Arbel Ancient Synagogue


We are in the main remnant of the ancient village of Arbel – its synagogue. The synagogue was probably built in several stages over time. According to the coins found in the area, the village was inhabited here since the Hasmonean period, probably after Judah Aristobulus conquered back this region at the end of the second century BCE, and this happens in parallel with the establishment of other Jewish villages in the Galilee. However, according to the architecture and details of the building, it seems that the synagogue is from the fourth century CE. Based on several studies, it can be said that the village here was at its peak in the days of the Mishnah and the Talmud, that is, in the Roman period and during the beginning of the Byzantine period.

In terms of our location, you can see from here, an amazing view, the Sea of ​​Galilee in the east, Mount Arbel, and opposite to it is Mount Nitai. Before we discuss the synagogue, a few words about the income source of the locals, those that used the synagogue at that time and I refer to the Mishnah and Talmudic period, that is from the second to the fifth century CE.

Olive crops – many olive groves in this area today, not much changed for the last 2000 years. During the Mishnah and the Talmud, the olive oil production industry was the most important industry in the Lower Golan Heights, and in Galilee, meaning it was a significant source of income, as evidenced by the oil mills discovered in Galilee from that period. It is important to note that the farmland of ​​most villages at that time was a few tens of dunams, I would say 20 dunams on average which is equivalent to approximately 5 Acres, and I do not refer to large cities like Tzipori and Tiberias in Galilee or Susita and Gamla in the Golan. So, what is the income that a village could generate in that period, almost 2000 years ago? I explain in details the economic aspect of producing oil in the videos referring to my visit to various ancient synagogues in the Golan, but let’s do a short exercise just to provide a high level view – so let’s assume that 12 dunams, or 3 acres of the village farmland was allocated to growing olives, now, in each dunam there are say 36 trees that will yield on average 1.2 tons of olives, so 12 dunams or 3 acres will yield 14.4 tons of olives and in a conversion ratio of 15% we can produce almost 2.2 tons of oil every year – this yielded an income which was significant to a village in those days. Now, when producing a large amount of oil, there is also a need for tools to transport it, so no wonder there is evidence of extensive local pottery industry across Galilee.

linen fabric – There are many sources which praise the linen fabric industry in Arbel at that time. It is worth noting that flax was imported from Egypt to Israel thousands of years ago. The cultivation of flax in Israel, which was very profitable at that time, lasted until the Muslim conquest in the 7th century. Then cotton began to penetrate this region, and the cultivation of cotton increased on the expense of growing flax until it disappeared almost completely during the Crusader period. There were attempts to revive the linen industry in the Middle Ages and even in the 1950s but they failed in light of economic inefficiency. In any case, it is important to note that many historical sources commend the linen fabrics from the Land of Israel that were exported to Greece, Rome, Egypt and many more locations.

A different and interesting angle about the main types of cloth in biblical times – they were linen and wool, and evidence of them being the main fabrics can be found for example in the book of Hosea chapter 2 verse 7 and we will come back shortly to the prophet Hosea and his link to Arbel. According to the Bible it is forbidden to have a cloth structured of both linen and wool, this rule is named Shatnez, for example in Leviticus chapter 19 verse 19, and as my grandmother used to claim – everything is related somehow to economy, and maybe this limitation may be an evidence for an economic battle between the producers of linen who are the farmers, and the shepherds who produce the wool, and to summarize this item see as part of Moses last speech in the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 22 verse 11 – “Thou shalt not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together”

When examining the village of Arbel throughout its history, the name Arbel is first mentioned by the prophet Hosea son of Bari, who lived according to Jewish tradition in the 8th century BCE in the Kingdom of Israel. In the book of Hosea chapter 10 verse 14, Hosea foretells destruction to Ephraim, that is to Israel, as happened to Arbel. Despite the similarity in name, there are many who identify the place Hosea named Arbel as Irbid, located today at the north west of Jordan and known in ancient times as Arbela.

