The ancient Beit Alpha Synagogue and its puzzling mosaic floor
This 6th century synagogue in the Beit She’an Valley warrants a visit because of its interesting mosaic floor. Admittedly, its imagery is not quite what most Jews are used to seeing in a synagogue. Make sure to see the 12-minute movie first to orientate yourself.
The finding of coins in the ruins from the time of the Roman emperor Justinian permitted dating of this synagogue to the 6th century C.E. This finding of coins in foundations is not unusual. At the time this synagogue was constructed the country was Christian, although there were probably a number of totally Jewish villages around Beit She’an. Beit She’an itself was probably mixed.
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. In the winter it closes 1 hour earlier and on holiday eves 8.00 am to 1.00 pm. 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.
You call this a synagogue!
The synagogue ruins of Beit Alfa were discovered by members of Kibbutz Hefsibah while doing irrigation work and is now a national park.
In contrast to synagogues built during the Roman period, such as the synagogue at Baram, the exterior of this building was not elaborate. This would have been deliberate so as not to overshadow churches in the area. All its beauty was inside the building, including its mosaic floor. As the movie here points out, the mosaic was made by local artisans who would have done a cheaper job than artisans 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. An apse in the southern wall would have contained an ark and scrolls of the law and faced towards Jerusalem. It is presumed that the synagogue was destroyed by a severe earthquake at the end of the 6th century.
One’s first reaction on seeing its 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 the bottom? One never sees human representations in a synagogue nowadays, and depictions of pagan gods would be completely unacceptable.
However, 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. Representations of the zodiac are also found in Christian churches. Although originally from Persia, Jews also accepted the zodiac and it is mentioned in the Talmud. Hence, the zodiac is also found in other ancient synagogues in Israel, such as in Tzipori and Hamat Tiveria. It signifies the passage of time, while the four women represent the four seasons of the year.
What we have here are symbols that were popular in the prevailing non-Jewish culture and which were also adopted by Jews. Nowadays, the zodiac is not part of popular Jewish culture and looks very out of place.
More about 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. King David was also from the tribe of Judah. Temple objects such as a lulav, etrog and shofar, and two seven-branched menorahs are on each side of the shrine and express the longing for the rebuilding of the Temple.