Hebrew inscription discovered in ancient Jewish ritual bath in Sicily

For centuries, the island was home to numerous thriving Jewish communities. Jewish life came to an end when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

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June 19, 2019 02:43
1 minute read.
Jewish ritual bath beneath the Church of St. Philip the Apostle; Syracuse, Italy.

Jewish ritual bath beneath the Church of St. Philip the Apostle; Syracuse, Italy.. (photo credit: FLAVIO CAPPUCCIO (COURTESY))

 
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A Hebrew inscription was identified in a medieval Jewish ritual bath under a church in the Italian city of Syracuse, Ariel University announced on Monday.

The mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) in Syracuse is located 14 meters underground beneath the Church of St. Philip the Apostle. It was identified in 1977, although there is a much earlier tradition which maintains that the Church had been built on the remains of a Jewish site.

The Church stands on Ortigia Island, where the Jewish neighborhood used to be located. To this day, the area is also known as “Giudecca.”

During a conference sponsored by the San Metodio Higher Institute of Religious Sciences in cooperation with the municipality of Syracuse, Yonatan Adler, senior lecturer in archaeology at Ariel University, revealed the new discovery: an inscription which consists of six Hebrew consonants: “a-sh-r h-f-tz.”

The inscription probably referred to the last name of a prominent Jewish-Sicilian family, Hefetz in Hebrew, or Bonavoglia in Italian, according to the university statement.

“This discovery provides compelling evidence that the structure beneath the church was constructed as a Jewish ritual bath prior to the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Sicily,” Adler said.

The ancient mikveh is located at the foot of a long spiral staircase hewn into the limestone bedrock. Fresh groundwater continues to flow to the underground pool where Jewish women used to bathe.

“It is a great honor for me to serve as parish priest of this church which enshrines centuries, if not millennia, of Syracusan history,” commented Flavio Cappuccio, the local parish priest. “The history that Jews and Christians share in this unique site underscores for me the fraternal bonds which unite us all in brotherhood as children of one heavenly Father.”

Syracuse, one of the main cities in Sicily, was home for centuries to numerous thriving Jewish communities. Jewish life in Sicily came to an end when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. At the time, most of southern Italy was under Spanish rule; most Jews left, but others converted while continuing to keep Judaism in secret. However, most Jewish sites were destroyed or converted to a different use.

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