A Synagogue from the Hasmonean Period Exposed at Jericho

By Ehud Netzer
Institute of Archaeology
Hebrew University Of Jerusalem
December 2000

    The oldest synagogue in Palestine has recently been exposed adjacent to the Hasmonean winter palace, north of Wadi Qelt, to the southwest of the city of Jericho. (See E. Netzer, Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces at Jericho, final report of the 1973-1987 Excavations, Vol. I, Stratigraphy and Architecture, Jerusalem 2001.) The Hasmonean winter palace, which ultimately covered an area of ca. 4 hectares and is characterized by an abundance of swimming pools, ritual baths (miqva’ot), orchards and by formal gardens, was in use for about a hundred years (ca. 130-30 B.C.E.). Seven building phases identified at the site are testimony to the intensive and lavish life which took place there. The synagogue was built on the fringe of the palace grounds, along a conduit, at the western edge of a row of ca. 10 buildings, erected in the days of Jannaeus or slightly later on. (These buildings were probably built to house chief officials.)

    The synagogue complex, which developed in two or three stages, finally attained a length of ca. 28 m and a width ca. 20 m. The building is situated next to and slightly lower than the above-mentioned conduit. Its main entrance was apparently on the south. The building’s eastern part consisted of seven rooms and a small courtyard. The western part included a fairly large hall (ca. 16X11 m) surrounded by pillars and aisles, the longitudinal axis of which runs from east to west. Immediately to the south of this hall is located a ritual bath with two small adjacent rooms. During the course of time, part of the hall’s western wall was demolished, and a room, ca. 6.5X5 m in size, was added on this side. No wall separated this room from the hall. Most of the room, which no doubt functioned as a triclinium, was occupied by a U-shaped bench.

    The synagogue was built of local building materials -- mud bricks on top of fieldstone foundations. (The same applies to both the Hasmonean and the Herodian winter palaces at the discussed site.) The whole building was undoubtedly coated with white lime plaster.

    The synagogue hall contained 12 pillars – five on the north and south, and an additional pillar at the center of the eastern and western sides. The nave’s floor was found to consist of beaten earth; however, in theory it could originally have been covered by plaster or other material that was later removed. The pillars measured ca. 90X80 cm in horizontal section, and they are preserved to a maximum height of ca. 80 cm. Like all of the surviving walls, the exposed remains of the pillars consisted of fieldstones and cobblestones, though their upper parts might have been built of mud bricks. The distance between the pillars was 2.25 cm in the long colonnades and 2.75 m in the short ones. A 50-cm-thick wall was exposed between the pillars, 50 cm beyond their inner face, with its top being equal to the level of the surrounding aisles.

    The latter walls, therefore, functioned not only as boundaries for the aisles but also as benches. A different situation existed in the northern aisle. Here, there might have been two more benches in addition to the one described above, but this remains in question. These two benches might have been removed during the lifetime of the synagogue, or alternatively, during looting of stones in the Herodian period. A single bench probably also existed along the hall’s western wall prior to the addition of the triclinium, as indicated by a ca. 50-cm-wide strip of repair in the floor.

    The main and only entrance into the synagogue hall was from the courtyard in the eastern part of the building. The floors of the nave and the courtyard were at the same height and, therefore, a few steps were required in order to ascend from the courtyard to the aisles and then descend to the nave. Two steps built of hewn stones were laid in the threshold. Other stairways built of fieldstones were located at a right angle to the door, one leading to the eastern aisle and the other to the southern one. In the course of the synagogue’s lifetime, the first two steps sunk partly, and new ones were laid on top of them.

    The synagogue hall is bisected by a minor channel originating from the conduit next to it and terminating in the ritual bath, south of the hall. Within the confines of the northern aisle, a small basin was attached to this channel. The basin was apparently used by the synagogue attendants as a source of drinking water, or for other purposes such as washing hands. A niche, 1.5 m wide and deep, was revealed in the northeastern corner of the synagogue hall. Although this niche is located within the confines of the aisles, its floor level was 50 cm lower. The niche itself was occupied by an installation, a sort of a cupboard built of fieldstones and mud, divided into two compartments.

    The lower one, 60 cm in height, which might have served as a geniza, was apparently covered by a mud arch which later collapsed. The entrance to this compartment was narrow (35X50 cm), making entry into the storage place, very inconvenient. A moveable wooden plank, at the level of the aisles’ floor, was probably fixed in front of this compartment in order to conceal the the small entrance. The upper compartment was larger and was probably used to store Torah scrolls and the other books.

    In the last phase in the synagogue’s development, the above-mentioned triclinium was added to the synagogue hall. We believe that the builders’ initial intention was to locate the triclinium along the central axis of the hall; however, in such a case the central pillar would have been a visual obstacle. The builders, therefore, favored a compromise. The triclinium was shifted ca. 3 m southward, and the central pillar 1 m northward. The final result, although architecturally distorted, provided a rather good visual connection between the people sited in the hall and the smaller group reclining in the triclinium.

    The U-shaped bench was 1.4 m wide and was constructed of fieldstones and coated with lime plaster. Its top is missing, but a height of 40-50 cm is reasonable. A walkway, averaging 70 cm in width, was apparently for the use of those serving the food. A triangular small room, revealed north of the triclinium, was added to the synagogue hall at the same time as the triclinium and was apparently used as a kitchen. A small podium, apparently for cooking, built of mud bricks, and showing clear evidence of fire, was exposed in the room’s only right-angled corner.

