1,800-year-old Hebrew Donor Plaques Found in Synagogue in Northern Israel

Archaeologists say that the discovery bolsters the theory that Peki'in's medieval synagogue was built on the site of an ancient Roman one.

Margalit Zinati and the ancient column.
Ritvo/ Beit Zinati

Plaques honoring donors seem to have been a thing going back to the dawn of writing. Hebrew inscriptions found on a stone in Peki’in appear to be benedictions to donors who helped build a synagogue, much as plaques today honor philanthropists for funding Torah scrolls, hospitals, park benches and the like.

The present synagogue in Peki’in was built in the Middle Ages, Yardenna Alexandre, spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority, told Haaretz. The discovery of the engravings strengthens the theory that it was erected on the site of the original synagogue in the town, dating to the Roman era and possibly before, Alexandre said.

The writing was found on an ancient limestone capital – the uppermost part of a column, and was discovered in the course of restoration and conservation work.

Actually, the stone piece with the engraving had been upside down in the synagogue courtyard when it was found, which may have helped preserve the writing.

Although it is still too early to be sure, preliminary analysis of the message suggests these were dedicatory inscriptions honoring donors to the synagogue, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“Talmudic and Midrashic sources tell of the Galilean sages who lived in Peki’in, including Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who hid from the Romans in a cave,” Yoav Lerer of the IAA said. That said, he noted that not all archaeologists agree that the village they’re excavating is identical to the ancient Peki’in, though the area has been peopled for millennia.

The site generally seems to have been occupied for over 4,000 years, going by Chalcolithic-era pottery and a grave.

Peki’in also apparently has had a Jewish presence since the Second Temple, based in part on Jewish writings over the centuries (though if so, the name morphed somewhat, including to Baka). Certainly Ottoman-era censors reported dozens of Jewish families living there.

Today the majority of the population in Peki’in (also spelled Peqi’in) is Druze, and the town still hosts the Zinati family, a representative of which, Margalit Zinati, lives next door to the synagogue.

Previously, an engraved menorah had been found in Peki’in, but there too, controversy swirls: Some say it dates from the Roman era and some insist it goes back to the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, stone can’t be carbon-dated.