Steam rose from the open drain next to the sidewalk where we stood. My class from Pardes Institute was at Hamat T’veriya, listening to Leah Rosenthal review the Talmudic discussion about the use of hot water on Shabbat. Is it permissible to warm food with steaming water from such a spring on Shabbat? Is it permissible to bathe in a hot spring? Well, it depends….
Behind her, steam rose from chimneys built into the ground.
Hamat, or Hot Place as it was originally called, sits at the southern end of the modern city of Tiberias. It’s near the southern end of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The hot springs have drawn people to the area for millennia, and are reason Tiberias is located where it is.
If you come here by cab, you have to be sure the driver understands you want to see the archeological area and national park. Most drivers will automatically take you a little further south to the modern installations of Hamat Gader. There, you can indulge in a leisurely soak in the mineral-rich waters that bubble up, pre-heated by geological forces.
In 1985, our family had spent a couple hours at the modern hot springs on a synagogue-sponsored trip. It was late December, and we had just passed several cold damp days in Jerusalem. Between the normal Jerusalem winter chill, and the lack of heat almost everywhere, I had often felt like I could never get warm. I was unenthusiastic about putting on a bathing suit and immersing in an outdoor pool. But the building itself was very warm. My youngest child needed close adult supervision. And the steam rising off the indoor and outdoor pools enticed me.
The warm water quickly warmed even my cold feet. It was so warm and relaxing, I didn’t feel like swimming—I just wanted to drift near the inlet where the hot water entered the large pool.
My son asked me to come to the outdoor pool with him. Standing in the pool was a surprise. The water, heated underground, was hot, but the air above the pool was chilly. I quickly bent my knees to keep as much of my body underwater as possible. I understood the appeal of hot springs, and why Sir Walter in Jane Austen’s Persuasion took his family to Bath.
On our trip current to Hamat T’veriya with Pardes, however, we were interested in the hot springs only in passing. We had come to see the remains of a synagogue from the Mishnaic period.
Past the chimneys venting underground steam, a side path leads uphill a short distance to a modern shed-like building. It protects a fourth century CE synagogue, which was discovered in 1920. The archeologists who excavated the sanctuary discovered two older synagogues under it. A holy place is a Holy Place. If a particular site was hallowed by house of prayer, then it was only logical to build its replacement on the same site.
Visitors are restricted to an elevated platform that runs along two sides of the preserved structure. The remaining walls, about waist high, surround a beautiful mosaic floor. The mosaics follow the same pattern as I’ve seen in other synagogues of the Mishnaic period.
Because it was built in the north, the building faces south. A clear glass sheet stands on the south side, where an indentation in the floor indicates the Aron might have stood. “Ve’ahavta l’rayacha camocha” (You shall love your neighbor as yourself) is painted in black letters on the glass.
The architectural details of the synagogue, however, are not terribly interesting. The mosaics are the focus of attention.
On the north side are several inscriptions that sound familiar to anyone who has ever entered a synagogue. One says, in Greek, “May he be remembered for good and for blessing, Profoturos the elder constructed this aisle of the synagogue. Blessing upon him. Amen. Shalom.” Shalom is written in Hebrew. The inscriptions, ancient equivalents of “Dedicated to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Cohen,” shows how some things just never change.
Closest to the south wall, a row of mosaics depict symbols of the Temple: shofars, trumpets, an incense shovel. The center of this mosaic shows a large menorah, which had become the prime symbol of Judaism. There are no six-pointed stars in the building, or indeed, in any of the early synagogues. Today’s symbol of Judaism, now called the Star of David or Magen David, did not come into common use until the 17th century CE.
The most striking mosaic, in the center of the floor, is a large circle, enclosed in a square. On its circumference, the circle is divided into twelve sections, each one portraying a sign of the zodiac, or as they are called in Hebrew, a mazal. The term mazal refers to the belief that one’s sign determines one’s fate in life—a belief borrowed from surrounding cultures. We’ve seen zodiac cycle mosaics in other Byzantine era synagogues. They seem to have been a common decorative motif of the period.
The signs of the zodiac are symbolic of the sun’s position in the sky at a particular time of the year. Therefore, it is natural to see some symbolic depiction of the sun in the middle of the zodiac cycle. However, this mosaic seems to go a little too far. In the chariot, which carries the sun through the sky every day, stands not the sun, but the figure of a man. Helios, the sun god, rides his chariot across the synagogue floor? That seems strange to our eyes.
Today’s belief in the power of astrology is most likely not the same as it was ancient Israel. Lester Ness postulates that ancient Jews believed that because God created the stars, He controlled their powers. TThe signs of the zodiac were thus visual symbols of God’s power. Jews could not make a picture or a statue of God for their synagogue. Instead, they made mosaics that showed the emissaries through which He worked. In this way, they showed they were both part of the cultures that surrounded them, and also separate from those cultures. Their use of imagery of the zodiac and of Helios symbolized God’s power and control of the world.
The synagogue in Hamat T’veriya is an example of how Judaism has changed over the centuries, yet how it has remained the same. It doesn’t matter how God’s power is expressed. It could be through the astrological power He gave the stars, through the ten plagues that led to the Exodus from Egypt, or through the miraculous survival of the Jews through so many centuries. But our belief in one God remains steady.