Was there a synagogue in Hasmonean Jericho?

If a building served primarily for the secular administration of an estate and any religious activities held in it only served a very small part of the community, was it really a communal institution and could it really be called a synagogue?

By David Stacey
Field Archaeologist
January 2001

    E. Netzer has recently exposed a colonnaded hall in Jericho that he claims to be the oldest synagogue in Palestine (Netzer, 1999). But how does this proposed synagogue fit into the overall context of the Hasmonean Royal Estate in Jericho?

   This estate was founded on a previously unexploited site quite far removed from the spring of Ain es-Sultan, which was the most likely focus of the permanent settlement of Jericho at that period. The development of the estate required the expenditure of considerable effort and expense in building aqueducts to bring water from distant sources: the first from Ein Qelt, the second from Ein Na’aran. The fertility of the newly irrigated soil together with the favorable winter climate could be expected to yield bountiful harvests, particularly those valuable crops, referred to by classical writers 1, derived from balsam and date trees. Balsam, once established, would yield high value oil products, but it was notoriously difficult to cultivate and took several years to reach maturity. Dates, while they can produce a small crop after five years, are at their most productive only after twelve to fifteen years. Thus, the early Hasmoneans who were not fabulously wealthy or even particularly secure received no quick profit from the two long aqueducts that they had invested in so heavily.

   As trees matured and the initial investment began to show signs of success, greater overall supervision was needed, particularly once the valuable balsam gum began to be harvested. The method of refining the balsam was a closely guarded secret, and the first palace built by the Hasmoneans would have served primarily as administrative headquarters to the developing agricultural industry, not merely for the recreation of the King in the winter sunshine.

   Netzer uses emotive language to imply that the Hasmoneans' stimulus to build in Jericho was the pursuit of pleasure: the "main purpose" of the "lavish" and "splendid" pools complex "was obviously to be an area of leisure and entertainment" and the garden was to be "an area of tranquility" (Netzer, 2001: 335). While there is no doubt that the creation of a luxurious lifestyle inspired Herod in his later building projects, the Hasmoneans faced more practical problems, and Netzer is making the mistake of extrapolating backwards from Herod to his predecessors.>

   There is no evidence, for example, that the walled garden was an ornamental area of tranquility nor, indeed, that it was surrounded by a colonnade rather than a simple track (Netzer, 2001: 139). Not a single column drum or capital was found that could be related to such a colonnade. During the winter season, the garden was probably a hive of industry with teams of gardeners raising fruit and vegetables and herbs to help feed the supervisors of the increasingly important agricultural estate together with any members of the royal family who happened to be in residence. And the pools, while being a splendid bathing facility in the hotter months, no doubt served the practical purpose of raising fish to add protein to the diet. Netzer over-aggrandizes the large pools by seeing them as part of a grand design integral to the construction of the Na’aran aqueduct, although he admits there is a problem. Netzer’s “humble opinion” that the planners made a mistake and brought the Na’aran channel to the palace complex 60 centimeters too low (Netzer, 2001: 80) belittles their expertise.

   Having successfully built the aqueduct for several kilometers along tortuous cliff faces, it would be ironic, indeed, if, once on the wide and very gently sloping Jericho plain, they could not get the channel to precisely where it was wanted. I am in complete agreement with hydraulic engineer Prof. Garbrecht on this (Netzer, 2001: 347 fn 9). The primary purpose of the Na’aran aqueduct was to irrigate fields further to the east of the burgeoning palace and administrative complex and to supply water to the industrial area (Netzer, 1999: Fig. 1, E) where products of the royal estate could be processed and refined.

   It is to the south of this aqueduct that the colonnaded hall was found at the western end of a row of perhaps ten houses that separated it from the industrial area. These dwellings probably housed the chief officials of the estate (Netzer, 1999: 205). We must await a final report on the hall to learn exactly why it is believed that the eastern building predates the hall (Netzer, 1999: Fig. 3, and 2001: Plans 5, 6) and how the building was integrated into the contemporaneous area to its immediate west and southwest.

   What can be seen is that the hall controlled access from the northeast onto an artificial platform that was built out over the ground sloping gently down from the aqueduct. As, at its southern end, this platform is conjectured to have stood 5.4 meters higher than the original ground level (Netzer, 2001: 184), it would have been an effective barrier to prevent unauthorized access to the palace area further west (Netzer, 2001: Plan 6). On this platform, it is safe to reconstruct a small building in the south (similar to that later constructed by Herod in the same location) with a small pool, AG15 (Netzer, 2001: 184), in a courtyard between it and the hall and other buildings in the northeast. At the northwest corner of the platform, there would have been some access to the palace area and, in particular, to the three storerooms in Area AB (Netzer, 2001: 131-132).

