Beit Alpha Synagogue National Park
This 6th century synagogue in the Beit She’an Valley is worth visiting because of its mosaic floor. Admittedly, its imagery is not quite what most Jews are used to nowadays. The movie shown is also very interesting. The finding of coins from the time of the Roman emperor Justinian permitted dating it to the 6th century C.E. This country was then a Byzantine Christian country, although there were Jewish villages around Beit She’an.
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-5.00 pm Sunday to Thursday and Saturday, and 8.00 am-4.00 pm on Friday and holiday eves In the winter it closes 1 hour earlier and on holiday eves 8.00 am- 1.00 pm. Their telephone number is 04 653-2004. Their website.
Make sure to see the 12-minute movie first to orientate yourself.
You call this a synagogue!
In contradistinction to synagogues built in the Roman period, the building was not elaborate, but the interior was beautified, including a mosaic floor. This was made by local artisans. It is presumed that the synagogue was destroyed by a severe earthquake at the end of the 6th century.
The synagogue was uncovered by members of Kibbutz Hefsibah while they were doing irrigation work. The building consisted of a central hall and an aisle at each side, separated by two rows of columns. There was an apse in the southern wall which would have contained an ark and scrolls of the law.
One’s first reaction on seeing this mosaic floor for the first time will probably 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 human figures at the bottom? What is there to say? Things have changed! Nowadays, one would never see a representation of a human figures in a synagogue, especially depictions of gods. This synagogue does show features of the prevailing Christian culture around it, such as similarities with Christian churches and use of symbols of the zodiac, which came originally from Persia. Nevertheless, these foreign symbols have been adapted into a Jewish context.
It is worth recalling that the people who built this synagogue were living in a completely monotheistic country, and even the figures within the zodiac were not thought of in pagan terms. The four women represent the four seasons of the year. The zodiac is found in churches and other synagogues such as at Zippori, and represents the passage of time. Jews believed in the zodiac and it is mentioned in the Talmud. The lower panel is the story of the Binding of Isaac. The top panel is known as the Torah Shrine and contains two lions, Jewish objects such a lulav, etrog and shofar, and two seven-branched menorahs are on each side of the shrine.