An Ancient Artifact Contains Clues about Synagogues during the Second Temple Period

June 13 2017

Discovered in a 1st-century-CE synagogue on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Magdala stone is a rectangular block not much bigger than most microwave ovens. One side is engraved with a menorah—the earliest such depiction ever found in a synagogue—and other objects from the Temple; the opposite side is engraved with wheels in an apparent reference to the angelic beings described as surrounding the divine chariot in the book of Ezekiel. Engraved on the other two sides are gates, perhaps those of the Temple or the gates of heaven. Since archaeologists agree that both the synagogue and the stone predate the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the artifact has special significance. Lawrence Schiffman presents his own interpretation:

There appear to be flat, indented areas on [the stone’s] four top corners that could have supported poles. It has been suggested that this object was the base for what was then called a teyvah (a “chest”), the ancient synagogue furnishing that served both to hold the Torah scroll [like a modern-day ark] and as a lectern upon which it could be read. This beautiful object would have been part of a synagogue furnished and decorated more extensively than any other from the 1st century CE that has been excavated in Israel.

But this stone has an enormous significance, way beyond its beauty and rarity. It is the earliest post-biblical evidence we have for the notion that a synagogue is a mikdash m’at, a “small sanctuary,” a [talmudic description] drawn from Ezekiel (11:13), where it refers to God. Specifically, the decision to decorate the base of the teyvah on which the Torah was read with symbols of the Temple [implies] that the synagogue was intended to function as a local, admittedly less sanctified, version of the Temple. This object was decorated richly with such symbols to show that the prayer, Torah reading, and study that occurred in this building were likened to the sacrifices offered in the Temple. What this means is that the concept of the synagogue as a replacement for the Temple did not come into existence as a reaction to the latter’s destruction; rather, for [those] Jews who lived too far away to visit Jerusalem regularly, it existed long before.

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Read more at Ami Magazine

More about: Archaeology, History & Ideas, Judaism, Second Temple, Synagogue

Don’t Let Iran Go Nuclear

Sept. 29 2022

In an interview on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the Biden administration remains committed to nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, even as it pursues its brutal crackdown on the protests that have swept the country. Robert Satloff argues not only that it is foolish to pursue the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, but also that the White House’s current approach is failing on its own terms:

[The] nuclear threat is much worse today than it was when President Biden took office. Oddly, Washington hasn’t really done much about it. On the diplomatic front, the administration has sweetened its offer to entice Iran into a new nuclear deal. While it quite rightly held firm on Iran’s demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from an official list of “foreign terrorist organizations,” Washington has given ground on many other items.

On the nuclear side of the agreement, the United States has purportedly agreed to allow Iran to keep, in storage, thousands of advanced centrifuges it has made contrary to the terms of the original deal. . . . And on economic matters, the new deal purportedly gives Iran immediate access to a certain amount of blocked assets, before it even exports most of its massive stockpile of enriched uranium for safekeeping in a third country. . . . Even with these added incentives, Iran is still holding out on an agreement. Indeed, according to the most recent reports, Tehran has actually hardened its position.

Regardless of the exact reason why, the menacing reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is galloping ahead—and the United States is doing very little about it. . . . The result has been a stunning passivity in U.S. policy toward the Iran nuclear issue.

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Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Iran nuclear deal, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy