By Joe Bartling
The Synagogue at Gamla is one of the few synagogues in Israel that can be dated prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70CE. Another is at Masada, and there is a Hasmonean synagogue near Modi’in, and another Hasmonean-era synagogue at Synagogue at Wadi Qelt. Gamla and its synagogue were destroyed by the Roman army in the “Siege at Gamla”, a fierce battle documented by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in “Wars of the Jews” Book 4, Chapter I.
Unlike other synagogues in Israel, the orientation is not “towards Jerusalem”, but alternatively faces Southwest, likely due to the rugged terrain and location on the steep cliffs on which the city of Gamla is built as seen in the photo below.
The Torah niche was located on the left wall as one entered the synagogue from the main southwest entrance.
Gamla had many mikvaot, Jewish ritual baths, including one just outside the synagogue for ritual cleansing.
During the period in the first century that the Beit HaMigdash, the Second Jewish Temple, was standing, there were few “synagogues” across Israel. This is because the pilgrimage requirements of Leviticus 23 to visit Jerusalem and the Temple three times a year, for the Biblical feasts of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles) enabled the dispersed devout Jews to congregate from all over the Levant in the Holy city of Jerusalem. The existence of these synagogues while the Temple was standing indicates a unique situation. What was unique about these locations, particularly in Gamla and Masada, that they had their own synagogues, when other other areas in Judea and Samaria, even those with devout populations of observant Jews, did not have such synagogues. One common element between Gamla and Masada is that both were fortresses of the Jewish revolutionaries, or “zealots”, who certainly had violent disagreements with the occupying Romans, but had significant differences with the other “sects” of 1st century Judaism, namely the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Writings recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran document many of these disagreements, and their displeasure with the “corruption” of the priesthood and the arrogance of the Pharisaical teachers. It may follow that zealot observant Jews resident at Gamla and Masada did not want to associate with other Jews for the feasts or any other times because of these differences, and the potentially violent outcomes that may have ensued.
The six crudely minted bronze coins found at Gamla indicate this sentiment, “For the Redemption of Jerusalem the Holy”, clearly a “political” statement and not an inscription for everyday “currency”.
The synagogue at Gamla measures 17 x 22 meters, the main hall surrounded by Doric columns and example shown here.
Inside the synagogue, just inside the city walls, were found 157 ballista balls and 120 arrowheads, indicating that even the synagogue suffered a fierce attack by the Romans.