The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction, Essay # 3

The mishna has no tractate dealing with the synagogue. Regulations with regard to location, orientation and and architecture have been gleaned from splinters of texts from the tosephta and later additions to the mishna. The sources to draw from are scarce.

Rabbinic regulation for synagogue location fixes “the highest point of the city.” This may have been based on the past location of the Jerusalem Temple that was located on an elevated part of the city. Most Galilean synagogues were located on high commanding points.

Many of the synagogues were located near water. Was this based on ancient Jewish habits of reciting prayers near a body of water or the practicality of being close to water for the practice of tevilah or immersion in a natural pool of water rather than in a mikveh pool?

The physical orientation of the synagogue was determined by the principle of the orientation of the worshiper during prayer: Those outside of Israel should turn their heart [mind] toward Israel; those in Israel toward Jerusalem; etc., Following this schema, those in the North of Jerusalem turn south; those East of Jerusalem turn West, and so on.

Practically all excavated ancient synagogues both in Israel and in the diaspora have the shape of a Roman basilica, i.e., a rectangular shape. The roof of the building was supported by stone pillars whose cross section was either round or heart-shaped. The row of these pillars divided the interior laterally into three parts: a central relatively large empty area and two side areas along whose two walls there was seating on one or two rows of stone benches. Most early Galilean synagogues featured a monumental facade with three entrance doors.

Some scholars suggest that the tendency to emulate within the synagogue features of the destroyed Jerusalem Temple caused some rabbinic sources to protest. Hence the talmudic ruling,

“One shall not make a house after the pattern of the temple, nor a porch after the temple porch, nor a courtyard like that of the temple, nor a table like the temple table, nor a menorah like that of the temple,” (Tb Menahoth 28b).

The Torah scrolls, the indispensable religious as well as physical center of any synagogue, were housed in the tevah (ark) or Torah shrine. It seems that the term aron hakodesh (holy shrine) was introduced at a later time and that there was controversy regarding this innovation. Many scholars believe that until the 4th century the Torah scrolls were housed in an adjoining room and brought into the main synagogue hall at the time of worship only and then temporarily placed into a niche of the wall. Interesting in this connection might be a part of a frieze at the excavated beautiful synagogue at Capernaum (k’far nahum) on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is a four wheeled small wagon holding Torah scrolls. I wonder whether such a wagon may have been used to wheel-in the Torah scrolls from a synagogue annex to the main hall where the worshipers had assembled to hear the Torah reading. It is reasonable to assume, as the synagogue system of worship developed, that a wooden cupboard holding Torah scrolls was eventually permanently installed in the main hall where Torah was read in formal worship.

Next to the Torah shrine there was the bima , an elevated podium from where translation into Aramaic (targum), interpretations, and blessings were given (Neh. 4:3-5).

The Early synagogues in Palestine as well as in the Diaspora had ornamentation. Second and third century sources suggest that menorahs were favorite gifts given to synagogues. Names of donors were often chiseled into stone pillars or expressed in mosaics in floors. The menorah which is the earliest specifically Jewish symbol was also incorporated in the walls of synagogues and burial sites.

While geometric, flora and fauna ornamental representations predominated in ancient synagogue floor mosaics, surprisingly, also human representations are found there. The motifs are often pagan as, for instance, zodiacs. To my amazement, in the mosaic floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, in its bottom register representing the akedah (the binding of Isaac), the artist incorporated not only the humans involved in the biblical story, but also a hand reaching down from above, next to which we read the word “Avraham,” representing either the hand of an angel or the hand of God stopping Abraham from killing his son Yitzchak (see below). How to explain this seeming transgression of the second of the Ten Commandments which explicitly forbids such representations?

This is this essay’s cliff hanger.

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