Astrology in the Ancient Synagogue

The use of the zodiac in synagogues from the rabbinic period indicates its symbolic importance in ancient Judaism.

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Prayers for divine protection, for God's mercy and forgiveness from sin, for the coming of salvation appropriately were recited in a setting that depicted the divine and heavenly forces that could answer those prayers. Astrological symbols thus functioned in ancient synagogues not as mere ornamentation but as vivid representations of the Hellenized Jews' perception of the cosmic order.

A Change in Practice

At the center of the representation of the zodiac at Beth Alpha, as in the fourth century floor at Harnat, Tiberias, and elsewhere, stood the sun-god Helios and his chariot. Despite the firm biblical, post-biblical, and rabbinic literary traditions against the creation of images of what is on earth, let alone of foreign deities or of the invisible God of the Israelites, it seems almost certain that those who worshipped in these synagogues knew exactly what this portrayal of Helios symbolized.

As E.R. Goodenough states, in their eyes this was "the divine charioteer of Hellenized Judaism, God himself," the God at whom all prayer and supplication was aimed.

The medium of astrology and the symbols of the zodiac thus portrayed for the common Jew of the talmudic period the cosmic order and the deity who had created that order and, with it, the entire world. This was the true God who responded to human prayer, controlling and shaping in the manner that astrology describes all that happens on earth.

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Dr. Alan J. Avery-Peck

Alan J. Avery-Peck is the Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies and Chair at Holy Cross University and a prolific author. Dr. Avery-Peck's primary research interest is Judaism in the first six centuries C.E., with particular attention to the literature of Rabbinic Judaism.