chapter  5
24 Pages


The Catacombs at Beth Shearim

While, in their houses of study, the rabbis assembled teachings instructing Jews how to prepare, bury and mourn their dead, in the world outside the study-house, Jews of all classes and religious inclinations were actually doing these things. Though, of course, many of their death rituals – laments, recitations, customs of approaching or leaving burial, and the like – would leave no physical remains, important parts of the death ritual are durable, leaving for posterity the most significant record of any ancient practice. On the basis of these remains – burial caves, sarcophagi, ossuaries, inscriptions, decorative art work, and burial paraphernalia – we may reconstruct both ancient practices and (perhaps more tentatively) beliefs. What, then, do we learn from the material remains of Jewish burial practice? What do we discover about the customs and beliefs of common Jews? And what, finally, can we say about the relationship between the rabbis’ imaginations and the living realities of contemporary Palestinian Jews?