Arbel captures much more attention in the Hasmonean period. In the first book of Hasmoneans, chapter 9, it talks about Demetrius Soter, who was king of the Seleucid empire in Syria between 162 BCE and 150 BCE, and he sends Bacchides, a Seleucid general to Judea to suppress the Hasmonean revolt. Bacchides on his way from Syria to Judea, passes through Arbel, conquers the place, and kills many of its population. The governing pendulum continues and Judah Aristobulus of the Hasmoneans takes control of Galilee in 103-104 BCE. 63 years later, In 40 BCE Herod was appointed by the Romans to rule Judea, but in practice it took Herod three years to gain control and during this period Herod fought the inhabitants of Galilee and among them the inhabitants of Arbel who opposed his reign and rebelled against him. On the battles and a visit to the caves used by the Arbel warriors see the video on the “Hiding Mount Arbel Hiding Caves”.

The synagogue – The longitude axis of the synagogue extends from north to south, its length is 20.35 m and its width is 18.5 m. You can see that the structure has a basilica shape, it has three columns, forming a shape of the letter U. Just a brief clarification about a basilica – it is a type of building that originated in Roman architecture, which served as the important public building in the city. Notice the two pillars on the north side – their cross section is heart-shaped – this is a common design in buildings with three columns at that time.

The main entrance is from the east, this is quite rare for synagogues in Galilee, and the most impressive, is that the opening is made entirely of one piece including the threshold, the mezuzahs and the jamb. It is probable that there was a block of rock that was hewn and the result is undoubtedly exceptionally impressive. The arrangement of the benches is special – along the eastern wall and the western wall, a bench with a surface of 1.4 meters wide was installed, followed by four more benches, with only two benches along the northern wall. The benches served as a seating area and also as a staircase for descending to the floor of the hall which was 1.5 m lower than the threshold of the main opening to the east.

There is a courtyard before the entrance, it could be that this is what the sages named “door before door,” that is, through a courtyard or an entrance room. The ruins here also contained narrower columns, which probably served the second floor as can be seen in the illustration showed in the video.

At a later stage, probably in the Byzantine period, towards the end of the sixth century, substantial changes were made to the building with the two important ones are related and they are (1) building in the south wall a rounded niche for the ark also called Torah ark or Aron Akodesh in Hebrew, and (2) adding the Torah reading platform in front of the ark. Another important change is adding an entrance in the northern wall, which is related to the concept that the entrance is on the same axis as the direction of prayer, this concept is actually more typical to a later period.

The synagogue was probably destroyed by fire in the middle of the eighth century, perhaps as a result of a strong earthquake that struck the Galilee in 749 and was called in a direct translation from Hebrew, the Seventh Noise, since it occurred in a Sabbatical Year.

A famous individual from ancient Arbel is Nittai of Arbela , who lived in the 2nd century BCE. He was the presiding judge or another description would be vice president of the Sanhedrin alongside the president of the Sanhedrin who was at the time Joshua ben Perchyah, probably during the reign of John Hyrcanus the Hasmonean. What is Sanhedrin? I cover it in length when we visit the cities of Tzipori and also Beit Shearim, yet it is a type of a Jewish supreme council and court having jurisdiction over religious, civil, and criminal issues. It operated during the 2nd temple period probably until the early 5th century. Nittai and Joshua were the second Zugut. Zugot in direct translation means pair. The Zugot period lasted for 200 years during the first and second centuries BCE and they acted as the spiritual leadership of the people of Israel.

I will end as usual with a question – how many Zugot or pairs were in the Zugot period – the answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. Book: Ariel: Journal for the Knowledge of the Land of Israel - Tzipori and Its Surroundings, Editor: Eli Schiller, Publisher: Ariel
  2. Book: Jews in Economics: Collection of Articles, Editor: Nahum Gross, Publisher: Zalman Shazar Center
  3. Book: Rock shelters & hiding places in Galilee during early Roman period, Author: Yinon ‏Shivti’el, Publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad
  4. 1st Book of Maccabees (Hasmoneans) chapter 9

Mention in the Bible

  1. Hosea chapter 2 verse 7
  2. Hosea chapter 10 verse 14
  3. Leviticus chapter 19 verse 19
  4. Deuteronomy chapter 22 verse 11

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