Masada PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Water Supply
Herodian Structures
Northern Palace
First Jewish Revolt
Masada and revolt

The Synagogue

Built into the casemate wall, on the northwest, is a chamber larger than the others in it. Unlike the buildings on Masada, which all have a north-south axis, this one points toward Jerusalem. The rebels used it as a synagogue, but it probably functioned as such already in Herod's day. masada-synagogue.jpg

How do we know it was a synagogue? For the period of the rebels, 66 AD-73 AD, the evidence is firm. Apart from the orientation, there are the bleacher-like rows on the sides (now restored). Yigal Yadin , the chief archaeologist, was able to determine that the rebels had built them. Such a seating pattern, enabling discussion, is universal for ancient synagogues -- and for their orthodox descendants today. The crowning evidence, however, consisted of pits containing biblical scrolls (chapters from Ezekiel and the last two chapters of Deuteronomy). When pages including the name of God become worn or damaged, pious Jews do not simply throw them away. They store them in a synagogue, in a hole or chamber called a geniza, before burying the lot in a special ceremony. Here we have an ancient example of the practice.

This synagogue on Masada was the likely venue for the rebel councils of deliberation. It was built (or rebuilt) for perhaps a 150 people, although after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the population of Masada swelled, wrote Josephus, to 967 men, women and children.

There were many synagogues before the Temple burned. Jesus taught in several. Paul preached in synagogues throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Talmud says there were 400 in Jerusalem alone. Yet so far the remains of only three from this time have been discovered in the land: here on Masada, at Gamla on the Golan Heights, and in Jericho. (The one at Herodium apparently postdates the Temple.) One reason for the scarcity: people built new synagogues on the sites of older ones, which they tore down and leveled if necessary. Jews never resettled Masada and Gamla, so the traces of the earlier buildings remain.

As for the one at Jericho, it was a royal affair: after an earthquake destroyed it (and after he had destroyed his young brother-in-law, the High Priest), Herod cavalierly built a palace on the spot.

Synagogues were vital to the survival of Judaism. After the loss of the Temple, with the Jews in dispersion, they had only words and practices to keep them together. Lacking guidance from the Temple in interpreting the words or defining "orthopraxis," they might easily have splintered into numerous sects. Through the synagogues, however, the Sanhedrin was able to disseminate teachings and enforce them. Its Rabbis transferred certain major Temple rituals to them: prayer replaced sacrifice, and services were scheduled at the times of the former communal offerings. Vital parts of synagogue worship, such as the public Torah reading, required a quorum (minyan) of ten Jewish men. Jews had to live near one another, therefore, in order to fulfill their religious duties.

Peoples conquered by Rome were not permitted freedom of assembly. Perhaps because of the support the Jews gave him in his war against Pompey, Julius Caesar granted this freedom to the Jews, along with other exceptional privileges (Caesar's decrees). After the first revolt, the Romans forbade the building of new synagogues, but by the third century AD they were allowing them again. Archaeologists have identified more than a hundred in the land, dating from the third to the eighth centuries.