flooring, evidence of a mosaic was found (it is possible to see small parts of an inscription that remain).
- Arbel Synagogue - Located on Mount Arbel, near the Sea of Galilee, this synagogue stands in the middle of the remains of an ancient village. Archaeologists agree that it was built in the 4th century and used for several hundred years afterward. Its door, which still stands, is carved out of limestone. There are carvings of medallions and decorative floral motifs and inside sat carved benches and Corinthian columns. It is possible that the synagogue was destroyed in the catastrophic earthquake of 749 CE in Galilee.
- Hammat Tiberias Synagogue - The extraordinary stone floor of this 4th century Galilee building includes geometric patterns, lions, classic Jewish symbols (including a Menorah lamp, Shofar, and a wonderful Zodiac motif, in the middle of which is Helios, the Sun God).
- Hurvat Amudim Synagogue - One of the largest synagogues in Galilee, this house was built at the beginning of the 4th century and contains two rows of columns and an inscription in Aramaic.
Katzrin Synagogue, Northern Israel. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
- Kafr 'Inan Synagogue - East of Acre, in Israel’s north, this Byzantine-period synagogue was partially carved out of the rock, probably during the 5th century CE.
- Katzrin Synagogue - This ancient synagogue (and the village) are now an open-air museum. The building was constructed in the 6th century but probably destroyed in the terrible earthquake of 748 CE. Inside were stone benches and walls painted with red geometric patterns.
- Maon Synagogue - Found in the Negev desert, this 6th-century structure is known for its astonishing mosaic floor. Peacocks, lions, and palm trees sit close to traditional Jewish symbols and an inscription in Aramaic.
- Maoz Haim Synagogue - Situated close to Beit Shean this basilica building dates back to the Byzantine era and contains columns, an apse, and a mosaic floor, mainly made out of geometric patterns.
- Migdal Synagogue - Located on the shores of the Galilee, Migdal was in active use at the time of the Second Temple, Excavations found a stone on which was carved a Menorah (candelabra) and is estimated to be one of the oldest synagogues in Israel. It was discovered accidentally during a dig in 2009.
Remains of a synagogue in the Talmudic village of Katzrin, Israel. Photo credit: © Shutterstock