    We shall now briefly survey the other parts of the building. There were two rooms to the south of the courtyard, one of which might have served as the vestibule of the building. The courtyard, which had a beaten earth floor, contained a water basin on its southern side. North of the courtyard is a “suite” consisting of a main room and four other rooms. The suite might have been used as a dwelling for occasional guests or for other, unknown purposes.

    South of the synagogue hall were revealed three rooms, all of which were coated with ash-lime plaster, connected to the courtyard by means of a corridor (also coated with plaster). The first two, small rooms were probably used for ablutions, whereas the third larger room contained a ritual bath (mikveh). The ritual bath comprised two deep pools (3.2 m), one with steps for immersion and the other lacking steps, apparently used as an otzar. The two pools were connected by a small channel situated at the top of their common side wall. More than 10 ritual baths of the same type were exposed by us in Jericho’s winter palace complex, all but one belonging to the Hasmonean period.

We tend to divide the construction of the building into three phases. During the first phase, the eastern sector of the building was apparently built, either as part of the above-mentioned row or slightly later. The second phase witnessed the addition of the synagogue hall and the rooms to its south. In the third phase, the triclinium was added, as has been explained above. In our opinion, the most reasonable range of time for the construction of all three phases was between 75 and 50 B.C.E. (a period in which both Queen Salome and later her two rival sons were active), although this interval might have been slightly longer. The earthquake of 31 B.C.E. undoubtedly destroyed the synagogue building as well as its surroundings. Herod’s second palace at this site, erected ca. 25 B.C.E., was built on top of the synagogue’s ruins.

    How the new building at Jericho correlates with our knowledge of how synagogues functioned during the days of the Second Temple, at least subsequent to the Hasmonean period. (For references see, e.g., L.I. Levine, “The Second Temple Synagogue,” The Synagogue in Late Antiquity, ed. L.I. Levine, Philadelphia 1987, pp. 7-32, esp. p. 14.)

  • As a place for study, that could have taken place in the synagogue hall. (The Torah and the other books were apparently read in the middle of the nave, and the books were stored in the compartments built into the niche in the northeastern corner of the hall.)
  • As a law court and a venue for social and political gatherings, again located in the synagogue hall.
  • For collecting charity funds. (The room lacking any doorways, in the eastern part of the building, might have served this purpose.)
  • As a hostel. (Some of the building’s eastern rooms, as well as the tentative bathing or washing facilities, could have functioned as such.)
  • As a place for religious or social banquets which could have been held in the synagogue hall. (While the added triclinium was ideally suited for this purpose, the building’s eastern part does not seem adequate for such meals.)

     In order to discuss the shape as well as the significance of our newly found synagogue, we shall first refer to some of the other synagogues from the days of the Second Temple in Palestine: at Masada, at Herodium, and at Gamla. Whereas at Masada and Herodium the synagogues were installed within existing structures by the Jewish rebels who temporarily settled there, at Gamla it was initially built as such. Gamla’s synagogue was dated by its excavators to the days of Herod the Great or at the latest to the beginning of the first century C.E. Our main argument in defining the building at Jericho as a synagogue is its resemblance to the synagogue at Gamla, exposed in the late 1970’s by S. Gutman. As at Gamla, the edifice in Jericho contains various rooms in addition to the large rectangular hall surrounded on all four sides by pillars (versus columns at Gamla) and benches.

    Although Jericho’s hall was surrounded only by a single bench, people could walk, as at Gamla, all around the aisles. In Gamla, there is evidence of another bench on the rear side of the aisles. In Jericho, there was sufficient space for the installation of a wooden bench all along the hall’s walls, leaving enough space for a walkway. In the two halls, a niche was revealed, perhaps incidentally built in both cases into a longitudinal wall. In Jericho, as at Gamla, a water channel bisected the synagogue hall, feeding a small basin which Gutman identified as a gurna. The water channel at Jericho terminated in a ritual bath, as was apparently also the case at Gamla.

    As to the architectural character of the two discussed synagogues, in both cases the presence of the hall was not emphasized from the outside. This also applies to the entrance doors in both cases. We assume that both synagogue halls had flat roofs arranged as in a basilica. However, the architecture of the hall at Gamla was more elaborate.

    We are of the opinion that the synagogue halls at both Gamla and Jericho undoubtedly reflect a prototype common in the Second Temple times. This prototype is characterized by a rectangular shape, surrounding columns or pillars and aisles which made possible the installation of clerestory windows, the existence of an adjoining niche or room for the storage of the sacred books, an architectural orientation toward the center of the hall, and by the lack of an external focus. In my view, none of the known synagogues from the days of the Second Temple was orientated toward Jerusalem or had any other external focus. It is doubtful whether proximity to a pure water source was canonic; however, in both cases there is a nearby ritual bath. One might assume that buildings erected for the same purposes, with a much higher architectural standard, existed at least in large cities such as Tiberias, Sepphoris, Caesarea , and Jerusalem.

    It can be assumed that the famous Alexandrian synagogue, as described in the Tosefta, belongs to this category. Alexandria’s centrality in art and architecture in the Hellenistic period is a well-known fact, and its influence on the wall paintings at Pompeii and the rock-cut tombs at Petra and other structures has recently been carefully studied. In all likelihood, the synagogue halls at Gamla and Jericho reflect a tradition which might have crystallized in the capital of the Ptolemaic kingdom.

    The newly found synagogue at Jericho is an important contribution toward a clearer picture of the appearance and functioning of synagogues from the Hasmonean period (if not prior thereto) at least until the destruction of the Second Temple.

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