When you visit the variety of ancient synagogues in Galilee, you’ll realize that far from being ruins of a long-gone civilization, these beautiful structures symbolize the flowering of Jewish ritual and community life in ways relevant to this very day. You’ll discover how these monuments, dating between the third and the seventh centuries, when most Jews had to move from Jerusalem to Galilee, reflected their builders’ faith and commitment to each other, as well as a fascinating infusion of the surrounding culture.
In the high mountains of Galilee, you’ll find the synagogue of Bar Am, the centrepiece of a forested national park. Its intricately carved façade has survived almost intact since it was built some 1,700 years ago. You’ll discover similar synagogue façades elsewhere in Galilee, and realize that most faced south, toward Jerusalem, an architectural way of demonstrating that though the Holy City was at that time inaccessible, it was never forgotten.
Further south, on a slope overlooking the Sea of Galilee, is Korazim, where the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has restored the massive, black basalt synagogue as well as village homes and courtyards. You’ll see more beautiful carvings attesting to the effort and expense the villagers invested to adorn this, their most important building. You can even sit on the same stone benches the ancient congregation did, facing each other, an arrangement that jives perfectly with the meaning of the Greek word “synagogue” and its Hebrew equivalent, Beit Knesset: house of assembly – and still the practice among Sephardic Jews today. The Korazim synagogue also has a Moses Seat, where the rabbi would sit while delivering his sermon.
The white limestone synagogue of Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee, is not only testimony to Galilean Jewish life; it is a magnet for Christian visitors because of the frequent mention of this town in the New Testament. Time in Capernaum therefore also becomes an opportunity to consider how Jews and Christians might have coexisted in this region in the Talmudic times when both synagogues and churches were built.
Three Galilee synagogues have magnificent, multi-coloured mosaic floors: Hamat Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Beit Alpha in the Jezreel Valley, and Tzippori in the Galilee Mountains. They all have a Zodiac, a design the Jews borrowed from the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. But you’ll find the familiar astrological logos labelled in Hebrew, along with early Jewish artistic symbols, some of which are still part of Jewish life: the candelabra, lulav, etrog and shofar. At Beit Alpha, the mosaic artists and donors mentioned in the inscriptions come alive in a wonderful audio-visual presentation.
At Tzippori the synagogue mosaic depicts Sarah, the offering of Isaac (also seen at Beit Alpha), along with detailed elements of Temple worship, which together reveal the promise of redemption that must have sustained this community.
The fascinating interplay of symbols and the sense of community effort inscribed, literally and figuratively, in the remains of the various Galilee synagogues you visit will leave you in awe not only of their aesthetics, but of the still-timely message they convey.