In the Ancient City of Gamla, a Synagogue That Predates the Destruction of the Second Temple

June 20, 2018 | Ticia Verveer
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Located in the Golan Heights, Gamla is described in great detail by the historian Josephus, and Israeli archaeologist discovered its ruins following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The city’s Jews had made a valiant stand against the Romans in 67 CE—as evidenced by the dozens of arrowheads and projectiles from that period that litter the soil—but eventually its walls were breached. As Ticia Verveer writes, Gamla was also home to an ancient synagogue.

The earliest traces of the existence of synagogues were found in Egypt. Two inscriptions, dating from the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 BCE) mention synagogues. . . . [T]he word synagogue comes from the Greek word originally meaning “an assembly.” In ancient Greek Jewish texts, synagogue usually means the community of the Jews. It makes sense that the congregation may have developed from a gathering at any suitable place, into a fixed gathering, and with time into a synagogue. . . .

Until now, we have been able to identify three prayer halls that predate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Two of these were part of fortresses built by Herod, at Herodium and at Masada. The reception rooms of theses palaces were transformed into prayer halls when they were occupied by the Jewish rebels. The third synagogue was found . . . at Gamla [and] probably built between 23 and 41 CE.

These three are the only ones known in Palestine from the 1st century CE. . . . Before this period, no other structures are known to have been used as synagogues, except in the diaspora. For example, in [the Aegean island of] Delos, a large commercial center and a thoroughfare to eastern Mediterranean countries, a synagogue existed in the 1st century BCE which remained in use until the 2nd century CE. Ancient literary sources mention synagogues in . . . Lower Egypt, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Rome.

The building in Gamla was destroyed together with the entire town when the Romans crushed the Jewish Revolt in the year 67 CE. . . . [This] basalt structure, [measuring] 17 by 25.5 meters, is oriented to the southwest. A small vestibule with a tripartite entrance leads into the hall. All the walls were lined with rows of three to five benches, leaving wide passages behind the rows. . . . A little building to the south of the synagogue contained a mikveh (ritual bath).

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