Many people visit Ein Gedi National Park by the Dead Sea, with its lovely trail of desert streams, its tamer-than-most wildlife, and its stunning views. Standing under the waterfall where David confronted King Saul, with the Dead Sea spread out below and the red mountains of Moab glowing in the distance, is an experience to remember. In fact, to say that many visit here is a huge understatement: It is crowded with hikers, tourists, school groups, and pilgrims, all eager for the same timeless experience.
It’s surprising, then, to wander a few hundred meters south to the ruins of the ancient village of Ein Gedi and be the only one visiting the synagogue with its perfectly preserved mosaic floor. For 1,500 years this synagogue floor was buried in the desert waiting to tell the story of the little village. The design is exquisite: a carpet of geometrically precise intersecting circles surrounds a lovely central mosaic square of exotic birds. At the northern end of the synagogue (facing Jerusalem) is a bima and a semicircular niche for storing the Torah scroll. Among the many archaeological finds discovered here was a scroll from the book of Leviticus and a bronze seven-branched menorah. Synagogues had not yet reached their final status as houses of prayer, but were places for the public reading and study of the Torah. This was clearly the center of the community’s ritual activity.
We can learn a great deal about this town from the mosaic floor of its most important building. To begin with, Ein Gedi was extremely prosperous: No other contemporary synagogue could boast the artistry, simple elegance, and precise execution of this mosaic (and there are plenty of others in Israel that remain from the same era). For a small, remote settlement of no more than a few hundred people to bring the best artisans in the country to create such a masterpiece would have cost a king’s ransom. How, one might ask, could such an isolated spot by the Dead Sea have been conducive to such wealth?
In order to make some sense of this, and learn a few more things about the village, one needs to look with a discerning eye at the mosaic writing in the floor along the western wall.
A series of separate inscriptions appear. The uppermost lists the first 10 generations of humanity from Adam to the three sons of Noah. The builders chose to begin at the beginning, celebrating the creation of the world. This is followed by the names of the signs of the zodiac and the Hebrew months of the year, representing the cycle of time, and the Creator’s presence in our lives from month to month and year to year.
So far, these inscriptions are similar to those of other synagogue mosaics of the time, but what comes next is unique: a curse on those who start quarrels, slander their neighbors before the gentiles, steal, or “reveal the secret of the town.”
No one knows for sure what is meant by the “secret of the town” (it was, after all, a secret), but most scholars believe that it refers to the processing of the Ein Gedi balsam, a plant from which was derived a rare perfume. 1,500 years ago, crops were cultivated in their natural environment, and this plant was unique to the Dead Sea. Rare spices and perfumes were priceless, and this one was coveted by royalty (notably, in her day, by the Egyptian queen Cleopatra). If there was one area by the Dead Sea where this balsam could thrive, and only one village whose inhabitants knew how to render the raw material into its commercial form, then indeed the residents of Ein Gedi were sitting on a gold mine. Keeping the process a secret was an economic imperative of such magnitude that every citizen who entered and exited the synagogue needed to be reminded. And what better way to be reminded than in the building whose elegant artistry is a testimony to the importance of the spice trade that sustained the village?
The curse on the synagogue floor sheds light on the emerging reality of post-Second Temple Judaism, the portable Judaism that survived under foreign domination. The synagogue stood from the 3rd to the 6th century, during the period of Roman and Byzantine rule, and a certain common-sense approach to living as outsiders developed that served Jews wherever they found themselves for the next two millennia. Consider the list of delineated transgressions: Quarrels would weaken the community when facing the rulers. Slandering neighbors before the gentiles would be even more of a blow to the town’s unity. Finally, “the town’s secret” was the key to economic survival, without which there would be no money to pay for the embodiment of community that is the synagogue.
Which brings us to the final inscription, thanking the benefactors who contributed to the lovely building, “Yose, Ezron, and Hazikin, sons of Halfi.” If there was any doubt that this building was a synagogue, here a time-worn synagogue tradition reveals itself: We recognize the origin of the ubiquitous plaques honoring philanthropists who sustain Jewish institutions to this day. Every generation has its Montefiore, its Rothschild, and its Bronfman; and every small community its “Yose, Ezron, and Hazikin.”
Indeed, some things never change.