Dead Sea Jewish Settlement

Ein Gedi Synagogue

Jewish Ruins

From the Ein Gedi parking lot one can walk into the area where the remains of a complex of houses, street and synagogue are situated.  They belong to the last period of the Jewish settlement in Ein Gedi, later Roman and Byzantine periods (2nd-6th century), or preferably, we can call it the Talmudic period. At that time Ein Gedi had the status of an Imperial State and reached the peak of its prosperity.

Walking in the street of the Late Roman period we can observe the remains of a Mikva. It was fed by aqueduct from the spring, obeying gravitation. According to Halacha, the water cannot be pumped. It was covered by hydraulic plaster, and at the edge of the site there is today a wall.

The thresh-hold, door frame, and roofs of the houses were made of the trunk of the date palm.

Gold coins from Alexandria were found, testifying to the trade that existed with that city. Eusebius Bishop of Caesarea of the 4th C.E. described Ein Gedi as a “very large village of Jews.” Below this area, evidence was found of an earlier Second Temple period Jewish settlement which appears to have covered a larger area than the latter Jewish settlement.

Nearby we can see a tree, Sodom’s Apple or “Petilat ha Midbar,” Wick of the Desert. Its seeds spread by wind, becoming like fibers. The fibers are twisted into a wick and lighted into candles. Its milk might be harmful for the eyes when touched, but it is good for medicinal purposes as mentioned above. Walking along, we arrive at the western corridor of the Synagogue.  When the farmers were plowing, a mosaic floor emerged. It is from the 6th cent. C.E. but a lower floor was found from 3rd cent. CE. The Synagogue faces Jerusalem. In reality Jerusalem is in the North West, but this Synagogue belongs to the Negev pattern and faces to the North.  (Pagan temples and churches face to the East, the direction of the rising sun).

When it was first built in the 3rd century, there were two openings in the north wall.  The Aron Kodesh had wheels and was placed in the entrance. The floor was of simple white mosaic with a swastika pattern in black tesserae in the center. This pattern has been interpreted as a decorative motif or symbol of good luck. . Due to economic factors, prosperity, size of population, etc., many changes occurred in the building.  In the 4th century, one of the openings in the north wall was blocked and made into a square niche along the opposite southern side a three-stepped bench was built. The entrance was moved to the western side, and the existing wall was opened up in 3 locations.  In the 5th century, an additional wall with 3 columns was build and the existing western street was incorporated to the synagogue. Columns enclosed the prayer hall on the east, south, and west and formed three long aisles surrounded by the wall. The whole inside of the Synagogue and the pillars were covered with white plaster and painted decorations.

The original entrance perhaps became a repository (geniza). There were found out-of-use sacred writings, several scorched scrolls, a bronze cup, a small silver seven-branched menorah, and some bronze coins .The system of giving money to whoever needed it without knowing the identity of the donor and the receiver was perhaps practiced (Matan beseter).

Beside the Torah Ark is a stepped seat for the head of the congregation or community leader ”Seat of Moses”.

In front of the Torah arks is the “Bimah”, a raised wood and plastered platform. A bronze seven branched menorah (the copy exhibited in the field school) was found near it. On the mosaic floor next to it, three small seven-branched menorahs are depicted. The 3 stepped benches might have been used only by men. They are not enough to cover the needs of the population (around 1000 persons), so perhaps there could have been a second floor.

Mosaic Floor

Synagogue Mosaic

The mosaic floor is beautiful and very well preserved. On the prayer hall there is a leaf-pattern motif surrounding four birds within a medallion. The medallion is enclosed in a diamond shape inside a square. A pair of peacocks grasping a bunch of grapes in their beaks stands in each of the four corners. The mosaic does not contain any human form, so one may conclude that the residents carefully heeded to biblical precepts. In the corridor on the westside, the floor is divided into 5 sections:.

First Section: List of the 13 Forefathers of Mankind: Adam, Seth, Enoch, Kenan, Mehalel, Jared, Hanoch, Methuselah, Lemech, Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth.

Second Section; Lists the 12 signs of the Zodiac in writing. It is very interesting that around the surrounding towns the mosaic floors depict the signs in a figurative manner: a pair of scales, fishes, a bull, etc. Here in Ein Gedi they refrained from doing so, listing the signs and their corresponding 12 Hebrew months by their name: Taleh, Shor, Teumim, Sartan, Arie, Betulah, Moznaim, Akrav, Keshet, Gedi, Dli, Dagim. Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tamuz, Av, Elul, Tishrei, Marheshvan, Cislev, Tevet, Shvat, Adar. Also listed are the 3 forefathers of the Jewish nation: Abraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and the blessing Shalom.  According to legend they are the three pillars on which the world rests. On the last line, Daniel’s 3 companions: Hanania, Mishael and Azaria. They are also considered 3 Just (tzadikim) who refused to give in to impose idolatry.  Finally the blessing “Peace on Israel.”

Third Section: In Aramaic. Mentions the benefactors of the Synagogue, the sons of Halfi. Lists rules of good conduct for the inhabitants that will ensure the well-being of the community, including the induction not to divulge the “secret” of the community to outsiders. A curse would befall on those who would not keep the rules: “Whoever causes discord between his fellowmen, or speaks evil of a member of the community to outsiders, or steals an item of his companion, or the one that reveals the secret of the town to outsiders, the One whose eyes wonder over all the land and sees that which is hidden, His anger will be directed on that person and his descendants, will uproot them from under the sky, and all the people will say amen and amen, Selah.” It is very puzzling the idea of “secret”, but most researchers agree that it was the method of producing the  perfume from the aparsimon bushes cultivated in that area. En Geode’s economic welfare was based on its production and therefore it was of the outpost importance that the members of the community would work in harmony and mutual respect to insure their cohesiveness as a group. Thus, The Ethical rules also had an economic purpose and a very important deterrent for breaking them was the Divine fear and the catastrophic consequences of His displeasure.

Fourth Section: Aramaic dedication that record the family Haspi as benefactors

Fifth Section: Aramaic inscription thanking citizens and Jonathan Ha Hazan (the cantor) who paid their share of the Synagogue.

The Jewish settlement and its Synagogue were destroyed by fire. A hoard of linen- wrapped coins was found dating to the reign of Emperor Justinian the First (527-565CE). Early in his reign, Jews suffered from official persecution; archaeologists concluded that the Jewish settlement and their synagogue were destroyed in this wave of persecution in approximately 530 C.E.

At the end of the Byzantine period and in the Early Arab period (6th –11th century CE), there was a small settlement in Ein Gedi, only a few remains of which have been found. In the Middle Ages a settlement existed above Tel Goren., but it was abandoned in the Crusader period (12th century). In later years until the War of Independence a Bedouin tribe, Ar-Rashaida inhabited Ein Gedi. They grew grains and vegetable and operated the ancient flour mill at the foot of the Ein Gedi Spring.