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Was the Zodiac Part of Jewish Beliefs?

In December of 1928 a group of construction workers began to unearth pieces of a mosaic floor. Work was halted and experts called in to examine the potential artifacts. What was found astounded the experts and continues to raise questions today, more than eighty years later. When the area was cleared and fully excavated a majestic mosaic floor was revealed. The mosaic floor measured an astounding 91 feet (28m) by 46 feet (14m) and was in excellent condition. What was depicted on the floor raised more than casual questions and there were no quick or easy explanations.

Located near Beth Alpha, the floor had belonged to a Jewish synagogue occupied around 520 A.D. The area had been the victim of a massive earthquake and the roof of the synagogue fell in as a single intact piece. Fortunately the plaster from the ceiling acted as a protective covering for the mosaic floor beneath. Mosaic floors are always fascinating because they can offer information and insight in the way of maps, names and references to regional events or peoples. This mosaic contained a number of images, several you would not expect to find in a synagogue, while some did not seem to belong at all.

Three separate sets of images were clearly depicted on the mosaic. Just inside the doorway was a depiction from Genesis 22 when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac. This type of depiction is known as Righteous Ancestors. This is the traditional beginning of the Jewish faith and it is not surprising to find this scene in a synagogue. The same cannot be said of the second image.

This second shows four women surrounding a wheel with twelve panels. The panels are clearly marked in Hebrew with the twelve signs of the zodiac. The four women represent the seasons and in the center is the image of what appears to be Helios, the pagan god of the sun driving his chariot. Given the fact the Zodiac is considered a pagan belief by Jews, it is surprising to find it in any synagogue, and it is certainly shocking to find it so prominently displayed.

The final image, located the furthest from the doorway depicts the Ark of the Covenant as well as Menorah and several other items clearly associated with the Jewish faith. These images, along with those of the Righteous Ancestors are clearly Jewish, but why do they share a place with the Zodiac? Why would any Jew place images from a pagan religion in their synagogue? Where these Jews studying, following, or perhaps even worshipping the elements of the Zodiac? For many, these images stir up disturbing thoughts and cast doubts on the Jewish people of that era. Are there any simple answers which can explain these odd combinations? Can we decipher what the original builders intended when they constructed these mosaics? Several theories have been presented, but many fail immediately when the facts are more closely examined.

It is clear this was a Jewish Synagogue, and there is no doubt the images are of the zodiac and not from any Biblical account or scripture. Given this, the first thought is that perhaps this synagogue belonged to a splinter group or cult which had broken away from the Jewish mainstream. This explanation fits the evidence at Beth Alpha, but runs aground when all the evidence is examined. The mosaic floor at Beth Alpha with its pictures of the Zodiac turns out are not unique. In fact, as many as eleven other synagogues have been discovered which also display the signs of the Zodiac and other elements found at Beth Alpha. With a dozen or more synagogues with the same set of diagrams, the theory of a rouge cult begins to seem far-fetched at best.

Perhaps the elements of the Zodiac are used strictly as a tool, a calendar of sorts. This theory, with little support to begin with, falls apart completely with a closer examination of the images at Beth Alpha. The elements of the seasons are incorrectly placed, leaving the seasons in the wrong order. This eliminates the possibility of the symbols being used as a calendar, but does raise some additional questions. Why would someone go to the trouble of making such a beautiful mosaic but get the details wrong? Was it designed and constructed by someone with little or no knowledge of the Zodiac? Who would fit that description better than a devout Jew who saw the Zodiac as a useless pagan symbol? If so useless, and if they had no desire to get the details correct, why include it in the synagogue at all? Many look for complicated answers, but the explanation may be far simpler than most realize.

In his article 'Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols" writer Walter Zanger puts forth an interesting possibility. The images shown on the mosaic are not items of worship, but are symbolic of the journey of man and his relationship with God. They are a timeline which begins when you enter the synagogue and concludes at the front of the synagogue. The first image is that of Abraham, when God set aside a people for Himself. No longer were there many gods, there was a singular God who wanted to have a relationship with mankind. Moving forward man acquired a knowledge of the seasons, the routine and regiment of nature and this extended on to the planets, stars and constellations.

