In delineating the borders of the Holy Land, the Bible says that a sea (technically, a lake in topographical terms) called the Kinneret runs along the Promised Land’s eastern border (Num. 34:11, Deut. 3:17, Josh. 12:3, 13:27). The Targumim translate the Biblical name Kinneret into Aramaic as Ginosar, and Yam Kinneret into Yam Ginosar. Josephus (War of the Jews, Book III, ch. 10) similarly calls it the Lake of Genezareth (an Anglicization of the Greek version of Ginosar). However, the Talmud refers to the lake as Yamah/Yam Shel Tiveria — “The Sea of Tiberias.” [The Babylonian Talmud uses the term Yamah Shel Tiveria (Shabbos 87a, 87b, Moed Katan 18b, Bava Kamma 81a, 81b, Bava Basra 74, and Bechoros 55a); while the Jerusalemic Talmud calls it Yam Shel Tiveria (Shekalim 6:2, Bava Basra 5:1). Both of those terms mean “The Sea of Tiberias”.]
Why does this one lake have three different names — Yam Kinneret, Yam Ginosar, and Yam shel Tiveria — and what is its “real” name?
This discussion actually has practical halachic ramifications. When writing a get (bill of divorce), one must mention the name of the city in which theget is written and verify its location by mentioning the closest body of water. Accordingly, when one writes a get in the city of Tiberias, he must mention the Kinneret. But which name should he use? The question of how to refer to this lake was hotly debated by Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488–1575) and Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef of Trani (1505–1585), who jointly headed the rabbinical court of nearby Safed.
A popular theory claims that the pear-shaped lake gets its name from its physical resemblance to a kinnor (a musical instrument). However, there is no real source for this assertion.
Instead, it seems that the lake in question actually does not have its own name! Rather, it is identified by the most prominent city on its banks. For example, the Bible mentions a city called Kinneret, which was a fortified city in the tribal territory of Naftali that was captured in the time of Yehoshua (Josh. 19:35). The name of this city also appears in various ancient inscriptions. Thus, the Bible refers to Lake Kinneret as “the Sea of Kinneret” because at that time, Kinneret was the most prominent nearby city.
In later times, the city of Kinneret was called Ginosar. In fact, the Talmud (Megillah 6a) explains that the Biblical city Kinneret is the same city as Ginosar. The Talmud explains that the Bible calls Ginosar “Kinneret” because “its fruits are as sweet as the voice of a kinnor.” Rabbi Nosson of Rome (1035–1106) defines kinnor as either a type of berry (which Jastrow identifies as a “thorn jujube,” see also Rashi to Bava Basra 48b), or a musical instrument (“harp” or “lyre”).
Indeed, the Talmud (Brachos 44a) speaks about the fruits of Ginosar in the most superlative of terms, and the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah §98:17) exegetically expounds on the word Ginosar as though it means ganei sarim (“gardens of officers”), because that land was especially fertile and valued for the fruits produced there. Thus, we see that by the Second Temple period, Kinneret had come to be known as Ginosar, but was still a highly prominent city. The nearby lake therefore came to be known as “the Sea of Ginosar,” and that is the term used in works from that era (such as the Targumim and Josephus).
Another city on the sea’s western shore is Tiberias, and when that city rose in prominence, it became the sea’s namesake. Thus, the fact that the Talmud refers to the lake as “the Sea of Tiberias” reflects a chronological shift when Tiberias surpassed Kinneret/Ginosar as the most prominent city in the area. Interestingly, the lake’s name in Arabic is Buhairet Tabariyya, which means “Sea of Tiberias.”
According to Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (Book XVIII, Ch. 8), Herod (the Herodian tetrarch of the Galilee) established the city of Tiberias and named it in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE). The Talmud (Megillah 5b–6a), on the other hand, identifies Tiberias with one of two cities mentioned in the Bible—chamat or rakat (Josh. 19:35). The Talmud explains that the name chamat (literally, “hot”) refers to the natural hot springs found in Tiberias, while the name rakat (literally, “empty”) alludes to the fact that even the “empty” (i.e. ignorant) inhabitants of that city were still full of mitzvot like a pomegranate is full of seeds.
The Talmud also offers two explanations for the name Tiberias: First, that name alludes to the fact that the city sits at the tabur (“navel” or “belly button”) of the Land of Israel (not in a geographical sense, but in terms of its importance). Second, that name is a portmanteau of tovah reiyatah (“its sight is good”), which Tosafos explains means that it is aesthetically beautiful with its luscious gardens and orchards.
The Christian Bible occasionally refers to the lake as the “Sea of Tiberias,” but more commonly calls the Kinneret “the Sea of Galilee” — the name by which the lake is more commonly known to English speakers. Galilee, of course, was the administrative name of the entire northern region of the Holy Land in Hasmonean and Herodian times. So again, the sea was named after its geographical surroundings.
I found another, fascinating theory to explain why rabbinic sources do not use the Biblical name Yam Kinneret: Archeologists at the site of ancient Ugarit (Ras Shamra in modern-day Syria) found a list of old Canaanite gods, and on that list was a god named Kinnaru. The word kinnor also appears in Ugaritic texts to mean a stringed musical instrument (it bears the same meaning as the Hebrew word kinnor). Based on this, some academic scholars have argued that Kinnaru was actually the Canaanite god of music, and the ancient city of Kinneret was originally named after that god. With this in mind, the late Dr. Dov Ginzberg of the Geological Survey of Israel argues that perhaps the rabbis eschewed the name Kinneret found in the Bible because of its idolatrous origins, instead renaming the lake by connecting it to one of the Jewish cities nearby (Ginosar or Tiberias). If nothing else, perhaps this theory explains why the city Kinneret was later renamed Ginosar.
If you haven't checked it out yet, I urge you to listen to this episode of the Holy Madness podcast in which yours truly was a guest. We discuss the connection between Molech, Meron, Marriage, and Maypoles, as well as the sensual nature of idolatrous worship. We also touch on some very important topics like how to escape a snow storm in Jerusalem and the relevance of British satirist Terry Pratchett to our view of world religion. I hope you have as much fun listening to the show as I did in recording it with the hosts Tzvi Zucker and Meir Simcha Panzer.
Reuven Chaim Klein
Beitar Illit, Israel