When archaeologists first began to excavate ancient synagogues in Israel from the Byzantine era, the discoveries of elaborate mosaics on their floors came as an unsettling surprise to many people. Especially puzzling was the recurrence of one particular motif: a wheel consisting of the twelve zodiac signs, at the centre of which stood a mythological representation of the sun portrayed—according to the Greek convention—as the deity Helios driving a four-horse chariot.
Modern Jews had long since accepted the rationalist verdict of Maimonides that astrology is a silly superstition that is adamantly opposed by “authentic” Judaism. And of course, the graphic portrayal of a heathen god in a site devoted to monotheistic worship seemed altogether incomprehensible.
Indeed, some scholars have continued to interpret all this as evidence that the average Jews who worshipped on those mosaic floors observed an eclectic blend of Hebrew monotheism and Hellenistic spirituality; but they had little interest in the austere legalism of the rabbis who (it was argued) constituted no more than a tiny and isolated sect removed from the Jewish masses. Others argued that those mosaics expressed an ancient priestly ideology, which was preoccupied with the sun and advocated a liturgical division into twenty-four divisions, corresponding to the ancient Sadducee calendar .
Zodiac floors have been found or attested in about half a dozen sites scattered through the land of Israel, including Hammat Tiberias, Beit Alpha, Na‘aran, Susiya, Husifa, and Sepphoris. They conform to a very standardized structure: in the centre sits the hub containing the sun-chariot, around which extends the wheel whose twelve spokes or slices are identified by the Hebrew names and symbols of the constellations, and sometimes by the names of the months. Because the rooms and their floors are square, this design leaves room for four triangular corners that are devoted to the four seasons—identified, as per the standard talmudic convention, by the names of their first months: Tishrei, Ṭevet, Nisan and Tammuz. This too is a bit odd, given that the middle eastern climate does not really have four seasons, but merely a rainy and a dry time. However, the solstices and equinoxes are objective meteorological facts—and after all, those four corners had to be filled with something. It has been suggested that the zodiac motif was originally and primarily used on domed ceilings, but ceilings do not survive the ravages of history, so it is only the synagogue floors that remain.
Comparative studies reveal that similar motifs were quite widespread in architecture throughout the Mediterranean basin in the pre-Byzantine world, though the pagan versions were considerably more diverse than their Jewish counterparts. The christianization of the empire in the fourth century inspired an aggressive ideological opposition to all manifestations of astrology; and at least one church spokesman wrote derisively of the Jewish tendency to perpetuate pagan folly. Indeed, some scholars count this among the numerous instances where Jews adopted a foreign practice and continued to uphold it tenaciously long after the gentiles themselves had abandoned it.
Scholarship has had several decades to ponder the anomalies of the zodiac mosaics, but no real consensus has emerged. The old notion that rabbinic Judaism is inherently opposed to graphic art has long since been abandoned. It is also quite obvious that many Jews did acknowledge some type of astrology, though this outlook may have been more prominent in Babylonia, the birthplace of that ancient science, than in the land of Israel.
The scholarly questions have shifted, for the most part, from: how were the zodiac floors possible? to: why were they so prevalent? and: how did they fit in with Jewish values and synagogue practice? The answers that have been proposed are too manifold to survey here, and I shall confine myself to a few theories that make sense to me.
One can hardly overstate the importance of the calendar to Jewish life, with its intricate sequence of annual dates set aside for the commemoration of historical exploits and tragedies, as well as marking the cycles of nature and agriculture. Much of this sequence is celebrated through communal worship, scriptural readings and preaching in the synagogues.
In spite of their centrality to the religious rhythms, the Hebrew months offer relatively little symbolic potential of the sort that would be of use to homilists or poets. In the Torah they are given no names at all, but are merely identified by number. Eventually, the Jews adopted their Babylonian names, but those names are usually obscure Akkadian words, or (as in the case of Tammuz) actual pagan gods. By equating the months with their astrological signs, the worshippers could associate them with familiar inoffensive themes, such as rams, scales, water-vessels and the like, that could be easily incorporated into sermons and liturgical poetry. We observe this practice in several poetic texts by classic liturgical poets, such as Eleazar Kallir and Yannai, in which themes such as the blessings of water and rain or the devastation of Jerusalem are illustrated by references to the zodiac signs.
It also seems probable that for Jews who lived after the twilight of Greek and Roman paganism, a personification of the sun riding a chariot no longer conjured up associations with the mighty Helios or Sol Invictus. In the case of the Sepphoris mosaic, it is possible that the artists intentionally refrained from motifs that overtly evoked the sun god. At any rate, the primitive portrayals in the Byzantine mosaics have a crude cartoon-like quality to them. By then the image had become a religiously neutral one for representing the sun, in a manner analogous to our own casual invoking of Norse or Roman deities in the English names of our months and weekdays. And after all, the image of “chariots of God” is found in the Bible. It is in fact arguable that the consistent linking of the sun to a wheeled chariot is a distinctly Jewish development that has no precise equivalent in pagan art. Some rabbinic interpretations identified the human-like figure enthroned atop the mysterious chariot in Ezekiel’s famous vision as Metatron, the “prince of the divine countenance,” the foremost angel who bore the name of his Master and played a prominent role in ancient Jewish mysticism.
An early medieval midrash deftly illustrates how the figure of the sun at the reins of a divine chariot would enhance liturgical allusions to the sacred seasons. Pirḳé de-Rabbi Eliezer, expounding references from Ecclesiastes and Psalms, depicted the chariot emblazoned with the letters of the divine name and led by angels, dramatically running its course through the heavens, switching direction at each of the four seasons, ‘as it says (Psalm 19:6), ‘it is like a hero, eager to run his course.’’’
From my own perspective in the midst of the frigid Canadian winter, it is tempting to imagine that some worshippers might have found in their synagogues’ mosaic decorations a reassurance that the sun was hastening toward them on its swift solar-driven vehicle to bring tidings of a warm summer ahead.