Medieval Jewish ritual bath beneath a church in Sicily

June 18, 2019 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Israeli scholars have announced the discovery of a Hebrew inscription on the wall of a medieval Jewish ritual bath located deep underground beneath the Church of St. Philip the Apostle in Syracuse, Sicily.

Photo credit: F. Cappuccio

The discovery sheds new light on the Jewish community in Syracuse during the Middle Ages, on the eve of the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from all lands under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain—which at the time included the island of Sicily.

Medieval Jewish ritual baths, known in Hebrew as mikva’ot (or mikveh in the singular), were regularly built deep below the surface, at the level of the local groundwater. These structures, a handful of which are known from throughout Europe, consisted of a long staircase leading down to a small immersion pool. The pool beneath the church in Syracuse is located over 14 meters beneath ground level, at the foot of a long spiral staircase hewn into the limestone bedrock. Fresh groundwater, once used for ritual immersion by married women after their monthly menstrual period, continues till today to flow into the pool found at the bottom of the staircase.

It was on the wall of this staircase that the Hebrew inscription was recently discovered by Monsignor Sebastiano Amenta, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Syracuse. The ritual bath and its inscription were subsequently studied by Dr Yonatan Adler, senior lecturer in archaeology at Ariel University in Israel, and a leading expert on ancient and medieval Jewish ritual baths. “This discovery provides compelling evidence that the structure beneath the church was constructed as a Jewish ritual bath prior to the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Sicily” explained Dr Adler.

The announcement was made at a conference sponsored by San Metodio Higher Institute of Religious Sciences in cooperation with the municipality of Syracuse. Dr Adler provided a detailed description of the ritual bath and of the inscription itself, which consists of only six Hebrew consonants: “a-sh-r h-f-tz”. The letters likely form the name of a medieval Syracusan Jew called “Asher Hefetz”. Dr. Nadia Zeldes, from Ben Gurion University in Israel and a leading expert on the history of Sicilian Jewry, explained at the conference that the family name “Hefetz” represents the Hebrew version of a prominent Jewish-Sicilian family named “Bonavoglia”, a clan that played an important role in the history of the island’s Jews.

Sometime after the Jews were forced to leave Sicily at the end of the 15thcentury, a church named in honour of St. Philip the Apostle was constructed over the site of the medieval ritual bath. Even after the church was built, however, the Jewish remains below were never completely forgotten. A local tradition about an early Jewish ritual bath which lay beneath the church was recorded by the early 19thcentury historian Fr.Giuseppe Maria Capodieci (1749–1828). The recently announced discovery confirms the historical accuracy of this tradition.

According to Capodieci, the pool beneath the church of St. Philip the Apostle was not the only Jewish ritual bath in the city; there were two others. One of these, which he referred to as “the baths of Bianca”, has been identified some years ago beneath what later became a hotel located not far from the church. The Jewish community of Syracuse was likely quite large, and Dr Zeldes noted that it was quite possible that there had been “more than one ritual bath, and perhaps more than one synagogue, in Syracuse”. The new finds provide the first archaeological evidence of a clear Jewish connection to one of these sites.

The Church of St. Philip the Apostle was closed in 1968 due to structural problems and reopened only in 2010 following complex architectural reconstruction. Since November 2014, the church has opened its doors for daily worship. Don Flavio Cappuccio, the local parish priest, has been highly supportive and encouraging of the archaeological studies conducted by the Israeli scholars on the Jewish remains beneath his church. “It is a great honour for me to serve as parish priest of this church which enshrines centuries, if not millennia of Syracusan history” shared Father Cappuccio. “The history which Jews and Christians share in this unique site underscores for me the fraternal bonds which unite us all in brotherhood as children one heavenly Father”.

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