Beit Alpha Synagogue National Park

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 nowadays. This warrants discussion. The movie shown is also interesting. The finding of coins in the ruins from the time of the Roman emperor Justinian permitted dating this synagogue to the 6th century C.E. This village was then part of a Byzantine Christian country, although there were probably a number of totally Jewish villages around Beit She’an.

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. 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.

Make sure to see the 12-minute movie first to orientate yourself.

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You call this a synagogue!


In contradistinction to synagogues built in the Roman period (such as the synagogue at Baram), the exterior of this building was not elaborate, although its interior was very beautiful and included this mosaic floor. The modest exterior would have been deliberate so as not to overshadow churches in the area. As the movie shows, the mosaic was made by local artisans who would have done a cheaper job than artisans from outside the country.

 

The synagogue was discovered 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 and which faced 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 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 human figures at the bottom?  Nowadays, one would never see a representation of a human figures in a synagogue, especially depictions of gods. 

 

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 zodiac is found in other synagogues, such as at Tzipori and Hamat Tiveria, and represents the passage of time. Jews believed in the zodiac and it is mentioned in the Talmud. This symbol is also found in Christian churches. It origins are Persian. The four women represent the four seasons of the year. What we have here are symbols that were popular in the prevaling non-Jewish culture and were adopted within a Jewish context. Nowadays, they are not part of popular culture and they look out of place.

The lower panel shows the story of the Binding of Isaac. The top panel is known as the Torah Shrine and contains two lions. The lion is the symbol of Judah and King David was 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.