In a country like Israel, a mere scratching on the surface of the ground can lead to real surprises. Two such surprises were uncovered at Kibbutz Hefziba in 1928 to 1929. In 1928 while clearing land, kibbutz members discovered the ruins of an ancient synagogue – known today as the Beit Alfa (Alpha) Synagogue.
Then in 1929, archaeologist Prof. Eliezer Lipa Sukenik uncovered the synagogue’s magnificent mosaic floor. The mosaic displays various Jewish motifs and inscriptions clearly establishing that the building was a synagogue. Surprisingly for a synagogue, its largest panel is occupied by a wheel of the zodiac, surrounded by female images of the four seasons with Helios the sun god at its center.
The mosaic raises important and serious questions: What is a zodiac, together with the four seasons and Helios the sun god doing on the floor of a synagogue? How could Jews, who so strictly avoided graven images, accepted a zodiac and Helios in their synagogue? It seems that by the 6th century C.E., these pagan images were perceived as devoid of religious significance and may have been seen merely as symbols of the calendar. It may also have been seen as the representation of a “non-Rabbinic,” or a Hellenized form of Judaism that adapted the astral beliefs of the Greco-Roman culture.
Since the discovery of this mosaic, a number of other synagogue mosaics with zodiacs have been discovered elsewhere in Israel, for example at Zippori and Hamat Tiberias.
According to an inscription on its floor, the synagogue dates to the time of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century C.E. The building faces southwest towards Jerusalem. Its direction established by a large apse like niche in its southwestern wall. This niche probably housed the synagogue’s holy ark (where the holy Torah scrolls would have been kept when not in use). A compartment found beneath the niche and covered with stone slabs may have been a genizah, a depository for holy texts.
The mosaic has two other major panels. The southern panel an image of a holy ark at its center, flanked two seven branched candelabras (menorahs), two roaring lions, which look more like overgrown cats, and various Jewish ritual objects, including lulavs, etrogs, incense shovels and a shofar.
The mosaic’s northern panel is decorated with a depiction of the Binding of Isaac. Overall the mosaic stands out for the charm of its naïve art. The mosaic is one of the most beautiful and best preserved mosaics in Israel.
Today the synagogue, on the grounds of Kibbutz Hefziba, next door to modern day Kibbutz Beit Alfa, is easily accessible and administered as a national park. A short film screened above the mosaic provides a dramatized version of the of the site’s history.
The Beit Alfa site is wheelchair accessible.