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Katzrin - From the Talmud to the 20th Century and Beyond

Shopping Mall in Katzrin

Katzrin, the largest urban centre in the western or Israeli Golan Heights, was established in 1977, the farms and factories that have arisen on the Golan under Israeli rule, produce various edibles, sustaining many lives. During the Syrian occupation of the Golan Heights, Israeli villages and residents had suffered regular artillery and sniper attacks from the military positions which overlooked the entire northern Galilee.The map accompanying my article dated 26 April 2020, on the centenary of the San Remo Resolution, qualifies my use of the word recaptured, showing quite clearly that the Golan Heights were intended to be within the region of the British Mandate earmarked for the future Jewish homeland, and not in Syria.

Assyrian and Egyptian records refer to the existence of Jewish communities and villages on the Golan Heights as far back as the reign of King Solomon, while the Torah refers to the city of Golan as one of the three cities of refuge. The unique Torah concept of cities of refuge provided a safe haven for any person who had killed another accidentally, but. while not guilty of murder, was still subject to the revenge of the victims family. The city of refuge protected the perpetrator from becoming the victim of a revenge killing, the norm at that time, as it currently remains in much of the Middle East and Muslim world. The name Golan Heights, which stems from the city of that name, has been used to identify the region for the past 300 years. The oldest archaeological find on the Golan Heights is a small pebble statuette, which many experts believe to be the oldest man made depiction of the female form, dating back some 230,000 years.

Model of the ancient statuette, named the "Venus of Berekhat Ram"

Jews have lived on the Golan Heights for the past 3,000 years, which includes the periods under Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Muslim rule. After the region had been transferred from the British to the French Mandate in 1923, Jews were excluded from the Golan until Israel’s victory in 1967. During the period of Syrian occupation, particularly after the advent of the state of Israel in 1948, the Golan Heights was a closed military area, which has since become a significant farming region. Beef, wine and olive oil production being among the foremost agricultural products grown on the 30 plus kibbutzim and moshavim that have been established on the Golan Heights

Archaeological excavations across the Golan have unearthed the remains of synagogues and study centres dating back to circa 200 CE, the era of the Tannaim, sages who taught the Jewish Oral Law or Mishnah, during the first 250 years of the Common Era. The teachings and discussions of the Tannaim during this period were edited and published by the head of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Judah HaNasi, who did so out of fear that the oral law and traditions would be forgotten by future generations. Prior to this the Torah was the only written record of Jewish religious law, while the Oral Law was passed verbally from generation to generation. The written compilation of the Oral Law or Mishnah, was started by Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian and completed by his son, Rabbi Judah HaNasi. One of the Tannaim, a contemporary and friend of Rabbi Judah was Rabbi Eleazar HaKapar, who lived, worked and taught in ancient Katzrin during the late 3rd century CE.

An important archaeological find was made a short distance north of Katzrin, when a door lintel bearing an inscription in Hebrew "זה בית מדרשו שהלרבי אליעזר הקפר” was found. The English translation is "This is the study hall of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kapar".

Lintel from Rabbi Eliezer HaKapar's study hall

The artefact can be viewed at the Golan Antiquities Museum.

The question arises as to why the learned Rabbi Eliezer was given the designation HaKapar, the caper maker. The common practice during that period was for Tannaim such as Rabbi Eliezer to have a secular occupation as a means of earning a livelihood, in addition to their communal or religious activities, which means that he was in all probability a caper maker. Capers (Capparis spinosa) grow in most Mediterranean areas and are one of the shrubs that can be seen growing out of the rocks on the Kotel (Western Wall), with their distinctive purple flowers.

Caper flower

Caper buds were, and still are, collected and then pickled in either salt or vinegar by caper makers and sold for use as a condiment, which has been popular across the Mediterranean region for thousands of years. Capers are particularly sought after in Italy where they are used to enhance foods such as pastas, salads and several chicken dishes, while they are also one of the ingredients used in the manufacture of tartar sauce. Buds that are not picked and allowed to develop into flowers result in a fruit which contains caper berries, which are also pickled and then used in Mediterranean mezzes. Dried caper leaves are used as a substitute for rennet in the manufacture of cheese, which simplifies the process when kosher cheeses are being manufactured, as the requirements for animal rennet to be kosher are extremely stringent and complicated.

Caper fruit with berries from a flower that was left to bloom

Ancient Katzrin, which had been the home of Rabbi Eliezer HaKapar, was destroyed along with many other towns and villages of northern Israel during the Great Galilee earthquakes, which occurred in 746 and 749. Major cities that were totally destroyed included Beit Shean, Capernaum and Tiberias as well as the Greco Roman city of Hippos, which overlooked Lake Kinneret. While many reports refer to there being one earthquake, there is a wide belief that there were in fact 2 earthquakes, one in 746 which weakened many of the structures and a second quake on 18 January 749, which destroyed them completely. 749 was a Sabbatical year which meant that much of the produce that had been stored for use while the lands lay fallow was destroyed. Numerous poems, several of which have been included in the synagogue liturgy were composed in commemoration of the vast destruction and loss of life. Muslim records from that period report that although there had been substantial damage in Jerusalem, the new capital of Ramla, which had been founded as the Umayyad capital of Palestine in 716, was left unscathed.

Archaeological excavations have revealed large areas of the ancient town of Katzrin which was destroyed by the earthquake. The synagogue that had been rebuilt during the 6th century as well as the remnants of the walls of many of the homes and other premises have been uncovered. Substantial restoration has been done and the ancient village is a tourist destination which gives the visitor a very good idea of life during the time of Eliezer HaKaper and his contemporaries.

Entrance to the synagogue in Ancient Katzrin

And now onto modern Katzrin and its surrounds on the Israeli Golan Heights. Katzrin, with about 7,500 residents is the largest Jewish urban centre on the Golan, while the Druze town of Majdal Shams, with a population of almost 12,000 people is the biggest. There is a small distinction between Majdal Shams, which is located across the Sa’ar stream, placing it in the Mount Hermon region, as opposed to Katzrin which is on the Golan Heights proper. The Chinese solar generation company Suntec Power, established what was the largest solar power station in Israel, using rooftop mounted solar generators producing some 50 Kilowatts of electricity in 2006. This has since been completely overshadowed by the much larger Ashalim project in the Negev, which will have the capacity to produce 121 Megawatts or 121,000 Kilowatts once complete. Katzrin has attracted other industries such as a plastics factory, a mineral water bottling plant, meat processing plants and a large olive oil production facility, which produces some 50 tons of olive oil annually. These industries are housed in the Katzrin Industrial Park, with the companies located there providing employment for between six and seven hundred people.

Aerial view of Katzrin Industrial Park

While the Syrian guns and soldiers were on the Golan Heights, they spewed death and destruction on the people of the Galilee region. By way of contrast between Syrian and Israeli priorities, the farms and factories that have arisen on the Golan under Israeli rule, deliver various food products, the essence of life.

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