Photo Credit: Jon Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority
A member of the team holding up the inscription from the stone table of the bimah in the Great Synagogue of Vilna

Hebrew inscriptions were discovered in the excavation project at the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which was burned during the Holocaust and demolished by the Soviets, according to researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos of Lithuania.

The Great Synagogue of Vilna, watercolor, 1899 / Jewish Community of Lithuania via Wikimedia

The Great Synagogue of Vilna, which once stood at the end of Jewish Street in Vilna, Lithuania, was built with stone between 1630 and 1633, on the spot of an existing synagogue from 1572, which in turn was established on an earlier synagogue from 1440. The Great Synagogue was burned down in World War II, and was demolished in 1955–1957 to be replaced by a kindergarten and a primary school.

The dig in the Great Synagogue of Vilna / Loïc Salfati
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According to the researchers, Dr. Jon Seligman and Justinas Račas, who have conducted excavations in Lithuania every summer for the last four years, “the largest and most significant inscription, dated to 1796, was part of a stone Torah reading table that stood on the magnificent Bimah of the synagogue in Vilna.”

The inscription from the stone table of the bimah in the Great Synagogue of Vilna / Jon Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The table was donated by the brothers Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shmuel, in memory of their mother, Sarah, and their father, Rabbi Chaim, who, according to the inscription, had emigrated from Lithuania to Eretz Israel and settled in Tiberias. The Torah was read to the congregants from this table for about 200 years, until the Nazis and their local collaborators looted, burned and partly destroyed the synagogue, and its final demolition by the Soviets.

The inscription, which was studied together with Dr. Vladimir Levin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, uses elaborate and flowery language, rife with biblical references, to record that the two brother paid for the stone table in memory of their beloved parents who made aliyah to T’veria and died there.

These brief sentences reveal the deep connection between the Lithuanian community and the Land of Israel. A preliminary investigation shows that the donors belonged to one of the leading rabbinical families in Lithuania in the 1700s, but the fact that last names were not yet in use at the time, the public is invited to complete the puzzle: who were Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shmuel whose father, Rabbi Chaim from Lithuania, settled in T’veria in 1782.

A seating plaque for the head of the ‘Tzedaka Gedola’ association / Jon Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Another personal greeting from the past was discovered in the form of a seating plaque, for the head of the “Tzedaka Gedola” association, which managed the Great Synagogue of Vilna from the end of the 18th century until 1931. “These are the discoveries that fascinate us most: it is the personal objects that provide a direct connection to people, to those who prayed here, that immediately ignites the imagination,” the researchers say.

The excavation of the Great Synagogue in Lithuania is a joint venture of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos of Lithuania, the Good Will Foundation, and the Jewish Community of Lithuania. According to IAA director Israel Hasson, “The project of exposing the historic Great Synagogue of Vilna is part of the IAA’s ‘Heritage without Borders’ concept, which also includes the research of sites outside the borders of the State of Israel. This arises from the perception that the IAA was entrusted by the Israeli public to serve as the ‘watchtower’ on its behalf for the protection of heritage and cultural assets.”

The foundation of the bimah in the Great Synagogue of Vilna / Jon Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority

This year’s excavation uncovered large sections of the bimah, which was originally two stories tall, and was built in the 18th century with a donation from the rich and well-connected Yesod (Yehudah Safra ve-Dayana). The Yesod settled conflicts between the community and the municipality and influenced communal affairs. He appointed his son-in-law, Shmuel, as chief rabbi of Vilna in 1750, but after the Yesod’s death, the congregation wanted Rabbi Shmuel out. The conflict lasted 30 years until, in 1785, the chief rabbi of Vilna’s position was abolished altogether.

The decorative Baroque Bimah, which was documented in photographs from the early 20th century, was a two-story structure set among four magnificent pillars that supported the ceiling. The Torah was read to the congregation for 300 years from up there. Another interesting discovery was the colorful and elegant terrazzo floor. Below the Bimah was a large cellar, discovered only this year.

The dig team at work in the excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna/ Loïc Salfati

Among the finds recovered during the excavation were a prayer book that survived the Holocaust, hundreds of coins from the 16th to 20th centuries, and buttons belonging to the soldiers of Napoleon’s army, who passed through Vilna on their way to Moscow in 1812.


Imaging of the Great Synagogue of Vilna

“The discovery of the pillars of the synagogue, the central parts of the Bimah and the inscription, attest to the potential inherent in the continuation of the excavation at the site and the exciting possibility of presenting the remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilna and Shulhoyf (synagogue courtyard) in the future to the public,” said the researchers.

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