Bill Slott

The Ancient Synagogue of Arbel: Calamity and Charity

On the side of a hill approaching the Arbel Cliffs just above the Sea of Galilee lie the remains of an ancient town. Arbel’s history stretches at least as far back as the Maccabees, but is also mentioned in the Bible by the prophet Hosea. At the center of the ruins stands the old synagogue from the Roman Era.

Arbel is one of many ancient synagogues in the Galil, but it’s a personal favorite of mine. It sits alone on the side of the hill with a stunning view of the Golan Heights to the East. The site is clean, accessible to the handicapped and can be visited free of charge 24/7. Its outstanding feature is the huge Eastern door, cut entirely out of one piece of stone, a true monolith. According to tradition, the Eastern door of the Temple, through which the Messiah will someday enter, was carved from one piece of rock. There are over a hundred ancient synagogues in Israel and this monolithic feature is unique to Arbel.  It is a clear reference to the Great Eastern Door of the Temple and the Messianic Age.

This building took between 40 and 80 years to build, with the meager funds and the back-breaking labor of the few dozen families of a simple Galilean farming village.  The people who laid the cornerstone knew that they were unlikely to live to see the building completed. And yet, they took upon themselves the added challenge of building the main Eastern entrance (and apparently the two adjoining smaller portals) out of one giant stone. Upon entering through that still massive portal one can clearly see the semi-circular niche for the Holy Ark on the wall facing Jerusalem, as well as the surrounding stone benches, some of the still standing pillars and a curious little stone with a special receptacle in the back corner of the building.  This was the “anonymous” charity box. The giver would leave money or food in this spot, not knowing who would take it, and the recipient would take the charity not knowing who had left it. This was “anonymous giving,” just as prescribed by Maimonides a thousand years later.

Nitai of Arbel was a rabbi of the second century B.C., who was born and grew up in this village, and ultimately went on to become a leading sage in Jerusalem. He is quoted in the Mishna as saying: “Keep your distance from bad neighbors, ally yourself not with the wicked and do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” Nitai lived in times of controversy, intrigue and repression from within and without, so he knew of what he spoke. But he was an otherwise minor historical figure, who lent his name to the town and vice versa.

The village thrived in its little corner of the Galilee until the Moslem Conquest in the seventh century. The name and location of the village was preserved by the Arab village of Irbil, which became Moshav Arbel of today. You can smell the dairy farms of Arbel a couple of hundred feet up the hill. But the Arbel synagogue has transitioned from its role as an ancient ruin to a modern memorial.

A small plaque and a lovely overlook in memory of Max Steinberg z”l stand next to the synagogue.   Max was a young American immigrant with no family in Israel who fell in battle during “Protective Edge,” the 2014 war in Gaza.  His parents, who had never been to Israel, flew from L.A. for the funeral, which was held at the National Military Cemetery at Mount Herzl.  With no friends or relatives in the country, the bereaved Steinbergs assumed that they would be attending a small ceremony with a few of Max’s army buddies and an official military escort.  When they arrived at Mount Herzl they were greeted by 30,000 people, all strangers, all responding to a spontaneous flurry of social media appeals to come to the funeral in solidarity. This too was a form of the Rambam’s “anonymous giving.” The plaque, for a young man who fell in love with Israel’s hiking trails, is a fitting memorial, but the story of his funeral will be told for years.

“Do not lose hope in the face of calamity.”  Nitai of Arbel had a message for the parents of Max Steinberg. And the Steinbergs had a message for Israel. They set up a scholarship fund in Max’s memory at Ben Gurion University. Their own version of the little receptacle in the synagogue wall.

About the Author
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.