Masada Synagogue

Masada Synagogue is a small almost square structure in the fortification of Masada situated on top of an isolated rock plateau, believed to have been used as a synagogue by the Jewish rebels during the First Jewish-Roman War.

circa 10 BCE

This early synagogue does not contain any bema (raised platform), as found in some later synagogues. It was constructed when Masada was first built as a palace-retreat for Herod the Great in the late first century BCE. Also it is not oriented toward Jerusalem, as was traditional in synagogues built later—after the fall of the Second Temple. That small room may have functioned as a place to store the sacred scrolls.

circa 10 BCE

The main pillared hall does not contain any ark niche, so the scrolls may have been brought out from the small room as needed. Strengthening this possibility is the fact that the small room’s floor appears to have been used as a genizah, a place to bury worn-out sacred writings. Two shallow pits found in its floor contained scrolls — a copy of Deuteronomy in one, Ezekiel in the other. The benches were made of quarried stone and broken pieces of dressed stone taken from other buildings on Masada; portions of column drums belonged originally to the terraces of the northern palace.

circa 10 BCE

This is the earliest synagogue yet uncovered, however, was found in the 1960s by Yigael Yadin’s excavating teams at Masada, the fortress height deep in the Judean wilderness. This aerial view looks straight down on the synagogue, built into the casemate double row of defensive walls on the northwest rim of the fortress. (The sharp drop-off of the western scarp can be seen at the lower edge of the photo.)

circa 10 BCE

Originally built during the Herodian building phase, the Masada synagogue went through two periods of use. All that remains of that original synagogue are the outer walls of the slightly rectangular structure (39 by 48 feet) and several of the columns that supported its roof. The synagogue was rebuilt and reused by the Jewish Zealots (illustration) who occupied Masada from 66 to 74 CE.

circa 10 BCE

The building is located merged with the casemate wall, on the western flank of the Masada fortress. The entrance faces east and the building as a whole is oriented toward Jerusalem and because one ostracon found on the floor was inscribed "priestly tithe" and another "Hezekiah," it is speculated that this structure must have been a synagogue. It is one of the four tentatively identified second-temple synagogues, although the evidence that the building seen above was a synagogue in the Herodian construction is logical, not archaeological (it is unlikely that Herod would not have provided a place fo worship for Jewish members of his court).

circa 10 BCE

It is oriented with its entrance on the east, and it has been suggested that early synagogues may have faced east in imitation of the alignment of the Jerusalem Temple. The four-tiered benches around the walls were built during the Jewish Rebels' hold period, as was the small room partitioned off at the lower left of the structure.

circa 10 BCE

The benches were made of quarried stone and broken pieces of dressed stone taken from other buildings on Masada; portions of column drums belonged originally to the terraces of the northern palace. Architectural adaptation of the rebels' reconstruction of the synagogue included tearing out a wall and constructing a small chamber to serve as a genizah (storage room for scrolls).

circa 10 BCE

Aerial view of the western flank of the Masada plateau with the Roman ramp leading up to the breach point close to the synagogue.

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