Oldest synagogues in the Land of Israel
The designation oldest synagogues in the Land of Israel requires careful definition. Many very old synagogues have been discovered in archaeological digs. Some synagogues have been destroyed and rebuilt several times on the same site, so, while the site or congregation may be ancient, the building may be modern.
Archaeologists have uncovered many remains of synagogues from over two thousand years ago, including several that were in use before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Synagogues securely dated to before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem include the Migdal Synagogue, the ancient synagogue at Gamla, the synagogue of Capernaum, the Herodium synagogue, the synagogue of Qumran, and the small synagogue at the top of Masada.
Wadi Qelt Synagogue
The Wadi Qelt Synagogue located in Wadi Qelt a mile southwest of Jericho, is the oldest synagogue found to date. It dates from between 70 and 50 BCE, and was built as part of the Hasmonean royal winter palaces complex in the desert oasis of Jericho. Ehud Netzer identified the building as a synagogue on the basis of its design and proximity to a water source in keeping with literary accounts of early temples. The stone and mud-brick building included a ritual bathing area, a small courtyard surrounded by seven or eight rooms, and a rectangular main hall encircled by a colonnade. A platform provided seating for 70 worshipers. The Torah was read in the center of the hall. In the northeastern corner, a niche was found that may have held Torah scrolls. The lower compartment may have been a geniza for old or unused scrolls. A triclinium or banqueting hall was unearthed which may have been used for ceremonial meals. The synagogue was destroyed in an earthquake in 31 B.C. and does not appear to have been rebuilt.
Naburiya was a Jewish village in the Galilee during the First and Second Temple periods. The remains of the Naburiya synagogue, discovered in archaeological excavations, indicate that it is one of the oldest in the Galilee. The original synagogue was enlarged during the third century and destroyed in an earthquake in 363 CE. In 564, the synagogue was rebuilt. The date is known from the inscription over the main door, now displayed at the Israel Museum: “Built four hundred and ninety four years after the destruction of the Temple under the leadership of Hanina ben Lizar and Luliana bar Yuden.” The building stood until 640 CE. The façade was partially reconstructed by the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Synagogues rebuilt on ancient sites
Several synagogues in Israel are located on the sites of far older synagogue buildings but, because the older buildings were destroyed by non-Jewish rulers of the city, the present buildings are reconstructions. The Karaite Synagogue in Jerusalem is the oldest of Jerusalem's active synagogues on a site in use as a synagogue for many centuries. It was first built in the 8th century. It was destroyed by the Crusaders in 1099 and Jews were not allowed to live in the city for 50 years. In 1187 Saladin restored the site to the Karaite Jews who promptly rebuilt the synagogue. It has been active continuously since its foundation, except during the Crusades and Jordanian occupation of the city from 1948. In 1967, the Israeli government returned the synagogue to the Karaite community, who finished rebuilding it in 1982.
- Israel's Oldest Synagogue, Archaeology, Volume 51 Number 4, July/August 1998 by Spencer P.M. Harrington
- Oldest Synagogue Found in Israel, March 29, 1998. Associated Press
- Ehud Netzer, "A Synagogue from the Hasmonean Period Recently Exposed in the Western Plane of Jericho," Israel Exploration Journal 49 (1999): 203-31.
- David Stacey, "Was There a Synagogue in Hasmonean Jericho?" http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Hasmonean_Jericho.shtml
- S. Japp and H. Schwarzer, "Synagoge Banketthaus oder Wohngebaude?" Anitke Welt 3 (2002): 277-88.
- Naburiya Synagogue
- Jerusalem curiosities, Abraham Ezra Millgram, Jewish Publication Society, 1990, pp. 123-4
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