Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) excavations being carried out on a massive scale in the city of Yavne have uncovered the first evidence there of a building from the time of the Sanhedrin – the supreme legislative Jewish assembly that went into exile to Yavne after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, some 2,000 years ago.
The building contained fragments of chalkstone vessels, clear evidence that its occupants were observing Jewish laws of ritual purity. The excavation also discovered an impressive cemetery dating from the time of the Sanhedrin.
As in many other instances across Israel, this archeological discovery was chanced upon during an excavation prompted by development work on the city’s expansion.
The excavation area is located close to a massive Byzantine wine-production center unearthed in recent excavations.
“The discovery of finds from the time of the Sanhedrin is very exciting,” Pablo Betzer and Dr. Daniel Varga, directors of the Yavne excavation for the IAA, stated. “This is a direct voice from the past, from the period when the Jewish leadership salvaged the remaining fragments from the fall of the Temple, went into exile in Yavne, and set about re-establishing the Jewish people there.”
The stoneware found at the site are known as “measuring cups,” vessels that retain their ritual purity and are identified with the Jewish population in the late Second Temple period and second century CE.
At the cemetery, the researchers found dozens of carefully arranged tombs spaced out at set distances, which probably indicates the existence of a burial society, some official body that was responsible for burial.
Based on the cemetery’s location, it was probably established outside the boundaries of the city, in accordance with Jewish and Roman law. It is too early to say if the interned individuals were Jews or pagans since there are no ethnic symbols on the coffins. However, the historical records and archaeological finds raise the possibility that the tombs were of the city’s Jewish community.
If this hypothesis is correct, then at least some of the tombs, perhaps the most elaborate, may belong to the sages of Yavne, contemporaries of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Gamliel, the researchers noted.
The excavation uncovered another surprising find – over 150 glass phials placed on top of the tombs. Dr. Yael Gorin-Rosen, head of the IAA’s glass department, explained that the phials were “probably used to keep precious liquids such as fragrant oils. About half of them were locally produced and the other half were imported from Alexandria in Egypt.”
Phials of this type have been recovered in excavations at both Jewish and pagan burial sites from the first to the early third centuries CE.
“It is a mystery why the phials were placed outside the tombs in Yavne and not inside them, as was usual,” said Gorin-Rosen.
In antiquity, Yavne was one of the most important towns in the southern coastal plain. During the Hasmonean period, it held a vital role in the struggle between the Maccabean forces and Seleucid-Greek rule, and the town is mentioned multiple times in the writings of Josephus.
Toward the end of the Second Temple period, Yavne’s mixed population had a majority of Jewish residents. According to Talmudic texts, before the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai fled from the besieged city of Jerusalem and persuaded the Roman emperor Vespasian to allow him to reconstitute the Sanhedrin in Yavne.
In the intervening years between the Great Revolt in 70 CE and the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 130 CE, Yavne became the most important Jewish spiritual center in the country. It was in Yavne that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, later followed by Rabban Gamliel, led the Sanhedrin and the patriarchate (Nesiut), restored the Torah to the Land of Israel and established laws in keeping with the new reality, without the Temple. It can be said that the foundations of Judaism as we know it today were laid in Yavne.