The Jewish belief was far different than those of Astrology. Rather than relying on luck, or which constellation you were born under, they believed man had free will. His destiny was not determined by how the stars aligned, but revolved around God, who created the stars and constellations. It is believed the image in the center of the Zodiac was not Helios, but was a depiction of God who the Jews realized ruled over everything, who was literally the center of all existence. This was man's learning period, his infancy with God.

The final image was that of the Ark of the Covenant, which had special meaning to the Jewish people, but also represented the culmination of our journey through history. Tradition holds the Ark of the Covenant held the Ten Commandments, which not only represented God's law, but also God's interaction and His covenant with man, more preciously, the Jewish people. Now God was not a distant mysterious figure, he had directly interacted with man. Not an individual, but His covenant was with all mankind, written in stone for all to see. This was a major difference from how God had interacted with His people previously.

The journey is now complete, from God's first test of Abraham in approximately 2,000 B.C. through the Babylonian's introduction of the Zodiac and concluding with God's Covenant with man following the Exodus from Egypt. While the images do represent pagan symbols, the fact they were incorrectly displayed showed the images were not considered important but simply a sign post on man's spiritual journey.

There is bound to be confusion and major questions whenever pagan symbols are used or combined with any Jewish or Christian writings or artwork. In this instance it seems the point was not to incorporate the pagan beliefs into the Jewish faith, but to show man's developing relationship with God. While this archeological discovery does not confirm or deny any historical aspects of the Bible, it does provide an interesting insight into the lives, thoughts, and beliefs of Jewish peoples more than 1,500 years ago.

Sources

Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols - Walter Zanger , Biblical Archaeology Society, 2012

The Ancient Synagogue of Beth-Alpha - E.L. Sukenik, Jerusalem Magnes press , 1932

Comments 2 comments

Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank 13 days ago from Chicago, IL

Taken from Or Sameach

it is widely accepted in academia that the zodiac signs as we know them [Aries, the Ram; Taurus, the Bull; Gemini, the Twins; Cancer, the Crab; Leo, the Lion; Virgo, the Virgin; Libra, the Balance; Scorpio, the Scorpion; Sagittarius, the Archer; Capricorn, the Goat; Aquarius, the Water Bearer; and Pisces, the Fishes] originated in ancient Mesopotamia. The Greeks later adopted the symbols from the Babylonians and passed them on to other ancient civilizations such as the Romans who came much later. If the Jews received the zodiac signs from another culture, it was not from the Romans but from the Babylonians.

However, the Jewish perspective is that the signs of the zodiac were positioned at the time of Creation, and their influence is intimated in the Torah. Thus our Talmudic Sages describe in great detail the dynamic between the progression of the creation of the zodiac signs and their corresponding influence on Mankind (Pesikta, ch. 4). Furthermore, the entire wisdom of the Torah, including the knowledge of the zodiac, was taught by G-d to Adam and his descendents. Even though it was eventually perverted and incorporated by most of humanity into idol worship, a select few such as Abraham retained its true meaning.

So writes Rambam, "Their mistaken reasoning was that since G-d created the skies and spheres as part of nature, and placed them high up and gave them dignity, as servants who serve Him, it would be appropriate to laud, glorify and honor them as wellOnce this matter was decided upon, they proceeded to build temples to the stars, to bring sacrifices to them, to laud and glorify them verbally and to bow down to themBut as for the Creator, only certain individuals recognized Him, such as Hanoch, Metushelach, Noah, Shem and Ever. Things continued in this manner until Abrahamwas born" (Avodat Kochavim 1:1).

