Ancient Eshtemoa Synagogue Reveals Jewish Life in 4th Century

Menorah designs, coins and inscription in Hebrew discovered in Hebron Hills region synagogue.

23.10.18, 12:39
(PHOTO: Ancient Synagogue in Eshtemoa, 2009. Credit: Meir Rotter, Wiki Commons.)
The walls of ancient synagogue of Eshtemoa near Hebron still stand, and periodic visits include Jewish prayer services. 

The city of Eshtemoa is listed in Joshua 21:14 as a city given to the children of Aaron the high priest. It is mentioned in the same paragraph as other communities in the Southern Hebron Hills region such as Hebron and Jutta (Yatta).

It is also mentioned in I Chronicles 6:42, in which the division of the Land of Israel is reiterated, "they gave Hebron in the land of Judea and its surrounding pasture lands, but to the fields of the city they gave to Caleb son of Jefunneh. To the sons of Aaron they gave the cities of refuge: Hebron and Libnah with its pasturelands, Jattir and Eshtemoa with its pasturelands."

In I Samuel 31:28 it states that after David successfully defended the nation against the Amalekites he sent the spoils to Eshtemoa as well as other cities in the region including Hebron. 

An individual named Hasa of Eshtemoa is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud. An Amora, or scholars who is quoted in the text, he lived during the end of the 3rd-century or beginning of the 4th-century CE. The Talmud states he was visited by Rabbi Yasa (also spelled Jasa) of Tiberias.

Shmuel Safrai, the late Professor Emeritus of History of the Jewish People at Hebrew University assumes that the Rabbi Yasa mentioned in the Talmud is the same as Rabbi Isi, who is mentioned in the inscription at the synagogue in ancient Susya. 

Eusebius of Caesarea, the 4th century historian wrote that Eshtemoa was "a very large village of Jews."

Today, As-Samu, also called Al-Samu or Samoa, is under the Palestinian Authority's Hebron Governorate, and has a population of about 20,000, according to PA statistics. It is home to the 5-floor Ibn Baz Al-Khairi Islamic Center headquarters, a medical clinic, schools and mosques. 

The ancient synagogue is listed as one of 12 specified Jewish Holy Sites in the 1993 Oslo Accords that were supposed to have free access and worship.

Numerous remains were discovered there, which attest to a large and well-established Jewish community in the Mishnah and Talmudic period. The most important of these is the Great Synagogue, which was exposed in the center of the city. Architectural fragments with characteristic Jewish symbols were discovered such four seven-branched menorahs carved onto door lintels, one of which is displayed at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

Archaeological excavations were carried out in 1934 by the researchers, L.A. Mayer and A. Reifenberg. They located a monumental the synagogue with a mosaic inscription and a large cache of coins.
Jacob (Yaakov) Pinkerfeld (also spelled Pinkerfield) designed a floor plan of the site. His later study of the Tomb of King David on Mount Zion in Jerusalem revealed a resemblance of archaeological details, leading him to believe the King David's Tomb building as seen today was originally a synagogue. Pinkerfeld also studied the Avraham Avinu synagogue in Hebron. His studies were cut short when he was one of the four archaeologists murdered by Jordanians in the Ramat Rachel shooting attack of 1956.

The excavations continued after the Six-Day War when Jews once again had access to the Biblical heartland. Ze'ev Yeivin on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted excavations in 1969 and the synagogue was prepared for visits by the general public. 

The dimensions of the synagogue are impressive: 30 meters by 13.33 meters and the surviving western wall to a height of 8.35 meters. Ze'ev Yeivin hypothesized that the roof was made of wooden frames with tiles. In front of the synagogue is a plaza paved with large stones with a large mosaic inscription.

The floor of the synagogue was decorated with a medium-sized mosaic. Only a small portion of the mosaic survived in which can be seen the image of a tree and a dedication inscription in Aramaic. The mosaic dates to the fourth century CE and is 10 x 20 meters (200 square meters). It consists of five colors, and the density of the stones are 100 stones per square meter. The edge of the hall is decorated with a tree with two cut branches on its trunk. The tree landscape bears long elongated fruits on the edge. In the center of the hall there were medallions.

At the bottom of the room next to the synagogue, a large collection of silver was discovered inside five potsherds. The cache includes a collection of silver objects, including jewelry, alloys and slag silver. The researchers believe that the objects were collected due to the great weight (about 26 kg), and not due to artistic value.

Periodic visits are arranged between the Israel Defense Force and the Palestinian Authority. One of the recent visits took place ion April of 2018. 

Jewish worshipers in tallit read from a Torah scroll as they stood under the sun in the ruins of the synagogue and held Shaharit services. The trip was organized by the Mount Hevron Regional Council and the IDF's Judea Brigade. 

Dr. Doron Sar Avi, Director of the Land of Israel Studies Department at Herzog College, told participants that most of the menorahs displayed in the Israel Museum are from the Hebron Hills region. The local Jews of the time chose the menorah as their symbol, which they engraved on the doorposts of homes and synagogues.

Yohai Damari, head of Hebron Hills Regional Council told Israel National News, "this morning we merited to participate in an emotional event. Thousands of years later, we once again hear the voice of prayer and song. This is a special place, whose roots go back to the Second Temple era. It gives legitimacy to the Jewish communities in this area."

In December of 2017 a trip was arranged to light Hanukah candles at the site where ancient images of menorahs were discovered.

A visit in 2009 revealed that Nazi swastikas were scrawled on the walls. Dr. Sar-Avi, stated the swastikas were not on the walls when he last visited the ruins, with the commander of the Hevron Brigade, two years ago. Before the 2009 tour, the last time organized public visit was in 2001.

Dr. Sar-Avi speculated that one reason PA residents have not destroyed the ruins may be because serve as supports for an adjacent mosque built next to the site in later times. He also noted that several Arab occupied homes in As-Samu include  doorposts that stood in the ruins, including depictions of menorahs.

The synagogue that existed in ancient As-Samu is significantly larger than the more widely-known ancient synagogue in nearby Susiya, he added.

Both synagogues were built around the same time, and Jews abandoned them for unknown reasons, possibly because of a declining economy, desert marauders or the Muslim conquest. Whereas the mosaic floor, steps, some columns and the entrance to the Susiya synagogue remain intact, little remains in Samoa except for the walls and stones where the Holy Ark once stood.                                     

Other ancient synagogues found in the Hebron Hills region include Susya, Maon, and Anim.

A modern community nearby is called Mitzpe Eshtemoa, established in 2002 by yeshiva students from Otniel's hesder yeshiva. It is located between Metar and Otniel and has a mix of religious and secular residents.
United States contact info:

1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/hebronofficial
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/hebronfund

Israeli contact info:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hebron.machpela
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/hebronvideo