   This platform and the building upon it represent for the first time a separate dwelling for the chief administrator(s) of the estate who previously must have had quarters in the palace itself. It can be dated to c. 75 B.C.E. because the pool, AG15, was apparently fed by the same channel that supplied water to the “Twin Palaces” (dated by Netzer to the reign of Queen Alexandra c. 76-67 B.C.E., although we still await publication of pottery or coins that might confirm this date; see Netzer, 1999: 216).

   The chief administrator’s house acted physically as both a buffer and a link between the palace and the estate, and the colonnaded hall was the conveniently situated estate office in which representatives from the palace and the various agricultural and industrial enterprises could meet to discuss the long-term and the day-to-day running of the estate. During the winter harvest season, the estate must have required a considerable influx of laborers, and in this hall, the estate officials could meet with the gangmasters who brought workers from up in the hills or from across the Jordan. Here, they could decide on rates of pay, distribute surplus food from the storerooms, and settle any work disputes.

   Celebratory “harvest suppers” could be held in the hall at the end of the harvest. Agricultural surpluses could be offered for sale to visiting merchants. Premier quality balsam oil, collected from incisions made in the bark, and even the inferior quality oil made by boiling up leafs and twigs were both expensive products and would have been sold in small containers. Small juglets of oil, perhaps the bulk of which was kept in the storerooms, could be brought into the hall and placed on the benches surrounding the hall for potential buyers to test for quality and to bargain over prices. The niche, identified by Netzer as a geniza or storage place for the Torah, could equally have held money received for merchandise or needed to pay the workers.

   The mikveh, or ritual bath, built on the south side of the hall, was a common feature of Hasmonean Jericho (Netzer, 1999: 214 fn. 11). They were often found close to pools where swimming could have taken place, possibly so that the swimmer could purify himself after immersion in a potentially contaminated pool (see Netzer, 2001: 39-43 and 102-105 for mikvaot near to the large pool complex in AB). Pool AG15, though small, could have been used by the administrator for cooling dips, particularly during the extremely hot summer months when he, unlike the Hasmonean kings, would still have had to remain in residence (the precious balsam is best tapped in hot and humid conditions). It is also possible that if the hall were used for the dispatch of oil for use in the temple (Exodus 30: 22-33), both the vessels and the handlers needed to be purified.

   Thus, during the week, the hall which had certainly not been built specifically for religious requirements would have been the hub of the business activities of the Royal Estate. Any religious activities that took place in it on Shabbat would only have served the estate officials, a very limited part of the community, for we do not know where the estate workers and the general population of Jericho lived (Netzer, 1999: 217) although it was probably too far away for them to attend (I leave the question of eruv to those more familiar than myself with the intricacies of Jewish law). L. Levine has suggested various functions that could help define a pre-70 C.E. synagogue (Levine, 1987: 14. 2000: 27, 42-3), and Netzer summarizes some of them (Netzer, 1999: 216-217).

   Levine himself is not entirely convinced of Netzer’s identification, believing that "perhaps future excavation will allow him to further solidify this suggestion” (Levine, 2000: 68-9). He further says that “the synagogue at this time had no halakhic or religious standing; it was a communal institution and, as such, merited no special status and consequently little attention” (Levine, 2000: 42-43, my italics). If a building served primarily for the secular administration of an estate and any religious activities held in it only served a very small part of the community, was it really a communal institution and could it really be called a synagogue? 2

[1] For classical references and for discussion on the production of balsam see Patrich, 1989)

[2] Netzer’s “main argument in defining the building at Jericho as a synagogue is its resemblance to the one at Gamla” (Netzer, 1999: 219). While that building, too, probably served many secular functions, it was located prominently within the township and clearly was a communal institution.

Levine, L. I. (1987). The Second Temple Synagogue. The Synagogue in Late Antiquity. Ed. L. I. Levine. Philadelphia, 7-32.

Levine, L. I. (2000). The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in particular, 27 and 42-43.

Netzer, E. (1999). A Synagogue from the Hasmonean Period Recently Exposed in the Western Plain of Jericho. IEJ, 49 (3-4), 203-221.

Netzer, E. (2001). Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces at Jericho Vol. I. Jerusalem.

Patrich, J. (1989). A Juglet Containing Balsam Oil (?) from a Cave near Qumran. IEJ, 39: 43-59.

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