While Israel is the Holy Land, four of her cities are considered holier than all the others, and each of these is accorded a mystical connection with one of the four classical elements. Jerusalem is the city of fire. Hebron is the city of earth. Safed is the city of air. Tiberias is the city of water.
Tiberias’ association with water is obvious, as the city is situated on the northern banks of the Sea of Galilee (known in Hebrew as the Kineret). But, the city was not always considered holy. In fact, when it was built (c. 20 CE) by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, most Jews refused to move there because it was constructed on top of an ancient cemetery. Antipas had to resign himself to populating his Galilean capital with people from other nations.
According to legend, the city remained in a state of ritual impurity until around 135 CE, when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai purified the city. Not long thereafter, the Jewish people suffered a terrible blow with the defeat following the Bar Kochba uprising. The Jews were formally exiled from Jerusalem and Jewish life was forced northward. Eventually, Tiberias and its neighboring city of Tzippori, became the center of Jewish scholarship in the Holy Land. It was in Tiberias that Rabbi Judah the Prince redacted the oral Torah into the Mishna and where the sages of the Sanhedrin remained for several centuries. Tiberias was also the location where the Babylonian Talmud was completed.
Because of the city’s connection to the Sanhedrin, the Mishna and the Talmud, it is now considered one of the four holy cities of Israel. The city itself has survived a tumultuous history of conquering armies and devastating earthquakes to become a place which no tourist of Israel should miss.
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