In loving memory of my mother, Batsheva Friedman Stepansky z”l, whose forefathers arrived in Zefat and Tiberias 200 years ago and are buried in their ancient cemeteries
In recent years a large concentration of gravestones bearing Hebrew epitaphs from the 16th and 17th centuries CE has been exposed in the ancient cemetery of Zefat, Among them are the gravestones of prominent Rabbis, Torah Academy and community leaders; well-known women (such as Rachel Ha-Ashkenazit Iberlin and Donia Reyna, the sister of Rabbi Chaim Vital); disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria (“Ha-ARI”); as well as several until-now unknown personalities. Some of the gravestones are of famous Rabbis and personalities whose bones were brought to Israel from abroad, several of which belong to the well-known Nassi and Benvenisti families, possibly relatives of Dona Gracia. To date (2018) some fifty gravestones (some only partially preserved) have been exposed, and that is so far the largest group of ancient Hebrew epitaphs that may be observed in situ at one site in Israel. Stylistically similar epitaphs can be found in the Jewish cemeteries in Istanbul (Kushta) and Salonika, the two largest and most important Jewish centers in the Ottoman Empire during that time.
Since 2010 the southernmost part of the old cemetery of Zefat (Fig. 1 above; map ref. 24615/76365), seemingly the most ancient part of the cemetery, has been scrutinized in order to document and organize the information inscribed on the oldest of the gravestones found in this area. This is in the wake of and parallel with cleaning-up and preservation work conducted in this area under the auspices of the Zefat religious council. The documentation (readings of the epitaphs, photography and text-writing) is voluntarily being done by archaeologist Y. Stepansky and former cemetery caretaker E. Ben-Tovim, within the framework of the Association for the Preservation and Heritage of Zefat and on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). They have had the constant assistance of Prof. Y. Ben-Naeh and Dr. E. Davidson (epigraphical and historical consultation and editing). Prof. Yitzchak Kerem, Prof. E. Reiner, the late Dr. D. Amit, Z. Sehayek, Z. Erlich; other prominent historians and archaeologists were also occasionally consulted. Dr. E. Engel (paleographic analysis of the ‘Rabanit Gracia’ epitaph); Rabbi M. Stepansky (translator of the epitaph of Meir Benveniste); Dr. Y. Shivtiel (Zefat Academic College) Dr. M. Souroujon and Y. Saness (descendents of deceased members of the Zefat cemetery ‘community’), and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists D. Avshalom-Gorni, A. Hillman and H. Bron (antiquities inspection) have also all been very helpful in promoting this project. The IAA Conservation Department, Education Department and the Eastern Galilee and Golan District, together with the Municipality of Zefat, livnot u’lehebanot Institute, Ministry of Housing and residents of Zefat – are all partners in the project for the preservation of Zefat.
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Yosef Stepansky is a field archaeologist (M.A., Tel Aviv U.) working for or with the Israel Antiquities Authority since 1979; he is a resident of Zefat and is currently (2017) an independent researcher, lecturer and certified tour guide. Yosef has authored four books and more than one hundred professional and popular articles relating to Zefat, Tiberias, Kivrei Tsaddikim in the Galilee, and to archaeological surveys and excavations he conducted throughout Eastern Galilee.
E-mail address: Stepansky@bezeqint.net cell. 052-4589009
Website (Hebrew): www.stepansky.co.il
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