In 1929, Kibbutz Beit Alfa was digging irrigation channels for their fields when they stumbled upon the mosaic floor of the synagogue. Excavations were carried out by Elazar Sukenik, exposing the synagogue. In the 1960s, additional excavations of the area exposed houses from the surrounding Jewish village. The houses have been recovered, but the synagogue is worth a visit.
The Synagogue building
The synagogue had two floors, where the second floor was probably the women’s gallery. The main prayer hall had two rows of pillars on each side, creating side aisles. The synagogue faced Jerusalem, with the Torah Ark built into a recess on the southern wall.
The mosaics in the side rooms and entryway of the synagogue are simple geometric and plain floors. However, the mosaic in the prayer hall is one of the most striking mosaics found in Israel, and is almost completely intact.
The mosaic floor of the prayer hall
The mosaic in the hall is divided into sections. The pictures in the mosaic appear in rows, where the top is near the Torah Ark.
The bottom of the mosaic contains two inscriptions. The
Greek inscription mentions the craftsmen, Marianos and his son Hanina. The Aramaic inscription states that the mosaic was done during the reign of Emperor Justin and the community members paid for the mosaic. On both sides of the inscriptions are a lion and bull.
The central section contains the zodiac, which was widely used in churches and synagogues during the Byzantine period. The twelve signs are in a circle with their Hebrew names, with the four seasons in the corners. The zodiac was a common decoration in synagogues during this time period. Interestingly, neither the pictures of the winged women in the corners nor the sun god Helios with his chariot are Jewish symbols, and are rarely seen in synagogue mosaics; it is clear that the Jews of Beit Alpha were influenced by the Christian and Byzantine cultures.
Tip: The Beit Alpha Synagogue is located in Kibbutz Heftziba in the Beit She’an Valley. To reach the kibbutz, take route 6667 from Beit Shean. Take 669 west to Heftsiba. Follow the signs inside the kibbutz for Beit Alpha Synagogue.
Tip: Visit the Japanese Garden in the Kibbutz. Japanese visitors come for 2-3 months at a time to work in the garden.