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The ancient Beit Alpha Synagogue and its puzzling mosaic floor

The ancient Beit Alpha synagogue in the Beit She’an Valley is of interest because of its mosaic floor, even though its imagery is not what Jews are used to seeing nowadays in a house of worship. Be sure to watch the 12-minute movie so as to orientate yourself in the Byzantine period when it was constructed.


The finding of coins in the ruins from the time of the Roman emperor Justinian permitted the dating of this synagogue to the 6th century C.E. Finding coins in the foundations of synagogues is not unusual and is discussed in the essay “How do archeologists figure out when an ancient synagogue was built?” At the time this synagogue was constructed this country was a Christian country. Beit She’an was a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish administrative and commercial center, although there were probably totally Jewish villages around the city.

Mosaic floor.jpeg

Directions: Enter “Beit Alfa” and click on “Beit Alfa Synagogue, Heftziba, Israel.”

Entrance: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.  It is open in the summer 8.00 am to 5.00 pm Sunday to Thursday and Saturday, and 8.00 am to 4.00 pm on Friday and holiday eves. It closes one hour earlier in the winter and is open on holiday eves from 8.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. Their telephone number is 04 653-2004. This is their website     

Public transport: Enter "Beit Alfa Synagogue" into Waze. There is a frequent bus service from Afula and Beit She'an that stops close to the synagogue.


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You call this a synagogue!


The synagogue ruins of Beit Alfa were discovered by members of Kibbutz Hefsibah while doing irrigation work. These ruins would subsequently become the focal point of a national park.


In contrast to synagogues built during the Roman period, such as the synagogue at Bar’am, the exteriors of Byzantine synagogues were not elaborate. This ensured that the Jews maintained a low profile and that their houses of worship did not overshadow churches in the area. All beauty was inside their synagogues, and especially their mosaic floors. As the movie points out, this mosaic was made by local artisans who would have done a cheaper job than specialists from outside the country.


As was typical for ancient synagogues, the building consisted of a central hall and an aisle at each side, separated by rows of columns. There was an apse in the southern wall which faced towards Jerusalem, and contained the ark with scrolls of the law.


One’s first reaction on seeing this mosaic floor may well be surprise. What is a sun god riding on a chariot doing in a synagogue?  And what about the pictures of women at its far corners, and other human figures at its edge?  Nowadays, one does not see human representations in a synagogue, and depictions of pagan gods would be completely unacceptable. 


It is worth recalling that the people who built this synagogue were living in a completely monotheistic country, and the figures within the zodiac were not thought of in pagan terms. The concept of the zodiac is originally Persian, but it was accepted by Jews and is mentioned in the Talmud. It is seen in other ancient synagogues in Israel, such as in Tzipori and Hamat Tiveria. Representations of the zodiac are also found in Christian churches. It signifies the passage of time, while the four women represent the four seasons of the year.


What we see here are symbols that were popular in the prevailing non-Jewish culture and which were adopted by Jews. Nowadays, the zodiac is not part of popular Jewish culture and it looks out of place.

More about the other pictures in the mosaic. The lower panel shows the story of the Binding of Isaac. The top panel is known as the Torah Shrine and shows two lions. The lion is the symbol of Judah, and King David was also from the tribe of Judah. The lulav, etrog and shofar, and the two seven-branched menorahs on each side of the shrine are Temple objects and express the longing for the rebuilding of the Temple.


Beit Alfa Synagogue is thought to have been destroyed by a severe earthquake at the end of the 6th century.

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