Israel’s many ancient synagogues beckon

As a licensed tour guide, I like to quip that Israel is the world’s largest tiny country, blessed with an astonishing array of sites.

Migdala (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Migdala
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As a licensed tour guide, I like to quip that Israel is the world’s largest tiny country, blessed with an astonishing array of sites. These range from the prehistoric Mount Carmel Caves where Neanderthal and Homo sapiens both lived, to the ultra-modern, 240-meter-high Megalim Solar Power tower in the Negev. Smack dab in the middle of all this history are the country’s many ancient synagogues, most of which are in national parks, and all of which are photogenic.
My favorite is Umm al-Kanatir (the “Mother of Arches” in Arabic), also called Ein Keshatot in Hebrew. This partially reconstructed Byzantine-era synagogue is the largest of the 30 ancient Jewish houses of prayer discovered in the Golan Heights. The building, with its ornately carved basalt Torah ark, was built in the first century but extensively renovated some 500 years later. It collapsed in the catastrophic earthquake of 749 CE, when the synagogue and village were abandoned.
While the ancient structure is impressive – it measures 18 m. long by 13 m. wide by 12 m. high – the modern story of Israeli ingenuity is equally compelling. Beginning in 2003, Yehoshua Dray and Haim Ben-David of Kinneret College and Bar-Ilan University used hi-tech computer technology to digitally record every stone, none of which had been reused since the fateful earthquake 12 centuries earlier. Using a crane, they spent 15 years lifting and placing the ashlars in the correct sequence as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle.
ON THE northwest shore of Lake Kinneret, visitors can marvel at the ancient synagogue at Magdala, also called Migdal, the home of Jesus’ disciple Mary Magdalene. If Umm al-Kanatir is a window into Jewish life following the genocidal rule of Roman Emperor Hadrian – who wiped out Jewish life in Judea, exiled the Jews to the Galilee and the Negev, and changed the Roman province’s name to Palestine – then the first century CE synagogue at Migdal offers a glimpse of Jewish life before the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.
For villagers in the distant Galilee, Jerusalem was too far away to make frequent visits. Yet Herod’s magnificent Temple represented God’s presence on Earth. So the Galileans constructed a synagogue to symbolically keep the centrality of the Temple fresh in their minds. The Magdala Stone, a quartzite block discovered there in 2009, is carved with symbols of the Temple. And it’s likely that the stonemasons had visited Jerusalem and seen the Hall, Sanctuary, Holy of Holies, seven-branched menorah and vessels that they were representing.
The stone, measuring 65 cm. by 70 cm. with a height of 30 cm., was found almost in the center of the synagogue. Archaeologists believe it was the ceremonial reading table on which the Torah scroll was placed. But was it simply a bima, or does it have some deeper significance?
Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholar Prof. Rina Talgam suggests the Magdala Stone indicates that for the residents of Migdal, their synagogue was perceived to be a “minor temple,” and that this building marks a milestone in the evolution of Judaism away from the ritual sacrifices offered in the Temple.
However, the site today has been lovingly restored by the Legionnaires of Christ (who also operate the Notre Dame de Jerusalem hospice opposite the New Gate). Does this site attest to a form of Jewish prayer within a first century synagogue? Or is this a Christian interpretation imposed upon a Jewish object? The questions are unresolved. Come visit, and add your two shekels to the scholarly argument.
SYMBOLS EVOLVE in meaning over time. In the fifth-century synagogue at Sepphoris in the Galilee, the home of Judah the Prince who redacted the Mishnah, the central panel of the mosaic shows the zodiac with Helios the sun god driving his chariot across the sky.
A pagan Greek god in the center of a synagogue? Again, you are welcome to suggest its meaning to Jews 1,500 years ago. But given that other mosaics depict the Temple in Jerusalem – including the tamid sacrifice, the showbread and the basket of first fruits, as well as Aaron offering sacrifices in the Tabernacle and other symbols of the Temple and Judaism’s holidays – these Jews were living in a Greco-Roman world but were also immersed in Jewish life.
Confused yet by the slippery meaning of symbols? Visit the Hammat Tiberias Synagogue and the Beit Alfa Synagogue further to the south near Beit She’an. Here, too, in these 1,500-year-old houses of prayer, one sees the zodiac prominently displayed along with spandrels depicting the four seasons. Perhaps they represented God’s omnipresence and omnipotence.
These synagogues, though spanning centuries, all face toward Jerusalem. Visiting them, one is struck by their architectural consistency. Erected in the basilica format popular with public buildings in the Greco-Roman world, they stand as testimony to both Judaism's vitality and ability to evolve, as well as the ancient connection of Jews with the Land of Israel, renewed again today.
Children love mysteries. If the unclear meaning of the well-preserved sites mentioned above aren’t enough, take your kids to Ein Gedi by the Dead Sea. Here, in yet another strikingly beautiful mosaic floor from 1,500 years ago, one also encounters the zodiac and the months of the Hebrew calendar. While the mosaic inscriptions are similar to those of other ancient synagogues, what comes next is unique: a curse on those who start quarrels, slander their neighbors before the gentiles, steal, or “reveal the secret of the town.”
Sorry to be so vague, but scholars can only guess what is meant by the “secret of the town.” Hey, it was, after all, a secret...
The consensus today among archaeologists is that the inscription refers to the processing of balsam, a rare and now extinct plant which was the source of an extremely expensive perfume that Romans used to cover up the reek of their imperial capital.
The curse on the synagogue floor is testimony to life for Jews here in the third to sixth centuries, squeezed under the oppression of Roman and Byzantine rule, and facing economic and political uncertainty.
Since we’re already in the South, I recommend continuing to Khirbet Susya in the Hebron Hills in the West Bank. The magnificent synagogue here was similarly in use from the fifth to eighth centuries. The Jews likely converted to Islam after the Arab conquest and built a mosque. In 1986, the Palestinian village of Susya was declared an archaeological site by the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration. The IDF then expelled the villagers, who moved a few hundred meters southeast of their original village. The synagogue was beautifully restored, but was never incorporated into Israel’s network of national parks and historic sites.
Did I just say “economic and political uncertainty?” As students of Jewish history, it behooves us to remember that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Go complain to the prime minister – when Israel finally gets one.
I hope this article inspires you to buy a national park pass and begin exploring. Armchair explorers might wish to read Mordechai Aviam’s Ancient Synagogues in the Land of Israel, published by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in 1997.
The author is a licensed tour guide and writer. He can be reached at [email protected]