Archaeology in Israel

    June 2001            
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Ancient synagogues in Bar'am and Capernaum

By Jacqueline Schaalje

The old synagogues in Bar'am and Capernaum, (in Hebrew: Kfar Nacham), both in the upper Galilee, are among the best preserved in Israel. Large parts of the building are still standing or, in the case of Capernaum, they are reconstructed.

These two synagogues were not the earliest synagogues found. Houses of gathering already existed some centuries before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 by the Romans.

The oldest synagogues have been found not in Israel, but in Egypt where the oldest synagogues date from the 3rd century BCE. Their function was to serve as place of worship. As it was forbidden to build other temples besides the one in Jerusalem, an alternative institution was installed. After the Temple was destroyed more synagogues in Israel appeared.

The oldest synagogues seem to have had a distinct function besides that of the Temple. This becomes clear because there were already synagogues in Israel from the first century BCE, i.e. before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The oldest one was found in Jericho, and there are others in Gamla and Massada. What rituals were practiced is known from the Talmud, the activity consisted of prayer and Torah reading.

The first synagogues were very simple buildings and consisted of only one room with benches along the sides of the walls. As the standing of the synagogue developed, they were expanded into more elaborate constructions with a courtyard, rows of columns, and an apse for the Torah shrine. From the 3rd century there were decorated: "In the days of Rabbi Yochanan, they began to paint on the walls and he did not rebuke them for it (Jerusalem Talmud, Abodah Zarah 3.3)." A women's gallery did not exist until much later.

Although broad outlines are known, specific details about the history of the synagogue are not too clear yet. This is firstly because of a lack of sources about them. We know almost nothing about the first beginnings of the synagogue because the main Jewish sources which mention them, the Mishna and Talmud, are not older than the year 200 BCE.

Another complication is that the religious and spiritual background is very complicated. After all these were centuries of religious fights, especially the Roman rule which held Israel in its grip During all this, Jewish people continued living in Israel. After the destruction of the Temple they moved more northerly, to Galilee and sometimes even further.


The synagogue in Bar'am is the most beautiful old synagogue in Israel. It is situated on rolling hills only 3 kilometers from the Lebanese border. A visitor who tries to stray too far from the path stumbles upon a fence.

Bar'am was a Jewish village in Mishnaic and Talmudic times. Perhaps building a village at this deserted location was maybe inspired by a legend that Queen Esther was buried in Bar'am. On Purim, the Scroll of Esther (Megillah) was read at her grave.

The synagogue of Bar'am is not mentioned in early sources, but Medieval writers commented upon its impressiveness. Rabbi Moses Basula said, in 1522, that the synagogue belonged to Simeon bar Yochaim, who survived the Second Jewish War in 13 BCE. But the building has been dated to at least a century later.

That its inhabitants were prosperous is indicated because they built two synagogues. The smaller of the two, however, north-west of the large one, cannot be found anymore with the naked eye. It remains have been dug out, including an important inscription on a lintel which says: "Peace in this place and in all of Israel" and the name of its maker: Yosef Halevi ben Levi. The inscription is now in the Louvre in Paris.

The large synagogue also has an inscription, which can be found under the right window on the facade: "Banahu Elazar bar Yodan". This is Aramaic for the name of the builder. The synagogue is made of basalt stone. The main feature is a hall with rows of six columns. They supported a roof, of which parts lie scattered in the park. The front courtyard also used to be covered and enhanced by a triangular pediment.

The decorations of the facade are simple but majestic. There are three entrances. The central lintel bears two winged figures on the side. The rest is filled in with wine clusters and vine. The arch above it divided the weight of the upper story. The other entrances are decorated with pine sculptures. On the inside of the hall the benches on the side have not survived. On the floor there is original paving of large stone slabs.

After the Arab conquest, Christian Arab villagers who lived in Bar'am left the two synagogues intact. They built their own church on its side, which is still standing today. The village was deserted with the evacuation of the villagers in 1948. Bar'am is now a national Park.


Around the beginning of the Common Era, the fishing village of Capernaum was entirely Jewish. It was very small. During the rule of Herod it guarded the frontier. A Roman garrison was stationed with a centurion at its head. Passengers had to pay taxes to a customs office. The centurion also seems to have ordered the building of the synagogue. The first synagogue does not exist anymore, but as archaeologists have shown in recent digs, it lies buried under the present synagogue.

The current synagogue was built somewhere in the fourth century. In the past it was thought that the synagogue dated from the third century. But now archaeologists argue that the correct date is late fourth century, because pottery and coins from the 4th century have been found under the floor.

The synagogue is made of white limestone, which was brought from quarries elsewhere. The usual material for the Galilee is black basalt. Its raised position on an artificial platform makes for greater impressiveness. The decorations are very elaborated, with lintels, cornices and capitals. The building is partly reconstructed, as many elements were found scattered in the surroundings.

The plan is similar to the one in Bar'am, but has a few more elements. There is a central prayer hall, a courtyard (here on the east side), a porch and a side room. The function of the side room is still being studied. The benches in the prayer hall only existed on two sides, instead of the usual three sides.

On the south wall of the prayer hall was a knave in which the Torah rolls were kept. Prayers were recited to this wall which faced towards Jerusalem. On both sides of the central entrance are the foundations of two bemas, elevated areas for reading the Torah. On the pavement of the synagogue, inside as well as outside, and also on the walls, several games are found, carved in the stone. They probably date from after the Arab conquest.

Some centuries, in 629, later the synagogue was destroyed by Christians. Fifteen years before that the Jews of Capernaum had destroyed the church. But full details about this are not known. Capernaum declined after the earthquake of 746 and it soon turned back into a fisherman's village.


from the June 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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