The Galilee is a mountainous region in Israel, ranging from the North to Emek Yizrael. It is divided into three areas: the Upper Galilee, the lower Galilee and the Beit HaKerem Valley in between. The Upper Galilee is the highest region in Western Israel, with mountains such as Mt. Meron that rises 1208 meters above sea level. It boasts abundant water sources and rich vegetation.
The Galilee in Tanach
After the Holy Land was captured by Yehoshua and his fighters, the Galilee was allocated to four of the twelve tribes: the eastern territory was given to Yissachar and Naftali; and the west was given to Zevulun and Asher. The blessings of our forefather Yaakov to Asher many years before hinted to the abundant richness of the land they were to inherit – "From Asher, his bread is rich and he will give forth royal delicacies". Naftali was similarly blessed: "Naftali is satiated, and full of heavenly blessing”. In his book ‘Wars of the Jews’, Yosef ben Matityahu describes the prosperous land of the Galilee: ‘The land of the Galilee is fertile and contains lush grasslands, and numerous species of trees grow there. The richness of the land’s produce attracts the heart of men from a far distance who possess a love of working on the ground, because the entire land is fruitful and fertile..."
In the period of the prophets, a fifth tribe arrived in the Galilee – Dan. They wandered from the coastal plains and built their own city ‘Dan’ in the northern Upper Galilee. The war of Barak ben Avinoam and Devorah the Prophetess against Sisera (Judges 4:5) took place in the Galilee. Ayalon from the tribe of Zevulun was a Judge from the Galilee (ibid, 12:11). When King David rose to the throne, we find that the tribes from the Galilee brought a gift to the new king (Divrei haYamim I 12:40), and their men joined the king’s army. Later King Shlomo transferred 20 towns of the Galilee to Chiram king of Tzur, apparently from the territory of Asher, in exchange for cedar wood that was needed for building the Holy Temple. Yona ben Amitai the Prophet originated from the Galilee; his mother was from the tribe of Asher and his father from Zevulun (Yerushalmi Succa 5:1). The Galilee was included in the Kingdom of Israel after it was separated from Judah. The wars waged against Aram were conducted on the territory of the Galilee, and from there the armies of Ashur and Babylonia invaded the country. In the days of the Second Temple, the term ‘Galilee’ was broadened to include also Mt. Carmel, Emek Yizrael and the valley of Beit She’an.
The Galilee in the Period of the Mishna
The division of the Galilee into the Upper and Lower regions appears already in the Mishnah, where we see the Galilee was divided into three areas: “From Kfar Chananya and upwards... the Upper Galilee; from Kfar Chanaya and down... the Lower Galilee, and the boundaries of Teveria – the valley” (Shvi’is 9:2). The dwellers of the Galilee were mainly agriculturists who grew crops of olives and tended vineyards. The oil of the Galilee has always been famous for its superiority. The Jews of the Galilee and the rest of Judah practiced markedly different customs, and Halachic disagreements invariably arose between them (Moed Katan 23:1). The inhabitants of the Galilee were “Men of war from their early youth... never was there a lack of heroes who would go out to greet the sword” – as recorded by Yosef ben Matityahu, commander of the Galilee at the time of the revolt against the Romans. These warriors filled a vital role in the revolt, and were the first to fight the Romans since they invaded the country from the north. Around the fortified cities of Tzippori, Yodefes and Gush Chalav, fierce battles were waged until the courageous fighters fell, and the remaining cities of the Galilee fell with them.
Torah Centers in the Galilee
With the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem (in the year 3830), many Jews escaped from Judah and settled in the Galilee, which became a thriving Torah center. The Sanhedrin was exiled to Shefaram, Beit She’arim, Tzipori and Teveria. Amongst the saintly Tannaim who settled in the Galilee were Rabbi Yehoshua in Pekiin, Rabbi Yosi in Tzipori, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son. The majority of ancient graves belonging to the prophets, the Tannaim and Amoraim in the Holy Land are sprinkled over the landscape of the Galilee. It was in the Galilee that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi arranged the Mishna, and Rabbi Yochanan assembled the Jerusalem Talmud and much of the Medrash. Teveria is famous for being the home to many of our nation’s finest grammarians, such as the Ben Asher family. In later generations the Galilee, and mainly the mystical city of Tzfat, became a center for Torah and Kabbalah due to the presence of towering personalities such as Rabbi Yosef Caro (the Beis Yosef) author of the Shulchan Aruch; Rabbi Yaakov Berav, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and Rabbi Moshe Alshich. Tzfat was also home to the famous Kabbalists Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Ari haKadosh), Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Chaim Vital. In subsequent years the students of the Vilna Gaon and the Chasam Sofer came to settle in Tzfat, as well as the followers of other great leaders who lived in the holy cities of Tzfat and Teveria.
Population of the Galilee Today
With the renewal of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel over one hundred years ago, the Galilee became populated by Jews once again. Amongst the earliest settlements to evolve were Rosh Pinah, Yesod haMaalah, Metulah and Zichron Yaakov. But despite enormous efforts to settle the Galilee, the center of the Galilee remains largely populated by Arabs and Druze settlers. Extensive efforts to increase the Jewish presence in the Galilee continue until today.