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Rachel Hachlili, “Synagogues: Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple,” Biblical Archaeology Review 41:03, May/Jun 2015.

article 1Were there synagogues while the Temple still stood in Jerusalem?

Nearly 200 ancient synagogues have been discovered by archaeologists at numerous sites in the Land of Israel as well as in the diaspora.

After the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., the major architectural feature of the synagogue was the Torah Shrine. This was true both in the Land of Israel and in the diaspora. The Torah Shrine was the receptacle for the ark containing the Torah Scrolls; it was usually made of wood and placed on top of a stone base. The stone base could take the form of a niche, a semicircular apse or an aedicula (a small independent shrine). The Torah Shrine was almost always on the Jerusalem-oriented wall.

The Torah Shrine determined the arrangement of the interior of the post-destruction synagogue. This synagogue plan usually consisted of a hall divided by columns into a central space with side aisles and sometimes with a front (or side) courtyard. It all focused on the Torah Shrine.

Should communal buildings entirely without these features dating to an earlier period—the Second Temple period—be identified as synagogues?

Several public structures from the late Second Temple period have recently been uncovered—for example, at Hasmonean Jericho and in several Jewish villages (Horvat ‘Ethri, Migdal, Modi‘in, Qiryat Sefer and Gamla). Many scholars consider these structures to be synagogues on the basis of circumstantial evidence even though they lack the usual distinctive architectural features and symbols. They do, however, share some similarities with later synagogues in their architectural plan and, therefore, in function, even though no actual proof has been uncovered that they are synagogues.

Were there synagogues while the Temple still stood in Jerusalem?

Nearly 200 ancient synagogues have been discovered by archaeologists at numerous sites in the Land of Israel as well as in the diaspora.

After the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., the major architectural feature of the synagogue was the Torah Shrine. This was true both in the Land of Israel and in the diaspora. The Torah Shrine was the receptacle for the ark containing the Torah Scrolls; it was usually made of wood and placed on top of a stone base. The stone base could take the form of a niche, a semicircular apse or an aedicula (a small independent shrine). The Torah Shrine was almost always on the Jerusalem-oriented wall.

The Torah Shrine determined the arrangement of the interior of the post-destruction synagogue. This synagogue plan usually consisted of a hall divided by columns into a central space with side aisles and sometimes with a front (or side) courtyard. It all focused on the Torah Shrine.

Should communal buildings entirely without these features dating to an earlier period—the Second Temple period—be identified as synagogues?

Several public structures from the late Second Temple period have recently been uncovered—for example, at Hasmonean Jericho and in several Jewish villages (Horvat ‘Ethri, Migdal, Modi‘in, Qiryat Sefer and Gamla). Many scholars consider these structures to be synagogues on the basis of circumstantial evidence even though they lack the usual distinctive architectural features and symbols. They do, however, share some similarities with later synagogues in their architectural plan and, therefore, in function, even though no actual proof has been uncovered that they are synagogues.

The pre-destruction buildings are usually not oriented toward Jerusalem. In some (e.g., Gamla) the halls are oblong, divided by rows of columns into a central space and surrounding aisles.

A ritual bath (mikveh) or a water source is often adjunct to the pre-destruction structures, which strengthens their identification as synagogues.

Two seemingly contradictory interpretations are possible. The archaeological data point to a community assembly concept with no religious aspects. The literary and epigraphic evidence, on the other hand, portrays a religious perception, citing customs such as reading and teaching the Torah on the Sabbath. We have already referred to the example of Jesus teaching at the Capernaum synagogue.

These two concepts are not necessarily contradictory. The special structures served both as a community assembly structure and a religious structure for worship and rituals (described in the written sources).

Once the Temple was destroyed, the Torah Shrine with its wooden ark housing the Torah scrolls (Five Books of Moses) on the Jerusalem-oriented wall—with its assumed similarity to the Jerusalem Temple façade design—was probably inspired by the desire to preserve the memory of the Temple.

These synagogue floors were often ornamented with mosaic panels. The Torah Shrine motif was depicted on the panel closest to the actual Torah Shrine while carpets of vine trellis medallions enclosed Jewish symbols. The symbolic vocabulary of synagogue art also included the menorah, shofar, incense shovel, etrog (a fruit used on the festival of Sukkot), ark for the scrolls and a spiral conch shell that initially appears as a decorative motif, evolving into a symbolic motif representing the Torah Shrine. These symbols acquired a prominence only after the destruction of the Temple; they preserve a memory of the Temple and its ceremonies. Other synagogue images were borrowed from elsewhere in Jewish religious life and tradition.

