A short account of Beit Alpha Synagogue, given by your Israel & Jerusalem private tour guide

The Beit Alpha Synagogue is not an active one, but are the ruins of an ancient synagogue dating back to the 6th century CE in the vicinity of Byzantine Beit She’an. The main part of the synagogue that survived is its mosaic floor – a very typical one for synagogues of the Byzantine period. After viewing a video presentation, and examining the floor, we can learn how these floors were designed and constructed.

About the building

Synagogues served as community centers during the time of the Second Temple, but became the major worship place in every community after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. The architectural style of the building always followed the common design of a public building in the Roman world. Therefore, in the 5th-6th centuries, we see that the style resembles to a high degree the one that was used in churches. The following picture illustrates this.

While the building is of the basilica type and of a very simple design, the beauty lies in the mosaic floor. As in many of the other 5th-6th centuries’ synagogues, the mosaic floor is comprised of three parts:

  • The part of the floor closest to the entrance shows a famous biblical scene. In this case, the story of the binding of Isaac was created.
  • The middle part shows the Zodiac with its 12 signs. In the center, Helios, (the Sun God in Greek mythology), rides his chariot across the sky. The fact that a pagan element such as the Zodiac is shown in a Jewish synagogue is explained by the fact that during this period there were no longer pagans in the country – only Jews or Christians. As a result, there was no risk of being attracted to another religion by these icons; they were used for decorative purposes only.
  • The third part shows the image of the Temple, along with objects that were contained in it – the menorah, incense shovels, shofars and palm branches. Images of lions were also common.

In some of the synagogues, the mosaic floors were designed by mosaic experts, and the figures looked quite life-like. In the Beit Alpha Synagogue the art is very naïve and lacks real skill, a fact that documents the financial ability of the village.

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