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Meiron

Eight kilometers (5 miles) west of Safed is the town of Meiron, a holy place for religious Jews for 1,700 years. When Judea fell to the Romans after the Second Revolt against Rome in a.d. 135, the mountainous northern Galilee took on many refugees. One early Meiron inhabitant, a 2nd-century Talmudist named Shimon Bar Yochai, was ultimately forced to hide in a cave in Peqiin, a village some distance from Meiron. There, according to legend, he wrote the mystical “Zohar,” or “Book of Splendor,” which is central to the kabbalist belief.

Meiron is the scene of considerable pageantry during the holiday of Lag b’Omer, which occurs in the spring just 3 1/2 weeks after Passover. Thousands of Orthodox Jews pour into Safed, and there follows a torchlight parade to Meiron with singing and dancing. They burn candles on top of Rabbi Shimon’s tomb and light a great bonfire into which some, overcome by emotion, throw their clothes. In the morning, after the all-night festivities, 3-year-old boys are given their first haircuts, and the cut hair is thrown into the fire.

There still exists Meron’s ruined ancient stone synagogue of restrained but impressive architectural design from the a.d. 3rd century, as well as Rabbi Shimon’s tomb and a rock called the Messiah’s Chair. Reputedly, on the day the Messiah arrives, he will sit right here while Elijah blows the trumpet to announce his coming. Mount Meiron, the highest peak in the Galilee at 878m (2,881 ft.), dominates the rugged countryside, with vistas that sweep virtually across northern Israel. The local SPNI Field School (tel.04/698-0022) offers trail maps and information about a number of hikes through the beautiful, wooded Meiron Nature Reserve.

Sasa & the Bar’am Synagogue

In the northern foothills of Mount Meiron 16km (10 miles) northwest of Safed.

In 1949, American and Canadian settlers built a Kibbutz Sasa atop a 900m-high (2,953-ft.) hill and persevered despite many problems, including a polio epidemic. The thriving kibbutz is now the center of an area of forest reservations.

Just 5km (3 miles) to the north, the a.d. 3rd- to 4th-century Bar’am Synagogue, which served a small, rural community, is probably the best preserved and most beautiful of all the ancient synagogues in Israel. Its location, in the wild mountains near the Lebanese border, is breathtaking.

According to some scholars, the synagogue may have been in use through early medieval times. In the style of early Galilee synagogues, the building faces south, toward Jerusalem. Beautifully carved clusters of grapes ornamenting the main entrance testify to the town’s abundant vineyards and orchards. At some point the design of the synagogue was changed and the main entrance walled over with large ashlars that can be seen in a 19th-century engraving of the ruined site, made from an early photograph. Archaeologists theorize that over the centuries, it became customary for worshipers to face both the Ark of the Torah and Jerusalem while praying, and the central doorway, on the southern wall of the synagogue, was walled over in order to build a Torah shrine. By the late 19th century, the ashlars walling the entrance, as well as other chunks of the synagogue, had been carried off by locals for reuse in other buildings.

The National Park at Bar’am (tel. 04/698-9301; www.parks.org.il) is open daily from 8am to 4pm (until 5pm in summer); admission is NIS 15 The park is wheelchair-accessible.

The ruins of the Maronite (Christian) Arab village of Birim surround the cleared areas around the synagogue. As noncombatants cooperating with Israeli forces during the 1948 War of Independence, the residents of Birim had quartered Israeli troops in their homes. Late in the war, the people of Birim were told by the Israeli army to evacuate their town for what was promised would be a short time during a possible enemy offensive. They were never allowed to return, despite a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court in the early 1950s upholding the villagers’ rights to their homes. Since then, the former inhabitants of Birim, who all possess Israeli citizenship and are now scattered throughout the Galilee, have maintained an unending legal struggle to reclaim their village.

Past the synagogue, you can follow a path to the left and uphill to the Church of Birim, still maintained by the people of the village for weddings and funerals. If you climb the rather difficult stairs onto the roof of the church, you will be rewarded with a dramatic panorama of countryside so intensely loved by two peoples. Arabic graffiti on the church walls promise that the members of the congregation will return.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.