Jewish society beginning in the third century C.E. allowed representational art in their synagogues, portraying figurative and symbolic themes. The Biblical tales found so far on synagogue mosaic pavements and wall paintings represent a variety of styles and artistic depictions. They portray prominent figures in Jewish tradition and history, important Biblical episodes with additions of legends, and themes designating historical events, symbolic traditions and divine intervention, as well as the covenant between God and his chosen people, and his protection of some and punishment of others. Scenes such as the Binding of Isaac and Noah’s Ark (at Beth Alpha, Sepphoris and Jerash) illustrate the end of the tale—the moment of rescue.

The Jewish zodiac calendar panel design is found on synagogue mosaic pavements widely separated in space and time (at Beth Alpha, Hammath Tiberias, Huseifa, Na‘aran, Sepphoris and Susiya); this specific design is found only in synagogue art. These zodiacs depict in human form the four seasons, the 12 months and day and night, interpreted as a yearly calendar. In the center is the sun-god in his quadriga (four-horse chariot) racing across the heavens. These zodiac mosaics in synagogues are identical in form, composition and content, suggesting prototype pattern books. Differences in style and execution may be attributed to the individual artist’s skill and style.

This liberal attitude toward representational art lasted only until the second half of the sixth century C.E. With increased anti-Jewish legislation, nonfigurative aniconic art in synagogues became de rigeur. Iconoclastic destruction is encountered, for instance, on stone reliefs at Capernaum and Chorazim and on the mosaic pavement at Na‘aran where images were eradicated. The later synagogues of Jericho and Ein Gedi depict only nonfigurative, decorative designs with extensive inscriptions—but no images.

Quite surprisingly, Biblical scenes containing a representation of the Hand of God, as in the Binding of Isaac at Beth Alpha, were depicted on a floor that was continually trod on. Torah Shrines, menorahs and other ritual objects were curiously also regarded as suitable for mosaic pavements.

Why did Jews adorn their synagogue floors with Biblical scenes and religious symbols? Stepping on the image must have removed its sacrosanct quality. As long as it would be trod on, the pernicious influence of idolatry would be neutralized.

Let us return to a comparison of the Second Temple-period structures (synagogues?) and the elaborate synagogues of Late Antiquity. The Second Temple-period buildings were used for Torah reading and as a study center. They had a didactic aim and also served as a meeting place for the community. The synagogues of Late Antiquity, by contrast, emphasized prayer and ceremonies; their functions were liturgical and ritualistic.

The focal point of the early buildings was the center of the hall, while that of the later synagogue was the Torah Shrine built on the Jerusalem-oriented wall. In the early structures, benches were constructed along all four walls; they faced the center of the hall. In the later synagogues, the benches faced the Torah Shrine. Architectural decoration in the pre-destruction buildings was simple. The later synagogues were richly ornamented both outside and inside and included mosaic floors and wall paintings.

Ancient synagogues have often been found in the diaspora as well as in the Land of Israel.1Sometimes houses were altered and renovated so that they could be used as synagogues. Diaspora synagogues have little in common with one another with regard to their architectural design. Their features are rarely similar, either among themselves or by comparison with synagogues in the Land of Israel. Indeed the evidence of the architecture of diaspora synagogues proves that there was no universal canon or standard plan for synagogue structures. Nevertheless, there is one element that appears in all diaspora synagogues: the Torah Shrine—in the form of an aedicula, niche or apse, usually on the wall oriented toward Jerusalem.

In the fourth century C.E., Jewish communities flourished in the diaspora, and many synagogues were erected. In the fifth century C.E., however, the status of the Jews deteriorated. They were deprived of their civil rights and forbidden to hold government or military office. Assaults on Jews and Judaism were instigated by the Christian clergy. At this time, synagogues were converted into churches, or they were destroyed, and churches were built above them. This was the case at Apamea, Elche, Leptis Magna, Stobi and Gerasa (Jerash). The situation was not uniform. Whereas at some sites synagogues were completely destroyed or supplanted, at other places, such as Ostia and Sardis, synagogues survived and even prospered.

In sum, the evidence as a whole confirms the centrality of the synagogue in the life of Jewish communities both in the Land of Israel and in the diaspora.2 The synagogue and its art and architecture played a powerful role in the preservation of the fundamental beliefs, customs and traditions of the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

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