In July, a team of Israeli, Lithuanian and American archaeologists unearthed the remains of two ritual baths that were used by congregants at the Great Synagogue in Vilna, today the capital of Lithuania. This synagogue, which was at heart of the Vilna’s large Jewish community for hundreds of years, was completely destroyed in the Holocaust, but evidence of underground spaces discovered in a study carried out last year led to the excavation of the site and the exposure of the ritual baths.
The Great Synagogue of Vilna, built in the 17th century in Baroque-Renaissance style, was a large community center and a center of Torah study. It was at the heart of Lithuanian Jewry and included 12 synagogues and study halls, mikvahs (ritual baths), the community council building, Kosher meat stalls, the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, and more. After hundreds of years of existence, with the destruction of the entire Jewish community of Vilna during the Holocaust, the most holy place of the Jews of Lithuania was looted and burned by the Germans, and the standing remains were completely destroyed by the Soviet authorities who built a modern school in its place.
In the words of Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who leads the research team “Most of the historical descriptions of the Great Synagogue in Vilna and the community courtyard relate to the Great Synagogue and the surrounding prayer halls. Until now, we have found little information about the bathhouse and mikvah building of the Jewish community, a community that comprised almost half of the city’s population.”
The excavation has followed an architectural plan from the end of the 19th century that was discovered in the municipal archive of Vilna, a plan for the restoration of the ancient bathhouse by the community. According to this plan, the bathhouse consisted of two main floors, many rooms, and a large service wing. It was also possible to identify two installations that were built as ritual baths – the mikvah. This plan guided the researchers during the archaeological dig.
The two mikvah were discovered in July in the excavation led by Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, together with Mantas Daubaras of the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Organization and Prof. Richard Freund of Hartford University. The two installations discovered are of the final phase of the Mikvah dated to the early 20th century. They have tiled walls and floors, steps leading to the pool and an otzar, an auxiliary pool in which water is collected for the mikvah, in order to make it kosher for ritual purification.
In the words of the researchers, “These discoveries add a new dimension to the understanding of the daily lives of the Jews of Vilna, and will certainly provide a new focus for understanding the lost cultural heritage of the Jewish community of Vilna, the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania.'”