In fact, regarding Abrahams having no children, the Torah states, "And Abraham said, Lord G-d, what will you give me, seeing I go childless?.And He brought him outside and said, Look toward the heaven and count the stars if you are able to number them, and He said to him, So shall thy seed be" (Gen. 15:5-8). Our Sages explained that Abraham saw in the stars that the astrological influence under which he was born dictated that he would have no children. G-d replied, I will intervene such that your offspring will be as numerous as the very stars in which you see youll have no children (Shabbat 156a).

The Zohar, which according to Jewish tradition is attributed to the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai of the 2nd century, correlates the 12 signs of the zodiac to the 12 Hebrew months and the 12 tribes of Israel (I:173). Since the essence of each tribe is essential to the nature of the Jewish People, which is inextricably bound with the purpose of Creation and its future fruition, this supports the ideas mentioned above that the influence of the zodiac was fixed from Creation and known to the Jewish People from the time of their inception.

It is important to remember that since the Hebrew months literally correspond to the moon, each month begins and ends with the new moon, and the full moon is in the middle of the month. Therefore, unlike the common, incorrect version of the zodiac based on the Gregorian calendar, each sign is in harmony with one month, with its greatest influence during the full moon of that month. One of the earliest, ancient Jewish texts called Sefer Yetzira correlates the zodiac signs with the months, tribes and 12 faculties as follows:

The sign of Nisan is Tleh/Aries/Ram corresponding to Judah and the faculty of Speech. This is the month the Jews overcame the Egyptian deity of the ram. Judah means "thanks", related to speech and on Passover of this month the Pascal lamb was offered and we recite the haggada.

Iyar is Shor/Taurus/Bull corresponding to Issachar (Torah scholars) and the faculty of Thought. In this month we must be as strong and stubborn as a bull in preparation to receive the Torah.

Sivan is Teumim/Gemini/Twins corresponding to Zevulun (Torah supporters) and the faculty of Motion. This is the month of Shavuot when we received the double Tablets and should strengthen our efforts to support Torah.

Tamuz is Sartan/Cancer/Crab corresponding to Reuven (means "see") and the faculty of Sight. Just as the crab hides, so we should refrain from the distractions of this summer month and direct our sights toward spiritual pursuits.

Av is Ari/Leo/Lion corresponding to Shimon (means "hear") and the faculty of Hearing. In this month, the lion-like nations of Babylon and Rome destroyed the Temlpe and we must listen to the lesson and return to G-d.

Elul is Betula/Virgo/Virgin corresponding to Gad and the faculty of Action. This is the month of repenting, to purify our thoughts and deeds in preparation of Rosh Hashana.

Tishrei is Moznaim/Libra/Scales corresponding to Ephraim (fruitful) and the faculty of Coition. In this month is Rosh Hashana on which we are judged, and hope to merit a productive new year.

Cheshvan is Akrav/Scorpio/Scorpion corresponding to Menashe and the faculty of Smell. This month lacks a holiday and may be spiritually cold as venom, yet one must work hard to change the letters of Menashe to "neshama" spirituality.

Kislev is Kashet/Sagittarius/Archer corresponding to Benjamin (warriors) and the faculty of Sleep. Here we must direct and propel the inspiration from Chanuka through the rest of the winter to overcome spiritual slumber.

Tevet is Gedi/Capricorn/Kid corresponding to Dan (judge) and the faculty of Anger. The siege against Jerusalem began in this month as a result of baseless hatred among Jews. Here we must be as steadfast as a goat to refrain from judging unfavorably which leads to anger and destruction.

Shevat is Dli/Aquarius/Water Drawer corresponding to Asher (wealth) and the faculty of Taste. By this month most of the rain in Israel has fallen and we celebrate Tu bShevat by eating bountiful fruits.

Adar is Dagim/Pisces/Fish corresponding to Naftali and the faculty of Laughter. Just as fish are covered by the sea, in this month we observe Purim which celebrates the hidden miracles of G-d which bring salvation and joy to the Jewish people.


ThomasRoger profile image

ThomasRoger 12 days ago from Sherwood Ar Author

Very interesting, provides a different insight, but not sure I agree with all of their findings. Thank you for sharing this.

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