Distinguishing Between Old Samaritan and Jewish Synagogues



(Photo: Israelite Samaritan mosaic at The Good Samaritan Inn Museum) 

Four Factors

Archaeological excavations in Israel and neighbouring countries reveal that during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods, Samaritan and Jewish communities sometimes lived alongside each other. This raises a question: how can we distinguish between the remains of Samaritan and Jewish synagogues?

In my view, four distinct differences help to identify the remains of a synagogue, and hence the neighbourhood or village, as Jewish or Samaritan. These are: Orientation, Location, Style of Decoration and Age.

Synagogue Orientation

Samaritan Synagogues face the Israelite Samaritans’ sole sacred place, Mount Gerizim. This holds true for all Samaritan synagogues, irrespective of where they were built. It is confirmed by examination of Samaritan synagogues in Damascus, Cairo, Gaza, Salt, Beit Shean, Islands in the Reed Sea, Thessaloniki, Rome, Delos, Crete, Sicily, Haifa, Caesarea, Ramleh, Yavneh and elsewhere. Wherever they are found, the front of a Samaritan Synagogue faces Mount Gerizim. By contrast, Jewish Synagogues face Jerusalem.

Synagogue Location

In some cases, the orientation of the Synagogue does not help identification. Temple Mount in Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim in Samaria are almost on the same line of longitude, with Mount Gerizim approximately 40 miles (64km)  north of Temple Mount. Consequently, it is difficult to identify Synagogues due south of Temple Mount or due north of Mount Gerizim, because there is hardly any difference in their orientation.

Here, synagogue location may be the most useful guide. If the synagogue is found outside the living area of the neighbourhood or village, it is likely to be Samaritan. Jewish synagogues were typically built centrally, inside the neighbourhood or village.

The location of Samaritan synagogues outside the living area may be seen at sites such as Chirbet Samara, Zur Nathan, El Chirbeh, Shechem (Nablus), the summit of Mount Gerizim, Thessaloniki, Sicily, and recently in Beit Shean.

The practice arose from the commandment, obeyed by the Samaritans, to build the place of worship beyond the camp living area: “… And everyone who seeks Shehmaa (the Almighty) will go out to the Tent of Meeting which is out of the camp” (Exodus, 33:7).

Antonius of Placentia, a Christian pilgrim who visited Samaritan villages in 579 CE, recorded that: on the Sabbath the Samaritans dressed in white and went outside the village to pray at the synagogue, where a priest received visitors.

The practice of building outside the neighbourhood continued into modern times. The earthquake of 1927 destroyed homes and forced the Samaritans of Nablus (Shechem) to leave Jasmine, their neighborhood in the old city. In 1933, they relocated to a new neighbourhood west of Nablus. They built a new synagogue beside this neighbourhood in 1947.

The Israelite Samaritans established a population centre outside Nablus, in Holon, Israel in 1955. There, between 1959 and 1963, they built their first synagogue in the State of Israel. Again, the synagogue was located outside their neighbourhood. Later, as the population grew, limited space forced them to build new houses on three sides of the synagogue yard.

(Photo: Samaritan synagogue, Kiriat Luza)

Samaritan Synagogue,  Kiriat Luza







(Photo: Samaritan synagogue, Holon)

Samaritan Synagogue, Holon

When the Holon and Nablus communities built a common synagogue on Mount Gerizim in 1964, they built the synagogue outside the Kiriat Luza neighbourhood. Since then,the neighbourhood expanded and has come very close to the synagogue, due to limited building space.

Synagogue Decoration

The third factor distinguishing between Jewish and Samaritan synagogues is the style of interior decoration, particularly in ground mosaics. Influenced by foreign cultures, the Jews employed pagan symbols in some synagogue mosaics, for example: the Zodiac and the heads of impure animals, such as lions and tigers.

In Samaritan synagogues, even the most complicated mosaics are free of pagan symbols. Samaritan artists were careful to use only symbols mentioned in the Torah: The Tabernacle utensils, particularly the Menorah (seven-branched candelabrum); the Shofar (ramshorn), trumpets, and the heads of pure birds and animals, such as doves, sheep and goats. Consequently, when viewed from ground level a Samaritan synagogue interior has a simple, modest appearance.


Ancient Israelite Samaritan Mosaic under restoration

(Photo: Israelite Samaritan mosaic under restoration at The Good Samaritan Inn Museum)

Synagogue Age

In general, Samaritan synagogues were built much earlier than Jewish ones. Until 70 CE the Jews still had their Temple in Jerusalem, while the Israelite Samaritans had no central temple, since they considered the Temple of Moses the only true Temple ever consecrated. The oldest Samaritan evidence, concerning prayers and the style of singing poems and hymns in synagogues, dates from the Hellenistic period.

Before that time the people are likely to have assembled in public meeting places to pray, as they did each year on Mount Gerizim during Passover and the Pilgrimages.


Benyamim Tsedaka

Photos: Ori Orhof

See also Ancient Samaritan Synagogue Discovered