Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Kings Tombs©


A collection of rock-cut tombs, called Kivrei Hamelachim (Tombs of the Kings), located just east of the intersection of Nablus Road and Saladin Street (820 meters north of Jerusalems Old City walls, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood), is one of the lesser-known sights in Israel. The scene one views today is probably the way it appeared in 1850/1 and in 1863, when the French archaeologist, Louis Felicien DeSaulcy, dug there. There seems to be construction in process at the site, maybe to give it a badly needed facelift.

DeSaulcy unearthed several caved stone sarcophaguses, one of which had the inscription malcha shada (Queen Sada) on it. This was probably the coffin of Helena Hamalkah of Adiabene, although he believed the bones inside, wrapped in shrouds with golden embroidery, were the remains of the wife of a king of Judea from the First Temple period, possibly Tzidkiyahu or Yehoash.

Josephus Flavius claims Queen Helena chose this site to bury her son Isates and others of her dynasty in these tombs.

The sarcophaguses were sent to France to be displayed at the Louvre, after the human bones that were in them were unceremoniously dumped on the ground. The Jewish community of Jerusalem raised a hue and cry over this appalling desecration. They declared a fast day and came to gather up the bones. They then reburied them near the tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik, accompanied with heartbroken eulogies.

In 1874, Madame Bratrand, a Jewish Frenchwoman, sent 30,000 francs through the Austrian consulate in Jerusalem to acquire the site from the Arabs, bequeathing it as an inheritance for Am Yisrael. The Rav of France of the time testified her intention was to protect the tombs from further violation.

The Pereine brothers (well-known French financiers) inherited the site after Madame Bratrand passed on. The brothers heirs gave the site as an outright gift to the French government. Even though this is an illegal encroachment on the original intentions of Madame Bratrand for the place, unfortunately, there is no lawful way to remedy the situation.

The opulence of the location led to the mistaken idea that the tombs had once been the burial place of the kings of Yehudah, hence the name Tombs of the Kings. Indeed, the Greek geographer Pausanias (2nd century CE) described the crypt as the second most beautiful tomb on earth (after the tomb of Mausolus [built between 353 and 350 BCE in Halicarnassus presently Bordum, Turkey], one of the seven wonders of the ancient world).

Wealthy Men of Jerusalem

According to Jewish tradition, this is a Second  Temple-area burial site. Harav Moshe Chagiz, in the name of the Arizal, identified this place as the tombs of the wealthy men of Yerushalayim (and their families) such as Nakdimon ben Gurion. (The Midrash in Eichah Rabbah lists Nakdimon and Ben Gurion as two separate people), and Ben Kalba Savua. Possibly Ben Tzitzis Hakeses is also buried here.

Nakdimon ben Gurion was so called because nikdah lo chamah (the sun re-shone for him). He was one of three people this phenomenon happened to. Taanis (19) relates that he once borrowed cisterns of water from a non-Jew to supply the olei regel (Jewish pilgrims to the Beis Hamikdash) and promised to pay the full value of the water if the cisternsmdid not fill up with rainfall by a certain date. The day came and the cisterns were still empty.

Due to Nakdimon ben Gurions tefillah, Hashem sent rain and the cisterns did fill up. However, the lender claimed the sun had already set when the wells had eventually filled, and therefore the money was still owing to him. Nakdimon ben Gurion prayed again. The clouds cleared and the sun was clearly seen for Hashem had made it go back an hour.

According to some, Nakdimon ben Gurion was the brother of Josephus. It was Nakdimons daughter that Raban Yochanan ben Zakai found rummaging through the donkey dung for some barley seeds to eat. She claimed that her father had not given enough tzedakah for someone of his standing and had therefore lost all his wealth.

Kalba Savua was the father-in-law of Rabi Akiva. He was a descendent of Calev ben Yefuneh. He was called by this name as he was a great baal chessed: anyone who came into his home as hungry as a dog (Kalba) would leave satisfied (Savua).

Ben Tzitzis Hakeses was so wealthy that in order that his tzitzis would not drag on the ground, pillows (keses) were thrown before him as he walked along the streets. The poor would gather the keses after he would walk on them and support themselves by selling them. The Gemara puts forth another opinion that states that his seat (related to kes they reclined on pillows) was among the leaders of Rome. He was a descendent of Avner ben Ner.

Before the Churban, these men had filled large sheds with food (wheat, barley, wine, salt, oil) and wood (for cooking) and donated them to the Jews in Yerushalayim. If all had gone according to plan, the city, using these supplies, could have withstood a prolonged siege by the Romans.


Unfortunately, the biryonim burned down and destroyed 1,400 storehouses, their aim being to cause a food crisis, which would force the chachamim to side with them and fight the Romans. How clearly this demonstrates to us the enormous devastation that can be caused to our own and others lives by not heeding the advice of the Torah leaders.

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