Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Community

A Talmudic duel with Death comes to life in mosaic form in new book

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was a Jewish sage who lived in Palestine in the third century of the Common Era. While he was no doubt historical, in the legends of the Talmud and midrash, he became an otherworldly figure, the travelling companion between the worlds of Elijah the Prophet, who entered Paradise while still alive and defeated the Angel of Death in a duel of wits.

Mosaic with hebrew inscription

Image by Avi Katz

Rabbi ben Levi, known in Jewish tradition by the acronym of his name, the Ribal, was buried in Tzipori, which the Romans called Sephoris, a center of Jewish learning where sages edited the Mishna and began to compose the Talmud. But it was also a thriving cosmopolitan trading town — Nazareth was just an outlying village of Tzipori. And it housed a community of amazing mosaic artists, whose creations, from decorative patterned sidewalks to large realistic depictions of Biblical themes and Greco-Roman myth, draw thousands of visitors every year, even in this time of plague.

Tomb door

Image by Avi Katz

Mitch Pilcer, of the Zippori vacation village, discovered Ribal’s tomb several years ago while digging a swimming pool. Unlike other anonymous ancient tombs, this one was empty of human remains, but it bears an inscription in Hebrew letters almost modern in their style: “This is the resting place of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.” Pilcer commissioned me to design a three-meter mural, to be executed in mosaic of course, telling the story of the rabbi’s encounter with the Angel of Death.

Henry profile

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Image by Unknown (courtesy of Avi Katz)

He is also mentioned in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — yes, he of Hiawatha and Paul Revere. It was in 1863, in the midst of the bloody Civil War and two years after his beloved wife Frances died of burns incurred in an accident at home, that the great American poet put the legend into English verse.

It all came together — the rabbi who defeated Death by stealing his sword, the empty tomb, the bearded poet, the art of mosaic — and the result is my new book, a reimagining of the Longfellow poem and the legend of Ben Levi in mosaic style.

Book cover

Image by Avi Katz

Only after I had finished all the art for the book, the newspapers reported that a visitor to the Tzippori National Park had stumbled upon a round stone sphere, the size of a bowling ball, engraved with an open-mouthed face.

Partsufa sculpture of face

Image by Avi Katz

Archaeologist call it an animal head, perhaps a lion; but I immediately recognized the Angel of Death shouting “Give me back my sword!” So a third century artist was inspired by my 21st century depiction. Or perhaps both of us were in contact with the same original. Strange … but then, anything connected with the Ribal is free of the usual constraints of time, mortality and other dimensions.

Avi Katz’s drawings, ranging from the realistic to the caricature and comics, have appeared in various magazines and newspapers in Israel and around the world. He has illustrated hundreds of books; the JPS Illustrated Children s Bible won the National Jewish Book Award, and his books have received the Hans Christian Andersen Award four times.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.