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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

STEPPING BACK IN HISTORY AT BEIT ALFA SYNAGOGUE NATIONAL PARK

My brother-in-law, Giora, hails from Beit Hashita, a kibbutz in the eastern part of Israel's Jezreel Valley in the shadow of Mt. Gilboa. While our Margaret Morse Tour bus did not make this olive-producing kibbutz a stop on its way to Beit Alfa and its 6th century synagogue’s mosaic tile floor, when I saw the sign for Beit Hashita, I was thrilled. It is a shame we could not stop to visit. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to take a photo. Still, this was a real connection for me.

Not that I was disappointed in Beit Alfa. Here was the site of a new kibbutz in 1928, and during the excavation, this magnificent preserved floor was unearthed. Virtually nothing else of the synagogue remains, but when I step back and think this artwork dates from the 6th century, I am floored (pun intended!) What we see here is a combination of religion, art, and history.

Beit Alfa synagogue

Considering the Jewish people do not use pictures in their houses of worship, this floor brings us to another time--somewhere in the evolution of the idea of a house of worship. There are depictions of the zodiac, of animals, of crops, and of religious objects like menorahs. All these objects are essential parts of the lives of the worshippers. The floor is ornate and richly decorated in colors.  We were able to see a short film suggesting how the artists might have been found and brought to this little town to create this great work.

In the days of the Temple, Jews went to Jerusalem three times a year to make sacrifices. It wasn’t until the destruction of the second Temple that synagogues developed ritual purposes. In the first century of development, people entered as if going to Jerusalem, and they would pray facing that direction. In the second and third centuries, interior and seat were developed with a permanent Ark. In the fourth century, under Byzantine control, Jews were forbidden to build beautiful synagogue buildings, so the beauty was developed in the interior of the building rather than the exterior. Knowing this, scholars have been able to reconstruct a model of what the Beit Alfa synagogue may have appeared as a product of the sixth century.

Beit Alfa synagogue

These time frames I write of are almost beyond comprehension.

The floor tells a story. The top and bottom panels are biblical stories, but the middle is the Zodiac because the people here were farmers and used the zodiac as the calendar for their toil.

Beit Alfa synagogue
I rotated the photo so you can better see the mosaic depicting the binding of Isaac

Beit Alfa synagogue
The sun is pulled by a star chariot and is surrounded by the signs of the zodiac

There is writing on the walls which tell the story depicted on the floor. The names of the artists are mentioned as well as the sum paid for their work. It is assumed that the mosaic artists came from Beit She’an in another part of the Jordan Valley during the reign of Emperor Justinius.

Beit Alfa synagogue

Beit Alfa synagogue

Beit Alfa synagogue

This was a simple stop; probably some might review it as “nothing much to see,” but this floor and a combination of one’s knowledge of history, a guide as phenomenal as our David, and a willing imagination makes this stop an important and memorable one.

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