Bet Alfa Synagogue National Park is located at a kibbutz with the same name not far from Beit Shean National Park. And it has one of most preserved and beautiful mosaics in Israel.

Opening Hours

Sun. – Thu. And Shabbat: 8 – 17 (till 16 during the winter).
Fridays: 8 – 16 (till 15 during the winter).

Entrance Fee

Adults 22 NIS and children 9 NIS.

If you are going to visit several National Parks, then consider purchasing a combo ticket. You can find additional info at National Parks And Nature Reserves post.

Note: opening hours and ticket prices were updated on Oct. 2018. In any case, recheck the official site before visiting.

Map of the area:

Background Info

Bet Alfa Synagogue founded at the end of the fifth century CE. It consists of a courtyard, corridor, rectangular main hall with the spectacular mosaic floor, second-story balcony, and another room.

The main attraction is the mosaic, and since it is in a roofed, air-conditioned building, you can visit it all year round. Also, considering it is a small site (visit duration is about 30 min), I would recommend combining it with other nearby attraction (you can use the map at the beginning of this post to select something to your taste).

The Bet Alfa Synagogue was uncovered in 1928 by members of the nearby Kibbutz Hefzibah. Who stumbled upon the synagogue’s large mosaic floors during construction of new irrigation system. Excavations began in 1929 under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and were led by an Israeli archaeologist, Eleazar Sukenik. Secondary round of excavations, sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1962, further explored the residential structures surrounding the synagogue.

Also, a hoard of 36 Byzantine coins was found in a shallow depression in the floor apse.

Note: all quotes were taken from the official site.

Bet Alfa Synagogue

When you enter Bet Alfa Synagogue, the guide will offer a twelve-minute audiovisual presentation. You can ask for the one in Hebrew or English.

Here I stand on the balcony and the white screen for the audiovisual presentation rolls down:
בית כנסת בית אלפא - Bet Alfa Synagogue

The Mosaic

View of the mosaic from the side:
בית כנסת בית אלפא - Bet Alfa Synagogue-2The colorful tile in the main hall is divided into three panels. They depict the Ark of the Covenant (right), the zodiac (center) and the offering of Isaac (left).

And here is a view from the other side:
בית כנסת בית אלפא - Bet Alfa Synagogue

You can see the closest mosaic panel – the Synagogue Scene.

The southern panel, which laid before the synagogue’s Torah Shrine, is a liturgically oriented scene that emphasizes the centrality of the Torah Shrine. The Torah Shrine stands at the center of the composition and is depicted with a gabled roof. The Torah Shrine is decorated with ornamented panels featuring diamonds and squares. The floating conch shell seen in the center of the roof is a stylized representation of the Torah Shrine’s inset arch. A hanging lamp is suspended from the gable of the roof. As a symbolic marker of its importance, the lower register of the Torah Shrine is flanked by two roaring lions and is surrounded by Jewish ritual objects such as the Lulav, Etrog, Shofar, and incense shovel. Two birds flank the gabled roof in the upper register of the Torah Shrine.

Offering Of Isaac Mosaic

Closeup of the offering of Isaac panel:
בית כנסת בית אלפא - Bet Alfa Synagogue-5

Just below the offering of Isaac, you can see an Aramaic mosaic inscription (initially at the entrance to the synagogue), which reveals that the floor was laid during the reign of Justinian (apparently Emperor Justinian I – 518-527 CE ). The other inscription, in Greek, mentions the mosaic’s artists: Marianus and his son Hanina (who were also listed as the artisans of the nearby Beth Shean synagogue). The inscriptions are flanked on either side by a lion and a buffalo, who serve as the synagogue’s symbolic guardians.

Above the Dedicatory Inscriptions, you can see the “Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22: 1-18).

To the right, Abraham is depicted dangling Isaac over the fiery altar as he raises his hand to perform the sacrifice. In the center, God, symbolized by the small fire- encircled hand appearing in the upper center, instructs Abraham to sacrifice a nearby ram instead of Isaac. The hand of God is aptly labeled with “al tishlah” or “do not raise,” taken from God’s command to the angel that Abraham not “raise his hand against the boy [Isaac]” (Genesis 22:12). In the lower center of the composition, immediately below the hand of God, the ram that served as Isaac’s substitute is positioned standing sideways, trapped in the nearby thicket. The odd positioning of the ram may perhaps be a convention the artists used to convey the distance that the Bible says separated Abraham and Isaac, from the two servant boys (Genesis 22:5), who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey, and are depicted standing to the left. All the figures in the scene, except for the two servants, are identified with Hebrew labels.

The Zodiac Wheel Mosaic

Closeup of the Central Panel, the Zodiac Wheel:
בית כנסת בית אלפא - Bet Alfa Synagogue

The central panel features a Jewish adaptation of the Greco-Roman zodiac. The zodiac consists of two concentric circles. With the twelve zodiac signs appearing in the outer circle, and Helios, the Greco-Roman sun god, appearing in the inner circle. The outer circle consists of twelve panels, each of which corresponds to one of the twelve months of the year and contain the appropriate Greco-Roman zodiac sign. Female busts symbolizing the four seasons appear in the four corners immediately outside the zodiac. In the center, Helios appears with his signature Greco-Roman iconographic elements such as the fiery crown of rays adorning his head and the highly stylized quadriga or four-horse-drawn chariot. The background is decorated with a crescent-shaped moon and stars. As in the “Binding of Isaac” panel, the zodiac symbols and seasonal busts are labeled with their corresponding Hebrew names.

This zodiac wheel, along with other similar examples found in contemporaneous synagogues throughout Israel such as Naaran, Susiya, Hamat Tiberias, Huseifa, and Sepphoris, rests at the center of a scholarly debate regarding the relationship between Judaism and general Greco-Roman culture in late antiquity. Some interpret the popularity that the zodiac maintains within synagogue floors as evidence for its Judaization and adaptation into the Jewish calendar and liturgy. Others see it as representing the existence of a “non-Rabbinic” or a mystical and Hellenized form of Judaism that embraced the astral religion of Greco-Roman culture.

The Zodiac Wheel panel reminds me of the visit to the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. One of the main ideas in this museum is that people are influenced by their neighbors. And the Zodiac Wheel is an example of cultural influence.

Summary

In conclusion, Bet Alfa Synagogue has one of the best preserved and most beautiful mosaics in Israel. Duration of a visit is quite short, around half an hour. Thus, I would suggest combining it with other attractions in this area, like Beit Shean National Park (use the map at the top of this post).

 

Have you ever visited Bet Alfa Synagogue National Park? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

Hope you liked the Bet Alfa Synagogue, and I will see you in future travels.

Stay Tuned!

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