One day in our last week in Israel we visited, among other places, two ancient synagogues. It was a very interesting opportunity to consider art and iconography in Judaism, and made me reflect as well on the Mosaic Synagogue which we visited in Akko just a few days earlier.

The first synagogue we visited was Hammat-Tiberias, just on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. The Hammat-Tiberias synagogue, from the 4th Century, is the earliest synagogue with a mosaic floor found in Israel. This is not a unique design – more than ten others have been discovered which at least incorporate the zodiac in words if not in images, as Rachel Hachlili outlines in her article “The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Synagogal Art: A Review”. However, it is a strange phenomena when one considers the historical interpretation of the second commandment (which prohibits the making of “graven images” in addition to the fact that zodiacs are definitely a pagan motif.

Hachlili suggests that the Hammat-Tiberias mosaic, as the earliest mosaic synagogue floor, has its origins in Roman art. There are no other mosaic floors made before this with similar composition, except for one in a 5th Century C.E. mosaic pavement at the Tallaras Baths on the island of Astypalaea in Greece. The numerous zodiac mosaic synagogues in Israel were all made after the Hammat-Tiberias mosaic – evidently it was highly influential! The figures are clearly Roman in style, as they are portrayed in the nude and, as Steven Fine points out , some of the zodiacal figures are clearly uncircumcised (“Iconoclasm” in the BAR). But they were not simply copying images; mosaic work was a significant undertaking, and a financial investment. The images being portrayed must have been considered and chosen by the members of the congregation who commissioned the work.

Mosaics, as a costly project, were a sign of wealth and status in the Roman and Byzantine world and these zodiac mosaic floors were produced in that Roman-Byzantine environment, but is that all there is to it? Danny, our guide, suggested to us that the synagogue was built by the Jews who tended the natural hot springs right next to the synagogue, which made that area a popular place to visit for the Romans. He suggested that the Jews gained a significant amount of wealth through their operation of the hot springs, which then financed the building of the synagogue. But I think the question remains whether the environment of Roman culture and the wealth that the community may have accumulated can fully explain how a zodiac mosaic floor made it into a synagogue.

Later the same day, we went to the Beit Alpha synagogue. When I made the connection between the name Beit Alpha and the images that are in mosaic floor there, I was thrilled. Beit Alpha, in addition to having the zodiac wheel, also includes a panel depicting the binding of Isaac and another panel with the Ark of the Covenant with other symbols and objects associated with Temple practises. This was actually something I had studied before – not in the context of a religious studies class, but in a survey art history course!

The image of the binding of Isaac, as portrayed in this mosaic has influenced a great deal of modern art, and we had even seen it replicated on the walls of the Mosaic Synagogue in Akko. The mosaic shows Isaac, Abraham, two servants, the ram, as well as a sacrificial altar and the hand of God, with each figure labelled in Hebrew. The style is quite crude and basic, especially in comparison to the figures in the Hammat Tiberias mosaic. However, they are extremely interesting to consider. How did the congregation that financed the mosaic justify having an image that represented God? Would the hand of God that is shown here have been considered a “graven image” or a “false idol”?

One of the fascinating dilemmas around the synagogue mosaics is that they are clearly, obviously placing images into a place of worship. Scholars debate whether the images themselves would have been worshipped and whether, in fact that really made a difference at all to their acceptability. Does any image in a synagogue become unacceptable in light of the second commandment, or is the second commandment understood to only prohibit the worship of images?

Two days before we visited the two ancient synagogues at Hammat-Tiberias and Beit Alpha, we were in Akko. In Akko we visited a unique synagogue which was built in the 20th Century C.E. after the establishment of the State of Israel. The synagogue is almost completely covered in mosaics. It was beautiful and a little overwhelming, but by the time we left the synagogue the mosaics – including ones which portrayed figures – seemed quite normal. What a contrast to the experience we had with the ancient synagogue mosaics, where the sight of human figures in mosaics were quite shocking! It seems that the debate around images in the synagogue was not a problem for this community.

The Mosaic Synagogue receives huge numbers of visitors from all over the world every year. It is a sight that many visitors want to see when they are in Akko. Throughout our trip we saw that the boundaries between tourist and pilgrim activity are often essentially erased in numerous sites with a religious or spiritual significance.

The Mosaic Synagogue is home to a living religious community, and is still a site of religious practise. As such, we practised the same modest dress codes and men wore kippot, just as we had at any other Jewish religious site or place of worship we had visited. That was not something required of us at the ancient synagogues. Furthermore, the Mosaic Synagogue is attractive and interesting because of the images it holds, in mosaic-work. To me, it seems that there is an interesting intersection between the religious and the secular at this synagogue, making it a fruitful place to examine in the context of debates around images in synagogues.