Bet Alfa

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BET ALFA (Heb. בֵּית אַלְפָא), place in Israel in the eastern Jezreel Valley at the foot of Mount Gilboa. The name is historical and has been preserved in the Arab designation of the site, Beit Ilfa, which may have some connection with the proper name Ilfa or Hilfa which occurs in the Talmud (Ta'an. 21a). The foundations of an ancient synagogue were discovered in 1929 near Bet Alfa by E.L. *Sukenik and N. *Avigad, who were conducting excavations on behalf of the Hebrew University. The synagogue covered an area of 46 × 92 ft. (14 × 28 m) and included a courtyard, narthex, basilica-type hall with a nave and two side aisles, and, apparently, a women's gallery. The apse at the end of the hall was oriented south toward Jerusalem, and a small cavity in its floor probably served as a genizah; above it once stood an ark for Scrolls of the Law. The entire floor of the structure is paved with mosaics: the courtyard, narthex, and aisles in simple geometric designs, while the floor of the nave is decorated with mosaic panels surrounded by a broad ornamental border. Two inscriptions were found at the entrance to the hall: one (in Aramaic) states that the mosaic was made during the reign of Emperor Justin (undoubtedly Justin i, 518–27); the other (in Greek) gives the names of the mosaicists, *Marianos and his son Ḥanina. Symbolic animals are depicted on either side of the inscriptions: a lion on the right and a bull on the left. The three mosaic panels in the center of the hall depict (from north to south): (1) The Offering of Isaac, which shows Abraham pointing a drawn knife at Isaac who is bound near an altar; behind Abraham a ram is tied to a tree, and alongside it appears the inscription "And behold a ram." The hand of God is seen between the sun's rays above; Abraham's two servants and donkey stand behind him; a band of palm trees separate this scene from the next one. (2) The Signs of the Zodiac, with the sun in the center in the form of a youth riding a chariot drawn by four horses; each sign has its Hebrew designation inscribed above it. In the corners appear the four seasons of the year (Tishri, Tevet, Nisan, Tammuz), each in the form of the bust of a winged woman adorned with jewels. (3) The Ark of the Synagogue, in which the ark has a gable roof with an "eternal light" suspended from its top and two birds perched at its corners; on either side is a lion with a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum) and above it and between them are depicted lulavim (palm branches), etrogim (citrons), a shofar, and censers. Curtains adorn the scene on the left and right sides.

The simple but strong style of the mosaic pavement represents a folk art that appears to have developed among the Jewish villagers of Galilee. The figures are depicted frontally and the artist took great pains to make each scene expressive. The mosaics of Bet Alfa are striking in their coloring and stylization and are among the finest examples of Jewish art in the Byzantine period. In 1960 the synagogue structure was renovated and the pavement repaired by the Israel Government.

[Michael Avi-Yonah]

The kibbutz of Bet Alfa was founded in 1922 by pioneers from Poland. It was the first settlement of the Kibbutz Arẓi ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa'ir movement. For over 14 years it was the easternmost village of the Jewish region in the central valleys and was exposed to Arab attacks in the 1936–39 riots. In 1968 it numbered 670 inhabitants, in the mid 1990 its population increased to 785 residents, and at the end of 2002 it was 589. Its economy is based on intensive and diversified farming (field crops, dairy cattle, and fishery) and industry (thermostats, trailers, and a quarry).

[Efraim Orni]


E.L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha (1932); N. Avigad, Bikat Beit She'an (1964), 63–70; E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 1 (1953), 241–53; Roth, Art, 209–13.