Ancient synagogues were decorated with art. Why?

January 17, 2022 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Since the Ten Commandments forbid making any graven image or likeness, how could ancient synagogues have artistic representations of animals and even the human form?

A. It is not only that these figures found on ancient synagogues do not seem to comply with the Ten Commandments, but also that they arose at the same time as the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud were formulating detailed laws, e.g. in the tractate Avodah Zarah, against idolatrous practices.

Amongst the leading scholars to address the problem was ER Goodenough, in his “Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period,” 1953.

His theory was that after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE there was a tug of war between the rabbinical leaders and the people; rabbinical control ceased to be effective and the people came under the influence of Greco-Roman culture even to the extent of introducing painting and sculpture into the synagogues.

Professor EE Urbach subjected Goodenough’s theory to searching criticism in an article in the Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 9, no. 3 (1959). He rejected the possibility that the sages had lost control and insisted that all the evidence says the opposite.

Further, the people who introduced representational art to the synagogues, e.g. at Dura-Europos, “did not live in an entirely different spiritual world from the sages”, and the same people introduced pictures with Biblical themes, utilising rabbinic exegesis and interpretation.

Rabbinic texts frequently indicate that by the 3rd century there was no evidence of idolatrous practice amongst Jews, and although there was occasional use of representational art in synagogues, burial places and elsewhere, it was not an indication of idolatry. Indeed the falsity of idolatry was constantly reiterated by sages and people alike.

But after the destruction of the Temple there were constant population shifts and many Jews moved to gentile cities and gentiles to Jewish cities.

Amongst the trades which Jews practised was the making of vessels, utensils and trinkets for gentile use, and these utilised conventional symbols. The sages ruled (Avodah Zarah 1:8) that it was forbidden to make ornaments for idols, though Rabbi Eliezer allowed it for payment – i.e. so no-one would think the Jew was making something he personally believed in.

Not all the sages were as lenient as Rabbi Eliezer, but there was a general feeling that Jews could be trusted not to worship the images since even the gentiles themselves were not serious about the powers of their idols or the efficacy of idol-worship.

How then did artistic representations enter the synagogues? Without idolatrous motives, but under the influence of the culture in which many Jews lived.

However, many of the sages bitterly criticised the practice; Rabbi Nachum ben Simai was known as “the holy one” because he had never looked at an image, not even on a coin (Jer. Talmud A.Z. 3:1, Kohelet R. 9:10).

Tacitus, Pliny, Strabo and Varro all remarked on the absence of statues and images from Jewish synagogues and cities.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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