Biriya was a Jewish Village and is Resettled Today / DR.Rivka Shpak Lissak

Biriya today is now a communial settlement, with about 600 residents.

The First Temple Period (1000 BCE – 587 BCE)

The is no information about an Israeli settlement on the Biriya site during the First Temple Period. But, an ancient tomb was found on the site, and according to an old tradition this is the tomb of Beniahu Ben Yehoyada, chief stuff of King David.

The Second Temple, the Roman and the Byzantine Periods (538 BCE – 640 CE)

Biriya was a Jewish village during the Second Temple Period, but there is no information on when it was established. It was situated on the southern slope of a hill near Safed. Biriya survived the Great Revolt of 66-70 CE. It is mentioned in the Talmud and the Rabbis Dossai, Jermaya, Nathan and Eliezer lived there. The remains of an ancient synagogue were found on its site.

The Arabic Period (640 – 1099)

No information has been found on this period.

The Crusaders Period (1099 – 1260)

A letter from the 13th century from the Cairo Genizha (a Jewish archive) sent from Safed, mentioned Biriya among the Jewish villages who still existed during the Crusaders Period..

The Mameluk Period (1260 – 1516)

A letter from 1507/9 tells about Rabbi Moshe Dayan's student from Eyn Zeitim who studied to be a ritual slaughter. He, latter, became the ritual slaughter of Eyn Zeitim, Biriya and Safed . This information proves that Biryia was still Jewish in the beginning of the 16th century.

The Ottoman Period (1516 – 1918)

Moshe Bassula visited Safed in 1522 and found there 300 families. Izhak Ben Zvi, wrote in his book "Shear Yashuv", that this number might include residents of neighboring Biriya. Rabbi Issachar Ben Shushan mentioned Biriya in the middle of the 16th century as one of the villages inhabited by Jews who lived there since the Second Temple period.

The tax lists of the Ottoman rule from 1525/6 mentioned 19 Jewish tax payers (families) in Biriya and 16 Jewish tax payers in 1555/6. An average family was 5-6 people which means that about 100 Jews lived in Biriya in the middle of the 16th century. There is evidence that Rabbi Yoseph Karo lived in Biriya during 1555 and wrote there his book "orah Haim" Another evidence on Jews living in Biriya from a Divorce Book from that time records a divorce in Biriya.

Biriya and Eyn Zeitim were deserted in the beginning of the 17th century. This information was found in a letter written in 1603 by Rabii Shlomo Mainstral, who migrated from Europe and settled in Safed. Mainstral tells in his letter that these villages were destroyed, but a synagouge with holy books survived in Biryia and Jews from Safed used to go often to pray in this synagogue.

Some more Jewish villages were destroyed and deserted during the 17th century, but there is no information on what caused this disaster. But there is further evidence from the 18th and 19th centuries that no Jews lived in Biriya, but the synagogue still survived.

According to an Arab source Biriya was not destroyed but Arabs settled in Jewish Biriya in 1596 while 16 Jewish families still lived there. The Nakba web site (a Palestinian web) tells there were 319 Arab residents in Biriya in 1596, but the other Arab source claims there were 38 Muslim families and 3 bachelors. According to the Nakba site the number of the Muslims was reduced to 100 in the 19th century.

The information from the Arab sources raises 3 problems: first, the date 1596 appears on the Nakba site as a starting point for too many histories of Arab villages. Second, the number 16 Jewish families appeared on the Ottoman tax list of 1556. Third, the letter from 1603 was mentioned in Izhak Ben Zvi reseach on Biriya. This is a contemporary source which contradicts the Arab information.

In 1893 the Baron Rothshild bought 4,000 dunam north to Arabic Biriya and gave it to 2 Jewish farmers from the village Rosh Pinnah. They hired Arabic laborers, called Harrats, to work on the fields. In 1910 the Jewish farmers returned the land to Rothshild's officials and the land was given in tenancy to Biryia Arabs.

The British Mandate Period (1918 – 1948)

According to the Nakba web site 128 Arabs lived in Biriya in 1922
and between 260 to 280 in 1948. Also, in 1931 there were 38 houses in the village and the number rose to 62 in 1948.

In 1921/2 a group of Jewish laborers settled on the land bought by Rothshild, but found if hard to survive and left. In 1945 a group of Bnai Akiva movement (An orthodox youth movement) settled there. They built a wall around the settlement and a fortress inside.

The settlement was established as part of the Jewish struggle against the policy of the British Mandate. Britain received the mandate to rule the Holy Land from the League of Nations, after First World War, as part of the project "to build a National Home for the Jews." This resolution was a fulfilment of the promise made to the Zionist movement in the Balfure Declaration of November 1917 (Balfur was the English foreign minister). But, Britain betrayed its mission because it stood in contrast with its interests in the Arab Middle East. Britain published a "white book" that forbad Jews from building new settlements, and restricted Jewish immigration to the country.

The Arabs, who refused to accept the League of Nation resolution, sued the settlers, arguing that this was Arab land. During the trail it became clear that the land was registered in 1895 in the Ottoman Land Office, Rothshild. The ownership of the land was transferred in 1924 by Rothshild to the "Palestine Jewish Colonization Association". The Arabs ignored the fact and organized a protest in Safed before the office of the British governor arguing that the court ruled in their favor. The Jewish radio published the court decision, but the Arabs refused to accept the court decision and protested against it, demanding the British government to act on their behalf.

By February 1946 the British decided to remove the Jews from the land. There are 2 versions on this accident. According to one version the British army found illegal weapons and arrested all the Jewish residents. According to another version the British army arrested all the Jewish residents claiming that they shoot at the neighboring Arab's Legion camp. The British army stationed soldiers in Jewish Biriya to prevent Jews from resettling the place.

The leaders of the Jewish National Committee refused to accept the British policy against Jewish settlements and sent 3,000 Jewish youngsters to establish Biriya no. 2. The British army destroyed Biriya no.2, but at the same night the Jews established Biriya no.3. This time the British gave up and 20 settlers were permitted to stay.


During the War of Independence Jewish Biriya was under siege by the Arabs. The siege was released after Arabic Biriya was conquered by the Israeli army on May 1, 1948. The Arab residents ran away.

After the war was over Biriya became a village and was settled by new immigrants from Lybia who were joined by an Italian group of converts to Judaism. The new settlers left and were replaced by others in 1971. The village has a Jewish Religious Center named after Yoseph Karo, which includes a yeshiva .The fortress is now a museum.

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