“This is My Lord and I Will Beautify Him”: From the Beth Alpha Synagogue to Synagogue in Safed
The synagogue, whose title stems from the Greek word “synagein,” “to come together,”[ii] has for centuries been at the center of Jewish prayer, communal life, and Torah study. The structures, levels of formality, and exact uses of synagogues have varied greatly across time, place, and community preference. Even the word used for “synagogue” varies extensively, as different worshippers might pray in a Temple, shul or beit kenesset. These two images from the YU Museum spotlight two different types of synagogues from two different time periods. One image depicts a model of the Beth Alpha Synagogue, representing the way this synagogue may have looked when it was originally built in the sixth century CE. The second image is a 1957 watercolor by Israeli artist Nahum Gutman depicting, as implied by the title, an unidentified synagogue in Safed.
At first glance, these two different images do not even seem comparable. The Beth Alpha image is a recreation, an imagination of how the ancient Beth Alpha synagogue might have appeared when it was first built in the period of the closing of the Babylonian Talmud. The remains of the Beth Alpha synagogue were found in 1928 in the Jezreel valley in the Galilee, near the modern city of Beit She’an. The discovery of the near-complete mosaic floor of the synagogue was an archeological wonder. An inscription at the front door of Beth Alpha gives a partial clue as to the date of the synagogue; the Aramaic inscription reports that the mosaic floor was laid “during the … year of the reign of the emperor Justinius,” assumed to be the Byzantine emperor Flavius Justinius Augustus who reigned during the years 518-527 CE.[iii] The synagogue is most famous for its elaborate mosaic which measures 28 meters (about 92 feet) long by 14 meters (about 46 feet) wide.[iv] The mosaic uses rich colors, including reds, pinks, yellows, browns and even emerald,[v] and is considered “one of the most striking examples of ancient Jewish art ever uncovered.”[vi] Featuring geometric patterns on the sides,[vii] the most interesting sections of the mosaic are its elaborately designed panels. A central wheel, somewhat incongruous for a shul, depicts the seasons of the year, signs of the zodiac, and what some presume to be the sun-god Helios.[viii] Flanking the wheel are two panels, one illustrating the famous scene of Akeidat Yitshak, and one depicting two menorot flanking an aron kodesh along with other Jewish symbols. The model of Beth Alpha recreates for us a unique, grand, and ancient synagogue.
On the other hand, Gutman’s watercolor of a Synagogue in Safed depicts a rather simple, nondescript synagogue. The one-room shul is mostly bare, the exterior unremarkable. The synagogue has no elaborate decorations, no specific details which distinguish it from any other synagogue. Gutman, a distinguished Israeli artist with a museum in Tel Aviv dedicated to his work,[ix] created an image of a simple synagogue that stands in sharp contrast to the grandeur of Beth Alpha.
While both synagogues share the same general location – Israel’s Galilee – the images of the synagogues seem to differ in every other respect. The Beth Alpha synagogue predates Gutman’s watercolor by approximately 1500 years. The miniature model of Beth Alpha represents an actual, identifiable synagogue, while the subject of Synagogue in Safed is purposely anonymous and vague. The builders of Beth Alpha spent a great deal of effort decorating their synagogue and creating a grand mosaic; Synagogue in Safed is purposely nondescript. However, a close look reveals similarities in the objects inside the two. Both synagogues place a strong emphasis on the aron kodesh. In the Beth Alpha synagogue, the final panel of the mosaic shows the aron in the center, flanked by menorot and other religious symbols. In the reconstructed model, this panel of the mosaic is thought to lead to the space where the actual aron kodesh was kept. The aron kodesh of Synagogue in Safed dominates the room and immediately draws the viewer’s attention. The strong purple color of the Torah inside the aron, the receding lines of the ceiling, the aron’s relative height all direct the viewer’s eye toward the aron and establish it as the focus of the piece. Although separated by centuries, the aron and the Torah inside it remain central to both synagouges.
In addition to focusing on similar elements within the synagogue, both images also share a desire for the aesthetic. The model of Beth Alpha shows the synagogue’s grandeur: its impressive scale, stately pillars, and elaborate mosaic. Gutman’s painting, on the other hand, depicts a synagogue which is bare and contains just the necessities: a table, a few chairs and shtenders at the side, an aron, and a bimah against the wall. Yet the shul is not depicted as neglected or unwelcoming; it is, rather, filled with light, and set outside against a cheery sky and attractive landscape. The vivid colors of the watercolor give the shul a bright, inviting appearance, as if to show that this nondescript shul is beautiful in its own right. The different types of beauty found in both the Beth Alpha and Safed synagogues stand in sharp contrast to novelist Sholom Asch’s view of an Eastern European synagogue as “a little edifice of new planks with a shingled roof. There lived the poor occupants’ God. His dwelling was just as wretched as theirs.”[x] The builders of the Beth Alpha synagogue and the artist in Synagogue in Safed instead promote the view that whether simple or grand, the place of God’s worship is beautiful.
Atara Siegel is a junior at SCW, majoring in psychology, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Shemot 15:2, as translated in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. 80.
[ii] Carol H. Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe (Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications, 1985), 5.
[iii] Walter Zanger, “Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols,” Bible History Daily (Biblical Archeology Society), 24 August, 2012, available at: www.biblicalarchaeology.org.
[v] Eleazar L. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha: An Account of the Excavations Conducted on Behalf of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem: From the Hebrew (Universitah Ha- Ivrit Bi-Yerushalayi, 2003), 22
[vi] Sukenik, 1.
[vii] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beth Alpha-An Ancient Synagogue with a Splendid Mosaic Floor, available at www.mfa.gov.il.
[ix] See the Nachum Gutman Art Museum website at www.gutmanmuseum.co.il.
[x] Krinsky, 20.