Synagogues are an ancient invention. No one can actually point out the oldest synagogue in the world. The oldest written evidence about a synagogue is from a Greek lime stone inscription found in Jerusalem in 1913 near David’s City. The inscription is on display in the Rockefeller museum in Jerusalem, and is dated from the first century B.C
The English translation is as follows:
Theodotus, son of Vettanos, a priest and an archisynagogos,* son of an archisynagogos grandson of an archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of Torah and for teaching the commandments; furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water installation for lodging needy strangers. Its foundation stone was laid by his ancestors, the elders, and Simonides
We learn from this inscription that the synagogue was used for studying Torah and for mitzvot, and as a hostel for foreign travelers. There is not a word mentioned about prayer. The need for a place of prayer and worship was probably felt necessary only after the destruction of the second temple in 70 ACE.
Modern time excavations have revealed ninety ancient synagogues in Israel up until the present time. The earliest ones dated to the first century ACE. These are to be found in Modiin, Kiryat Sefer, Gamla, Masada and Herodion, and it appears that they were used more as communal meeting places, rather than places of worship.
During the next five centuries many synagogues were built all over Israel and can be found in the Golan, the Galilee, Judea, Samaria, Gaza, along the coast, in the Jezreel Valley, and along the Jordan river. Many of the synagogues have been fully excavated and reconstructed and are certainly worth visiting as part of your tour to Israel. Some have remarkable architectural features, whilst some are famous for their amazing mosaic floors.
I would like to share my love to two of these ancient synagogues, and would recommend that you add an ancient synagogue to your itinerary next time you visit Israel.
The Synagogue in Tzippori
Visiting the Tzippori synagogue is recommended as part of your tour to the entire site of Tzippori. This is an excavation of an ancient historic town and includes a Roman theater, Roman baths, a citadel, magnificent mosaics and a thrilling underground water cistern. But for me the highlight of the Tzippori site is the synagogue. Excavated in 1993, the archeologists discovered a small structure with an incredibly detailed mosaic floor, together with many Greek and Aramaic inscriptions. The synagogue is dated from the 5th century AD. The main scene is of the zodiac which is regarded as a pagan symbol, even though many Byzantine period synagogues have zodiacs in the center. Two more remarkable scenes are from the bible, one depicting the binding of Isaac, and the second is of the angels’ visit to Abraham in Hebron. The mosaic is rich with Jewish symbolism including artifacts that were used in the Temple. You can actually feel the presence of the ancient Jews who lived in Tzippori 1500 years ago, and while enjoying the images that form the mosaic floor, you can feel their longing for redemption and for the reconstruction of the temple.
It is also a very powerful feeling when you imagine the influences and pressure on these Jews, living in their own country, but under a foreign regime and culture. All of this is emphasized through the symbolism and art work of the mosaic floor.
The Synagogue on Massada
The second synagogue I would like to recommend is the very famous one on top of Massada. The Massada synagogue was revealed as part of the excavation led by the archeologist Yigael Yadin in the 1960’s.
At first it was unclear that the structure that had been uncovered had been used as a synagogue as the building dated to the first half of the 1st century, and there were no known synagogues in Israel from such an early period. But when the digging continued, a small rectangular structure was revealed with columns and benches all around the walls, tier upon tier, all plastered with clay. The first season of excavations ended without the scholars being able to determine the use of the structure. They were hesitant to declare to the world that this was a synagogue until they found actual proof.
They came across this during the second season. While the architects of the expedition were measuring the smaller inner room of the structure, they discovered a gap between the two floors and in between, to everyone’s surprise and joy they found a collection of parchments!! When they continued digging they found many particles of ancient parchments and these turned out to be Torah Scrolls. Reading through the scrolls showed them that these were ancient pieces of the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Deuteronomy. The way they were stashed away and their condition, suggested that this was a Geniza (a place were orthodox Jews bury documents written in Hebrew, that have been torn or because they contain mistakes).
This created great excitement because, not only did they reveal one of the most ancient synagogues in the world they also found the most ancient Geniza, containing Torah parchments.
Today you can visit the synagogue as part of your tour to Masada. It is nice to sit on the benches and relax and contemplate how life must have been in those ancient times in such an extraordinary setting.
Two years ago, when our son Itai visited Masada with the Solomon Shechter Day school 8th graders trip, they went to the synagogue early in the morning to pray Shacharit. Itai approached Rabbi Saposh and asked if he could lead the prayers. I guess my son felt as an Israeli, such a strong connection to this site, that he should lead his American peers through the service.
When I heard of this incident from Rabbi Saposh, I was moved and very proud. This ancient structure, which is still used for prayer by many groups to this day, has such a strong impact on Jews who were separated by time. But time could not cut the chain and in some miraculous way, the Jews have returned to their land, and can once again pray and meditate at the exact spot where their ancestors did twenty decades ago. I felt proud that my parents taught me the importance of our faith and traditions, and I was proud to see that I have succeeded in passing it on to my own children.