The Literature of the Ancient Synagogue and Synagogue Archaeology
AVIGDOR SHINAN Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Scholars of Jewish literature from late antiquity, particularly those of us who deal with the literary record of life in the ancient synagogue, often wonder what it must have been like to visit an ancient synagogue on the Sabbath or on a holiday. We would like nothing more than to be transported to a synagogue in ancient Palestine and hear one of the sermons that we know from literary sources when it was first delivered. How did the Sage stand as he spoke, or perhaps he sat? What was his body language, and how did he modulate his voice? How was the sermon received by his audience? Our desire to experience ancient synagogue life becomes even more intense when we visit one of the many well-preserved ancient synagogues in the Land of Israel. The remains of ancient synagogues include floors and alcoves, pillars, and the rubble of walls, mosaics, and inscriptions. When read together, ancient Jewish literature and the remains of ancient synagogues provide a window into the religious life of that institution. We can sense the pulse of the life that flowed through both the archaeological and the literary remains of ancient synagogues.
This chapter describes the liturgical activity that took place in Palestinian synagogues during late antiquity. I will emphasize themes that appear in the Beth Alpha floor mosaic, a masterpiece of ancient Jewish art that has been discussed by both Eric Meyers and Rachel Hachlili in this volume. In particular, I will focus upon the Binding of Isaac panel at Beth Alpha (Plate XLVIII) and treatments of Genesis 22:1-19 in the literature of the ancient synagogue. I will also make reference to synagogue practice in the large Diaspora community of Babylonia, modern Iraq. Ancient Palestinian practice has left few imprints upon modern Jewish liturgies. This is not the case with Babylonian practice, which is the basis of modern synagogue practice. By contrast, the literature of the ancient synagogue in the Land of Israel was far more varied and vibrant than its Babylonian counterpart.