The Synagogue at Beit Alpha

The synagogue at Beit Alpha, at the foot of the Gilboa Mountains, dates probably from the early part of the 6th Century C.E., although there is evidence to show a much earlier one existed. It was found by chance when the early kibbutz members in 1926 chanced upon part of the mosaic during installation of irrigation channels and pipes.

The mosaics shown here are two of the three main motifs, the third being a representation of the Ark - the rest of the floor is devoted mainly to various geometric designs.
The first one below is most remarkable since, even more than simply displaying living creatures, it is actually committing the "enormity" of depicting a heathen deity - Apollo, no less - as a medallion in the centre. All around are the signs of the zodiac and the months of the year inscribed in Hebrew. Only a few hundred years earlier such designs would have been utterly unthinkable in Jewish life because of the injunction of the Ten Commandments "Thou shalt not make any graven image of any living thing". And yet here they are found actually in a synagogue! Ever since the third century, C.E. various learned Rabbis and scholars had been gradually reinterpreting the injunction and lessening its impact and its restrictions in decorative art.

Even Herod the Great, just before the time of Jesus, took great care in his public life and many of his private buildings, to ensure that the law was strictly adhered to, hence the beautiful, but stark geometrical patterns to be found in his palaces, particularly the ones on Massada.

The lower panel depicts the attempted sacrificing of Isaac. Clearly identifiable (although the Hebrew is written alongside), are - from left to right: the two lads and the ass who accompanied Abraham and Isaac, the ram caught in the thicket, Abraham wielding the knife and holding Isaac in his other hand, and the altar with the flames rising from it. Not so obvious is the staying hand of God reaching out of the cloud directly above the thicket and the ram.

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