With roots during the Second Temple period, the synagogue during late antiquity became the most important institution in Jewish life. Fine synagogue buildings were constructed throughout the Land of Israel that reflected the religious lives of the Jews who built them. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and the removal of the center of Jewish life to the Galilee were pivotal for the history of Jewish art and architecture. The strictly aniconic and non-symbolic art of the Second Temple period gave way to a more open and varied approach to art from the third century onward. The decline of paganism and the rise and expansion of Christianity most certainly influenced the Jewish attitude toward art. The art and architecture of the ancient synagogues set in stone the beliefs, aspirations, customs and traditions of the Jews in their land at the very time when the literature of the Rabbinic Sages was being written and edited.

Interpreting the Second Commandment

Throughout the nineteenth century, scholars were convinced that the Jews as a people were artistically deprived. There were scholars[1] who assumed that the Galilean-type synagogues were built by the Roman authorities for the Jews, who certainly would (or could) not build these fine structures on their own. During this period, it was often said, the Jewish "genius" was expressed through the Word, not through the image. The source of this Jewish lack was thought to have been the Second Commandment: "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them..."[2]

In fact, these verses are open to interpretation. It may be read strictly as a prohibition against all images. Alternatively, the Second Commandment may be seen as restricting images when there is fear that "you shall not bow down to them or serve them." Other sorts of images, then, may be permitted. These two interpretations set the contours of Jewish attitudes toward art from antiquity in to the modern period.

Jewish art of the latter Second Temple, for example, seems to have functioned under a strict and widely held interpretation of the Second Commandment. Artistic creations from this period are characterized by their focus upon geometric and floral patterns. The situation changes radically from the third century: A broad repertoire of images appear within Jewish contexts, including both Jewish symbols and blatantly pagan images. Discovery of the synagogues of Naaran, Beit Alpha, the necropolis of Beit Sheraim, and, most important, the synagogue of Dura Europos in Syria, has provided evidence that Jews during late antiquity often interpreted the Second Commandment in a more liberal manner.

Although there is a marked liberalization from the third century, attitudes in regard to Jewish art within the Rabbinic community remained mixed. Some Sages were vehemently against art, even refusing to look upon the image of the emperor on a coin. Others considered it to be relatively harmless. A statement in the Jerusalem Talmud (preserved in its entirety only in a manuscript discovered in the Cairo Geniza) reflects a more tolerant, if somewhat ambivalent position: "In the days of Rabbi Johanan they permitted images [tzayirin] on its walls, and he did not stop them. In the days of R. Abun they permitted images on mosaics, and he did not stop them."[3]

Mosaic floors in ancient synagogues

Six ancient synagogue mosaics containing images of the zodiac have been discovered in Israel. These pavements date from the fourth to the sixth century and include Hammat Tiberias, Beit Alpha, Huseifa, Susiya, Naaran, and the recently discovered mosaic at Sepphoris. The zodiac was adapted from pagan art to represent the yearly calendrical cycle. This is made explicit at Sepphoris, where both the zodiac signs and personifications of the months are illustrated. In the Jewish calendar the months follow the signs exactly. The images of the sun god symbolizes the day; the background of the crescent moon and stars represent the night. Thus, the zodiac calendar was employed as a significant framework for the annual synagogue rituals. This recurrence of the zodiac designs in a number of synagogue mosaics indicates its relevance to religious thought and its importance in synagogue rituals.

During the mid-sixth century CE synagogue art in the Jordan Rift Valley and in Judea seems to have taken an aniconic turn, as evident, for instance, at Ein-Gedi. Here no figurative zodiac appears on the synagogue floor, rather, a list of the zodiac signs appears in a floor inscription. At Khirbet Susiya, Biblical scenes and the zodiac are replaced by a floral and geometric carpet. In other late-sixth century synagogues, too, the design now consists of floral and geometric carpets (Jericho, Maoz Hayyim, and Ein-Gedi). The menorah, by far the most important and widespread Jewish symbol during this period, was also integrated into the decorated synagogue pavement.

That the religious conception of the Beit Alpha community was considerably more liberal than that of the communities mentioned above is reflected in the way it decorated its synagogue. In marked contrast to the synagogues mentioned above, the well-preserved mosaic floor of the Beit Alpha synagogue[4] makes use of the human figure in depicting the binding of Isaac as well the zodiac cycle, and also includes an iconographic program with the Ark of the Scrolls, the Menorah and ritual objects.

The most common Jewish symbols depicted on synagogue mosaic pavements in the Land of Israel during late antiquity were the menorah, the Torah Shrine, ritual appurtenances such as the lulav and etrog, the shofar, and the incense shovel, symbols derived from the symbolism of the Jerusalem Temple. Another common symbol was the conch, which appears in synagogue art in the form of a stylized scallop ornamentation with other motifs. The biblical themes were selected from a relatively small number of biblical stories: the Sacrifice of Isaac, Noah's ark, King David, and Daniel in the lions' den. The limited range of symbols and subjects selected by the Jewish community and its donors leads us to believe that designs may have been chosen from available pattern books.

[1] Kohl and Watzinger. This attitude was expressed even in so thoroughly Jewish a publication as The Jewish Encyclopedia in 1902. [Back]
[2] Exod. 20:4-5 [Back]
[3] Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah, 3:3, 42d, according to a Genizah fragment in the Antonin Library, St. Petersburg. [Back]
[4] An inscription states that Marianos and his son Hanina made this floor during the reign of Emperor Justinian (either Justinian I [518-527] or Justinian II [527-565]). [Back]



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend