The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction, Essay # 4

At the end of last month’s essay and in connection with the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) floor mosaic in Israel’s Beth Alpha synagogue, I expressed amazement over the artist’s graphic depiction not only of the persons involved in the biblical story (Gen. 22:1-19) but also of the hand of an angel or the very hand of God from above. Considering the second commandment’s prohibition of making “…a statue or any form that is in the skies above or that is in the earth below or that is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow to them and you shall not serve them. Because I, YHWH, your God, am a jealous God…” (Exod.20:4-5), the incorporation of a transgression of this commandment in a synagogue seems inexplicable and even downright scandalous.

How to explain this?

So let me share with you a text from Mishna which, in my opinion, is both instructional and amusing:

“Proklos, son of Phosphos, asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said [to Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18) ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshipers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bath.” Once he exited, [Rabban Gamliel] said to him, “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine. [Further], people don’t say ‘let’s make a bath as a decoration for Aphrodite. ‘Rather, they say, ‘let’s make a statue of Aphrodite as a decoration for our bath.’ “ Another reason: Even if someone paid you lots of money, you would not commence your idol worship if you were naked or sticky, nor would you urinate before [your sacred object]. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands over the sewer and everyone urinates before it. If a [statue] is treated as a god, then it is forbidden, but if it is not treated as a god, then it is permitted [to be in its presence].”

(The above is taken from an article of R. Daniel Nevins of the Rabbinical School of JTS, “When does an idol own the bathhouse?” based on Mishna, avodah zarah 3:4)

If we think that Palestine in early post-biblical times was inhabited only by Jews, we are wrong. It was a diverse society where many non-Jews worshiped idols. The practical question arose whether Jews could use a public institution that was decorated with pagan imagery. There must have been ambivalence among the Jews about participation in general society. Rabban Gamliel, a highly esteemed rabbi, seemingly was an advocate for Jewish freedom in this respect.

While I do not know to what extent Rabban Gamliel’s orientation was accepted in Jewish circles it seems possible that his thought may have been applied to artistic expressions within Judaism and so also about graphic depictions of biblical scenes.

The argument may have been that one does not worship anything on which one walks or sits. It is possible that the central empty area in the ancient synagogue, often decorated by mosaics, was designated for those who participated in worship standing or sitting on the floor rather than on the stone benches along the walls. Perhaps for overflow?

The ancient synagogues were not exclusively used for worship. We know, in this connection, that the great Rabbis Yochanan and Abbahu also acted as judges and decided on legal cases in synagogue. So also funerals and especially eulogies for deceased teachers and religious leaders were held in synagogues. According to Josephus (1st c, CE), a political meeting was held in one of the synagogues in the city of Tiberias. Communal problems were discussed and decided there as well.

Summarizing, it seems that the synagogue combined with the Jewish community center of today resembles in many ways the characteristics of the ancient synagogue of Palestine. Then as also today there are some among us who endow the synagogue with sacredness and others who deny the synagogue any claim to sacredness. There was in the first three centuries a great variety of attitudes as well and no definite official position.

Now as then, two Jews hold three opinions and, as I see it, this is good!

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.