Synagogues and the Zodiac

The zodiacal synagogues of the 6th century early Byzantine period . These will be considered as well as the various theories as to their presence. Both Jewish and non- Jewish sources will be consulted including some from the time concerned. Thesis Why are there zodiac symbols in synagogues of the Byzantine period when it is clearly against well known scriptural law? Introduction It is a Jewish scriptural commandment that the Jewish people shall not make images as in Exodus 20 v 4, Kings James’ Bible :- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing

that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. This was not an added on rule the hierarchy of priests and scholars, but was important as one of the 10 commands given directly to Moses by Yahweh. Yet it seems it was also disobeyed as in the Beit Alpha synagogue mosaic ( see appendix) yet both human and animal figures are clearly depicted. There is also the question of faith in God. Does this preclude consulting a zodiac reading? Despite the commandment Jewish attitudes towards the visual arts have varied a great deal over time.

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Few modern Jews would hesitate about a family portrait for instance and will carry an identity card or passport containing their image. The Bible forbids the creation of images and of idolatry as part of its ban on worship of gods other than the one true God so these two ideas are bound up together. There are numerous instances of the prophets condemning the building and worshipping of images, as in Isaiah 44v 15 where the prophet shows the foolishness of the practice by telling how a man might use some wood to make a fire and the rest to make a god.

At the same time, the Biblical writers told how Solomon decorated the temple with lions, bulls, and angelic figures. The Jewish historian Josephus, in the first century C. E. condemned such figures as the beginnings of polytheistic worship according to the ‘Astrology in Synagogue art’ web page. He also tells how Herod the Great placed a golden eagle above the gate of the Temple and how pious Jews who tore it down were executed. Synagogues of the second temple period are devoid of such ornamentation so it seems that for a period at least the law was accepted literally. Later though images so permeated society that people thought little of it.

Synagogues Unlike a temple, home of a god, Jewish or otherwise, served by a priestly elite, the synagogue introduced congregational prayer for everyman. Anyone could lead worship, not just the members of a hereditary priesthood. Synagogues began during the exile, first just as gatherings of people, a congregation, and then it seems gradually they became buildings to house such a congregation, exactly the same process as the early church underwent. According to the web page ‘Astrology in Synagogue Art’, the oldest known synagogues dates from about the late first century B. C. E. although there are earlier references.

The Zodiacs Although based on ideas outside Judaism the images are often ‘Judaized’, and given Hebrew names as when Sagittarius becomes ‘qst’ i. e. bow in Hebrew. Jewish symbols are included such as shofars ( ram’s horns) and arks and perhaps even more surprisingly include an image of Helios the sun god. According to Marcia Masino in her article about the Beth Alpha mosaic, which dates from the 6th century C. E. , the designer Marianus managed to convince the elders to accept his design, which they did while stipulating the a picture of the Ark would be at the top in order to signify true worship.

Similar designs have been discovered in other synagogues of the period. There are several theories as to why they are included as part of synagogue decoration. Masino stresses the influence of Hellenic and Roman ideas. She feels that the zodiacs reflect the popular belief of the time in of planetary influence upon the world, but it should be pointed out that she is a practicing astrologer She talks too of a long Jewish tradition of astrology, pointing out that Abraham came from a city of astrologers.

Moses, she says, as Pharaoh’s son by adoption would have practiced astrology and there is a rabbinic tradition that links each of the zodiac signs with a tribe of ancient Israel. Could they represent Jewish calendars? This is a theory put forward by Micheal Avi-Jonah. He believes that by the time these images were created paganism was fading fast and so the rabbis did not object. He quotes the rabbinic saying ‘One of the most widely accepted theories is that the synagogue zodiacs represent the Jewish calendar. He quotes the rabbinic saying ’There is no star for Israel’ implying that there was no link with astrology.

Jewish priests were divided into groups or courses. When the Temple was finally destroyed in 70 C. E. priestly members of the various courses settled in Galilean towns. Inscriptions listing each group and its associated town were sometimes placed in synagogues, and have been found both in Israel and in other Jewish places of settlement Congregations would pray each week that the Temple and the appropriate group might be restored, a hope not completely eradicated until after the time of the emperor Julian in the 4th century C. E.

Avi-Jonah sees the inscriptions of the courses and the mosaics of the zodiac as working together as a more convenient method of calculating when to celebrate a feast than the official Jewish calendar which relied on clear sightings of the full or new moon.. It would have been much simpler to count days than to struggle with Hebrew numerals in order to predict when a festival was likely to begin. According to his theory the list of courses was used for the days and the zodiac symbols for the months, just as a modern worshipper might use a lectionary.

The strongest argument against this theory is the Jewish calendar is a lunar cycle, whereas the zodiac is based upon the sun. Because lunar months move in relation to the sun, a month in the Jewish calendar will never exactly match a zodiacal sign. However by using the intercalation system one extra month is added roughly every 36 months, which means that Jewish months, despite being lunar rather than solar, do roughly correspond with the signs. But if the mosaics simply represent the calendar why don’t they use the names of the months?

