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15 Av 5759 - July 28, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Tomb of Reish Lokish Revisited

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

Near a town called Katzion, not far from Amuka, lies a cluster of long-forgotten caves. In a semi-arid region bearing a single sign of civilization -- a rocky jeep track -- the caves are an interesting diversion in an otherwise barren landscape.

As one comes closer, one can discern rectangular entrances and window-like openings hewn out of the stone. Inside, manmade shelves in the walls served as burial places during Talmudic times. Here, in a location which has remained virtually unknown for hundreds if not thousands of years, lie buried a number of our forebears whose identity has been lost. There are, however, two known occupants of these tombs, both great sages of the Talmudic era. The famous Rebbi Shimon Ben Lokish (Reish Lokish) was a bandit who forsook a harmful lifestyle to become a true baal teshuvah and chavrusa of the illustrious Rebbi Yochanan; and Rav Yochanan diKatzion, an amora who lived in the Katzion area and is mentioned briefly in the gemora.

There is a famous story in the gemora that relates how Reish Lokish came to repent. Rebbi Yochanan was once swimming in the Jordan River when Reish Lokish, head of a band of thieves at the time, mistook him for a beautiful woman and jumped in after him. When Reish Lokish came closer and realized his mistake, he remarked that, "His [Rebbi Yochanan's] beauty was for women." Rebbi Yochanan replied that he could see from the way that Reish Lokish jumped into the river that his strength was suitable for bearing the yoke of Torah. He told him that he had a sister who was even more beautiful than himself, and that if Reish Lokish repented, he would give her to him as a wife. Reish Lokish agreed to this proposition, repented wholeheartedly, learned Torah diligently and eventually rose to become the chavrusa of Rebbi Yochanan himself. When Reish Lokish passed away, Rebbi Yochanan was so grieved at the loss of his exceptional chavrusa that he lost his sanity and also died (Bava Metzia 84).

This neglected burial ground was revisited recently by the students and rebbeim of Yeshivas Keser Dovid, an American yeshiva located in Telse-Stone, just outside Jerusalem. The rosh yeshiva of Keser Dovid, Rabbi Shimon Katz, has had an enduring fascination with this burial site which began six years ago when he read of its location in a manual produced by the Vaad Hatzolas HaKadmonim (The Committee for the Preservation of Ancient Burial Sites). A year later he set out -- with the yeshiva -- to locate the kevorim. However, due to technical difficulties encountered on entering the site and the physical obstacles of traversing the virtually impenetrable terrain, the first two attempts met with failure.

Not one to give up, the rosh yeshiva set out once again a year later, this time equipped with a jeep and a plan of the most direct route to the caves. This third attempt met with success, and it was with a feeling of great elation that the staff and students of Keser Dovid stood before the kevorim, their Tehillim ringing forth in gratitude to Hashem.

One of the students, Aaron Weitz, created a temporary sign to mark the kevorim. However the rosh yeshiva wanted to erect a proper tombstone, one befitting these two great amoroim. He contacted Mr. Rosenberg of Rosenberg Matzeivas in Jerusalem, who was so delighted with the idea that he offered to partake in this mitzvah and provide the tombstone. When the Vaad Hatzolas HaKadmonim was contacted they also expressed great joy at the project.

On the 11th of Tammuz 5759 (June 25, 1999), erev Shabbos, the Yeshiva set out from Katzion to complete their mission. They entered the region and divided into two groups, taking turns riding by jeep and walking. Finally they reached their destination. With great care the rosh yeshiva, along with Rabbi Moshe Morgan from Keser Dovid, lifted the stone out of the jeep and set in gingerly on the ground. To give the bochurim a share in this great mitzvah, they divided into pairs and took turns bringing the tombstone closer and closer to its final destination. Finally it stood erect at the entrance to the caves. After years of virtual ignominy, the significance of these kevorim was reestablished, bringing honor to the great tzaddikim who are buried there.

It is said in the name of the Matei Ephraim that when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, its ever-present sanctity was dispersed amongst the tombs of the tzaddikim. Because the efficacy of prayer at the tombs of tzaddikim is so great, the Almighty hid the grave of Moshe Rabbeinu, lest the Jewish people cry out there and induce Him to nullify the harsh decree of the golus.(Hagahos HaBach on Sotah 14a).

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