Away From the Path: Hot Springs of Tiberias

The sixth lot was distributed to the Naphtali children, for the Naphtali children in accordance with their family. Ziddim, Zer, Hammath, Rakkath, and Chinnereth are the stronghold cities. Judah 19:32–35

Today, we’re going to a hidden gem that isn’t very well known to tourists from outside Israel but has a long and illustrious history. Of course, I’m referring to the hot springs at Tiberias National Park’s Hammath. The main attraction at this location is a stunning synagogue from the Talmudic era with maybe the nicest mosaic floor in all of Israel. It is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the nation. Also, the location offers stunning views of the Sea of Galilee. Yet hammath is also a pleasure for the skin, not just the eyes! Tourists can take a dip in the natural pools at this archaeological site, which also has a fascinating, fascinating past.

Jewish texts claim that the origin of these subterranean hot springs (17 in total) is related to Noah’s flood. Both the rain from above and the discharge of “all” the springs from below contributed to the flood (see Genesis 7:11). For lack of a better description, Gehinnom (commonly translated as “Hell”) fires provide heat for the springs. When the flood was over, the rains stopped and the “springs” were shut (see Genesis 8:2). However, this time the Torah purposefully omitted the term “all” while describing the springs’ closures because (according to Jewish scriptures) not all of them were shut. The world’s healing springs, including the hot springs in Tiberias, continued to operate.

Here formerly stood a walled city that the Canaanites called Hammath, which is Arabic for “hot springs.” Following Joshua’s conquest of this region, the Naftali tribe received the land (see Joshua 19:22-25). The Roman period marked the town’s pinnacle. Due to the waters’ remarkable healing abilities, the hot springs were well-known across the Empire. Around the springs, the Romans constructed a number of opulent spas, transforming this sleepy hamlet into a popular vacation spot.

At Hammath Tiberias, a sizable Jewish population grew and prospered for centuries. In the nearby Holiday Inn hotel, two synagogues have been found during excavations—one of them is currently buried beneath a lawn. This is due to the fact that it was discovered during the British Mandate era, when it was customary to rebury everything that was discovered.) The largest one, with at least two stories, multiple rooms (including a Kiddush chamber), and a unique mosaic floor, was the most stunning. There may have been many more synagogues here; hopefully, future excavations will find them.

The hot springs were where many of the renowned Rabbis of the Talmud went to recover. For twelve years, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Zt’l, and his son concealed from the Romans in a cave. He was able to escape when Emperor Hadrian—who had ordered him killed—died, although he was covered in severe wounds from his ordeals. He was fully recovered after a few days of soaking here. Rabbi Meir, Zt”l, a contemporary who lived in Hammath Tiberias, taught popular Torah classes there. In numerous works (published over the previous 2000 years) that deal with case studies of Jewish law, the springs themselves are frequently addressed. For instance, the sages debate whether heating food in the “Hot Springs of Tiberias” is deemed “cooking” under Jewish law and is therefore prohibited even though Jews are prohibited from doing so on Shabbat (or not).

When a Turkish bathhouse was erected here in 1780, the settlement was completely deserted during the early Islam period (approximately the 8th century) (that operated until 1944). Visitors to the National Park can now visit the bathhouse, which is now a museum. I urge you to visit this incredible location and have a dip in its pools on your subsequent vacation to Israel.