E. E. Urbach came to the conclusion that the zodiacs were simply ornamental and had no real meaning, but if so they are very ornate and it is perfectly possible to create ornamentation that does not break religious law or to use Jewish symbolism as in one of the Hammat Tiberias synagogue floors as shown on that web page. On the other hand Dr Alan Avery Peck, in an article originally written for the Encyclopedia of Judaism, says :- The rabbis’ ambivalence towards astrology–their knowledge of and

participation in it even as they denied its relevance–belies the place of astrological figures as a central motif of the synagogue of the talmudic period. He points out that the zodiac represented the heavens and quotes Goldman who said :- Expressing this meaning, the zodiac had a natural place as a focal point of Jewish worship and ritual, as a symbol of the heavens and constellations under whose aegis the destinies of nations and of men were ordered. Zeev Weiss also points out that the zodiac is shown in the carpets of synagogues.

He says tha the images are in two layers, one representing every life on earth and the other the heavens with God as sole power therein. Dr Avery-Peck believes that prayers asking for divine protection and for God’s mercy and the forgiveness of sins would have been recited in settings which depicted the divine, heavenly forces that could answer such prayers. Astrological symbols he believes served a function in ancient synagogues not just as beautiful ornamentation but as representations of the cosmic order as percived by Hellenized Jews of the talmudic age He quotes E. R.

Goodenough as saying that to the ordinary Jew of that day the figure of Helios represented rather :- ‘the divine charioteer of Hellenized Judaism, God himself’ i. e the creator of the divine order depicted in the zodiac images. The Near East Tourist site page by Stephen Langfur quotes from the Mishnah:- Proclos, son of a Philosophos, put a question to Rabbi Gamaliel in Acco, who was accustomed to bathe there in the bathhouse of Aphrodite. … “Why are you bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite? ” He responded to him, “We may not answer in a bath. ” When he came out, he said to him, “I did not enter

inside her border, she has entered inside mine. Nobody says, ‘The bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite,’ but he says, ‘Aphrodite was made an adornment for the bath. ‘ And another thing: Even if someone were to give you a fortune to do it, you wouldn’t approach an idol you revere while naked or after you’d experienced a seminal emission, nor would you urinate in front of it. But look, this statue stands beside a sewer, and everyone goes and urinates in front of it. … When people behave toward something as a deity, then it is forbidden to us [Jews], but that to which people do not relate as a deity is permitted.

(Mishnah, Nezikin, Avodah Zarah 3:4) Hannah Worztman in her article ‘Jewish Women in Ancient Synagogues: Archeological Reality vs. Rabbinical Legislation’ concentrates on the depiction of naked or semi naked women in these images, which she finds incongruous with services of worship. Her conclusion is that, despite both the scriptures and Talmudic injunctions, there were parts of Jewish society who had different views as to what was and wasn’t acceptable. She asks if such nudity was permitted in synagogue art, were live women allowed to expose body parts when worshipping?

She does point out however that in the synagogue at Hammat ( or Hamath) Tiberius Virgo is fully clothed according to Talmudic ideas, whereas her male counterparts are totally naked. This liberality was not universal as Worztman points out, giving the example of a Sicilian synagogue at Mopsuestia where all figures, of both sexes are fully clothed. She points out too how rabbinic Judaism increasingly tightened its control over women by curtailing their freedom of movement and self-expression including dress even to the point where a woman could be divorced for showing her arms or hair in public.

The injunctions against exposure were said to be because they would distract from prayer. How does this fit in with depictions of naked Hellenic images? Worztman discusses how, in a synagogue not far from Beit Alpha at En Gedi, there is a aniconic synagogue i. e. one without such images. As it was built at the same time it seems they represent communities with different views , much as today there are very traditional synagogues, where almost no women appear and what might be described as the ultra reformed synagogue where women are to be found wearing the current fashions.

Conclusion These zodiacs represent a certain period of very Hellenistic Judaism, but even then they only represent part of that society. After the destruction of the temple Judaism had gone , at least to an extent, into decline, but by the early Byzantine period there was a revival of interest with the building of many new synagogues, many of them it seems including a rich diversity of artistic input.. At any time there are always in a religious community the ultra conservative and the very liberal.

The Jewish congregations of the synagogues concerned were people of their time, but perhaps more than some other Jewish groups, they allowed fashionable Graeco-Roman ideas to pervade their places of worship. This does not necessarily mean that they were any less loyal Jews and true worshippers of the one true God, but rather that they did not feel bound by the law about images, knowing that they were not guilty of idol worship and because they were sure of their faith and that God was ultimately in control, whether or not he was depicted as Helios or by more traditional Jewish symbols such as the Ark of the Covenant.

The Union of Reform Judaism in its magazine in the summer of 2008 has a conversation with Lee Levine which takes a very liberal view point:- The Bible’s alleged prohibition of figural art in the Second Commandment is far from clear. One could interpret these verses either as an outright proscription (as is often done) or as an almost blanket permission (for instance, figural images are banned only in cases of idolatry). It is also debatable how normative this injunction was, whether it was obeyed or ignored by most people.

Or is it that they were so influenced by the world around them that their ideas on true worship were compromised Worztman points out that the Byzantine Talmud was canonized in the 6th century, after which the rabbis would have been much more in control and so such images disappear from the record.


Electronic Sources Astrology in Synagogue Art, Astrology and Judaism in Late Antiquity, retrieved 5th May


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