Mosaic Musings [1]

Unlike any other day in the Jewish festival calendar, the Torah does not provide a clear reason for celebrating Rosh Hashanah. It merely designates the date, the first day of the seventh month, as a "memorial of blowing of shofars," without revealing the purpose for the sounding of the ram's horn on this occasion. It was left to the Jewish oral tradition, and to the ingenuity of our sages, to propose diverse symbolic associations for the ritual.

Arguably the most prominent of the shofar's thematic associations is with the ram that was offered by Abraham after he had demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice his cherished son Isaac in obedience to God's command. At the very last moment, an angel called out to Abraham not to harm Isaac; and immediately "Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns." The ram was offered up as a sacrifice in place of Isaac.

The tale of the "binding of Isaac" was designated by our ancient sages as the appropriate Torah reading for the Jewish New Year.

In keeping with the understanding of Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment on which our fates are decided by the Heavenly Court, the sounding of the shofar inspires us to recall that our holy forefathers were prepared to make the supreme sacrifice. As the theme is developed with power and artistry in the poetry of the holiday liturgy, we pray that the merits accrued by Abraham and Isaac will be credited to us if we ourselves are found not to be deserving of a favourable verdict.

Just how meaningful the story of the binding of Isaac was to Jewish worshippers throughout history can be gauged by its prominence as a motif in synagogue decoration. One of the most memorable representations of the story is the mosaic floor of the sixth-century synagogue that was excavated in Beit Alpha in the Galilee.

As with other ancient synagogue mosaics, the Beit Alpha floor included an assortment of images associated with Jewish ceremonies, especially with the holiday cycle. Among these were a lulav, an etrog, an incense shovel and menorahs.

At first glance, the shofar seems conspicuous by its absence –that is, until we realize that in actuality a separate picture of the binding of Isaac serves as an elaboration of the shofar's ritual significance.

That mosaic depiction is touching in its naïveté. Its crudely fashioned figures resemble the drawings of a five-year-old child, with snake-like limbs and rigid facial expressions. The entire cast of characters and props is crowded into the scene, including not only Abraham and Isaac, but also the hand of God, the servants, the donkey and the ram.

This particular ram is not merely "caught in the thicket" as the Bible describes, but actually appears to be suspended vertically by his horns from a tree, with his legs dangling above the ground.

Since the discovery of the Beit-Alpha mosaic in 1928, scholars have been trying to account for this unusual rendering of the familiar story. Initially, it was ascribed to the artists' bad planning, which forced them to squeeze the ram's image into the only remaining free space in the mosaic, which happened to be an inappropriately vertical area, creating an illusion of its hanging from a tree.

However, the most plausible explanation for the origin of the "hanging ram" emerged when the Beit Alpha depiction was compared with other portrayals of the binding of Isaac, as they appeared in Christian art of the Byzantine era. As it turns out, the motif of Abraham, Isaac and the hanging ram shows up in sculpted sarcophagi from the fourth century and onwards.

Reprinted from Ha'Atid, a publication of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation

From the perspective of Christian theology and iconography, it is perfectly obvious why the ram was represented as suspended from a tree. In keeping with their tradition of reading their "Old Testament" as a foreshadowing or "prefiguration" of their own sacred history, the binding of Isaac had long been interpreted by the church fathers as a prototype of Jesus' crucifixion. Interpreted in this manner, the ram symbolized the "lamb of God" impaled on the cross. In a typically "midrashic" word play, an ancient Christian exegetical tradition equated sebakh, the Hebrew word for "thicket," withshebak, an Aramaic root that can mean "forgive."

This conjecture should not be misunderstood as an attempt to accuse the artists of the Beit Alpha mosaic of subversive or heretical leanings. There is no reason to doubt that Marianos and his son Hanina (as the craftsmen identify themselves in dedicatory inscriptions) were devout and loyal Jews who sincerely wanted their art to enhance the experience of synagogue worship. It is probable, however, that these rustic artisans, in their quest for effective ways to render the biblical story, had innocently copied some of their ideas from Christian portrayals of the same scene, without being aware of their deeper theological implications.

Another clue to the non-Jewish origins of the artists' ideas is the halo that radiates from behind Abraham's head in the mosaic. The convention of attaching disk-like haloes to biblical saints was not native to the Jewish iconographic tradition, though it is of course a mainstay of Christian art. Here too, Marianos and Hanina apparently copied the idea from a Christian source without seeing anything problematic in it; even as they were not disturbed by the blatantly mythological images that they included in the zodiac wheel in another section of the mosaic.

Furthermore, although the actual laying of the mosaic stones seems to have been executed from right to left (as indicated by the fact that they did not leave enough space to complete the picture of the donkey on the left edge), its narrative logic flows from left to right, as appropriate to a Greek archetype, not a Hebrew one.

This is not to suggest that it was always the Jewish artists who borrowed their creative ideas from foreign sources. Quite the contrary—it is now widely believed that the earliest Christian illustrations of the Bible were based on Jewish exemplars that often incorporated embellishments based on the teachings of the midrash.

As a possible instance of this pattern, we might note that in some early Christian representations of the binding of Isaac story, the ram tries to attract Abraham's attention by tugging at the patriarch's garments with his mouth or foreleg.

It has been suggested that this narrative detail was added in the spirit of a midrashic exposition that tells how Satan was determined to distract Abraham from the presence of the ram in order to prevent him from offering his sacrifice, and suggests that this was the reason why the ram "was caught by his horns between the trees" to prevent Abraham from noticing it. At this point, the midrash explains, "what did the ram do? He stretched out his hand to Abraham's robe, so that Abraham glanced up and noticed the ram..."

If the evidence has been interpreted correctly, then it would appear that the Christian artists were making use of motifs that had originated in rabbinic teaching.

The impression that emerged from the above examples, which testified to a free exchange of artistic and religious ideas between Jews and Christians in the Byzantine era, marks a sharp contrast to the official attitudes expressed by the rabbis and theologians of the time, whose principal concern was to establish barriers between the two communities. The evidence suggests that, on the person-to-person plane, as acted out in rural villages like Beit-Alpha, interfaith relations were more casual and unselfconscious.

When all is said and done, there is a satisfying appropriateness in associating universalistic sentiments with the story of the binding of Isaac. For the Torah itself emphasizes that the ultimate reward for Abraham's devotion is that "in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."

The Binding of Isaac in the Beit Alfa Synagogue Mosaic
The Binding of Isaac in the Meit Alfa Synagogue Mosaic

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