The Danish chemist Niels Bohr and his student, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, well- known names to high school chemistry students and anyone who has seen the play Copenhagen, once visited Kronberg castle together. Near Copenhagen, Kronberg is said to be the original home of Hamlet. Later, Bohr wrote to Heisenberg:
Isnt it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of these should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak quite a different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness in the human soul, we hear Hamlets To be or not to be. Yet all we really know about Hamlet is that his name appears in a 13th century chronicle. No one can prove that he really lived, let alone that he lived here. But everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depth he was made to reveal, and so he, too, had to be found a place on earth, here in Kronberg. And once we know that, Kronberg becomes quite a different castle for us.
Zippori is a rich archaeological site about half an hours drive from my home. An important town in Roman times, the mixed population of Jews and pagans opted to sign a separate peace with the Roman general Vespasian, and so to sit out the Great Revolt. Later, after the Bar Kochba revolt, Zippori became an important center of Jewish life, and for several decades the meeting place of the Sanhedrin (our legislature/supreme court), presided over by Rabbi Judah Hanasi. It was at Zippori, during this time, that Rabbi Judah supervised the process of committing the Oral Law to writing, yielding the first and most fundamental collection of halachah, the Mishnah. There are years of excavating left to do at Zippori, but in the meantime, the houses, public buildings, waterworks, workshops, and Jewish and pagan mosaic floors give even the inexpert visitor a feeling for the vibrant, culturally rich life that was lived here during the rabbinic period.
I have been involved in using the site of Zippori for all kinds of educational activities since it opened ten years ago: study tours, dramatizations, interactive guidebooks, simulations, etc. Often, I bring visitors to a rooftop, where we read the following passage from the Talmud (Ketubot 104a):
When Rabbi Judah was dying [in Zippori], the sages decreed a fast, and prayed for mercy, and said: whoever admits that Rabbi has died let him be impaled! Rabbis maid went up to the roof and said: the angels want Rabbi and the sages want Rabbi. May it be Your will that the sages will prevail... But when she saw Rabbis great suffering, she said: May it be Your will that the angels will prevail! However, the sages would not stop praying. So she took a pot and threw it down from the roof, and the sages stopped praying [for an instant, due to the crash], and Rabbis soul departed.
The relevance of this amazing story for the current debate on medical ethics is not hard to see. Among other interesting elements, the heroine is an anonymous maid, who is wiser (or more merciful, or more selfless) than all the sages - and yet it is the rabbis who tell the story! And note that the chain of events is such that no one can be held responsible for causing Rabbis death.
No one can prove that this story really happened, let alone that it happened here. But everyone knows the questions the Talmud wants us to ask, the human depth this anonymous woman was made to reveal, and so she, too, had to be found a place on earth, here in Zippori. And once we know that, Zippori becomes quite a different place for us.