In the second half of Masechet Megillah we segue from Purim to Torah readings and synagogues. We learn about the proper way to behave in a synagogue and even what to do about a destroyed structure that once was a synagogue:
“MISHNA: And Rabbi Yehuda said further: A synagogue that fell into ruin one may not eulogize in it. And nor may one stretch out and repair ropes in it. And nor may one spread traps within it. And nor may one spread out produce upon its roof. And nor may one make it into a shortcut.” (Megillah 28a)
A synagogue is such a holy place that even after it is destroyed it retains some holiness and cannot be used indiscriminately. Maimonides makes the purpose of the law even clearer and explains why the synagogue is left derelict:
“Synagogues and houses of study that are in ruins retain their sacred character, as it is said, “And I will desolate your sanctuaries” (Leviticus 26:31)—even when desolate they still retain their sacred character. The same respect must be shown them when they are in ruins as when they were sound and in use. The only difference is in regard to sweeping and laying the dust. Synagogues in ruins are not swept nor sprinkled to lay the dust. If grass has sprung up in them, the blades are plucked and left there, so that the people may be stirred to rebuild the ruined edifices.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 11:11)
While this law may not be so relevant in vibrant Jewish communities, it became more significant in two places: in the Diaspora, in places where a Jewish presence once thrived and then people moved on, and in modern Israel where we keep discovering more remnants of the past.
The poignancy of a destroyed synagogue in the Diaspora is particularly strong when the building is not actually ruined but rather repurposed. In Spain and Portugal there are elegant churches that, if you look closely, show their Jewish origins. And in communities throughout the Diaspora you can see synagogue buildings reused for all sorts of things: factories, warehouses and houses of worship for other religion. A truly jarring example is a trend in Europe to turn the synagogues of communities emptied of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators, into nightclubs and bars.
In the land of Israel the story if different. Here synagogues were usually abandoned because the population changed, but they were not often converted to churches and mosques. Rather, they sank into oblivion, only to be rediscovered centuries later.
One of the first synagogues found in the Zionist era was the structure at Bet Alfa in the Jezreel Valley. In 1928, the pioneers, in the course of infrastructure work, came upon what looked like a mosaic. They called in Professor Eliezer Sukienik of the newly established Hebrew University, to conduct the excavation. Everyone was astounded to see a complete mosaic, dating to the 6th century CE, emerge from the ground. Besides the historical value and what the mosaic showed us about Jewish art (Jews put a zodiac in the synagogue?) the connection that the pioneers felt to their ancestors, living in the exact same place over a millennium earlier, was intense.
Bet Alfa mosiac floor (Wikipedia)
As time passed, more and more ancient synagogues were discovered. Some had elaborate mosaic floors, some were plain but with incredibly ornate facades. Some dated to Second Temple times like those at Masada and Herodion while others were from centuries later, during the Byzantine period. As more structures emerged from the earth, archaeologists and historians attempted to make some sense of the timeline of synagogue development. An early theory posited that synagogues in the Roman period (2nd-4th centuries CE) had fancy facades but simple interiors – see Baram, Capernaum, Gamla. Later Byzantine period synagogues (4th-6th centuries) had unassuming exteriors but fabulous mosaic floors inside. The idea was that Jews could expose themselves more during pagan times but when the Roman Empire turned Christian, persecution increased and Jews had to hide their houses of worship.
Great theory but as more synagogues were discovered it began to fall apart. A huge synagogue at Capernaum with a grand façade, a classic “early Roman” style,turned out to have 4th century coins buried under it, dating it to later than the early Roman period. Synagogues with fancy mosaic floors were found at Wadi Hamam and Hukok, and both seemed to date to the early 4th century, not the Byzantine period. A new theory, that the region determined the style of the synagogue, was proposed, but it still did not fit all the evidence.
As more and more synagogues are discovered, including two very early (first century CE) ones at Migdal, by the Kinneret, it has become near impossible to come up with any systematic description of styles. Rather, each synagogue needs to be taken at face value and thoroughly explored, to understand its builders and worshippers.
And what about rebuilding these destroyed synagogues? This can be complex, since we are not always sure how the structure looked when it was standing. An amazing reconstruction project, using cutting edge technology, was done at Um el Kanatir in the Golan. There each stone that was unearthed was embedded with a computer chip. The chip contained any information about the stone that was relevant. Then all the information was put into a computer program that ”assembled” the building, just like a giant jigsaw puzzle. After that the construction crew arrived and, using the original stones, they put the building back up (without a roof).
Reconstructed Um el Kanatir (Wikipedia)
Even if a synagogue is more or less rebuilt, it probably will not be used on a regular basis. It is rare that an ancient synagogue is within the boundaries of a current Jewish community and has a good pool of potential worshippers. However, often tourists, especially religious ones, will make a point of praying or at least learning a little Torah in a ruined synagogue.
And what of Rabbi Elazar HaKappar’s assertion that Diaspora synagogues will eventually move to the land of Israel?
“Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says: In the future, the synagogues and the study halls in Babylonia will be reestablished in Eretz Yisrael, as it is stated: “Surely, like Tabor among the mountains, and like Carmel by the sea, so shall he come” (Jeremiah 46:18).” (Megillah 29a)
A number of synagogues in Israel fit this description. After World War II the Italian community of Israel worked with the State of Israel to bring two synagogues, as well as aronot kodesh and bimot, from abandoned Italian Jewish communities to Israel. And in Tzfat, there is the Abohav synagogue. According to tradition, the synagogue, from Spain, had been turned into a church after the expulsion. Rabbi Isaac Abohav appeared in a dream to the rabbis of Tzfat, begging them to use their mystical powers to bring the synagogue to Israel. They prayed and it appeared. Or at least that is how they tell the story in Tzfat.
Abohav synagogue in Tzfat (Wikipedia)