Israeli-Lithuanian Team Reveals Torah Ark at the Site of Vilnius’ Great Synagogue

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna showing the area of the Aron Kodesh and the two flights of stairs destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets.
The excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna showing the area of the Aron Kodesh and the two flights of stairs destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets.Credit: Jon Seligman / Israel Antiquities Authority
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Torah ark and bimah – the platform from which prayers were led – have recently been found at the site of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The remnants of the synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets, were recently recovered in archaeological excavations at the site, the joint Israeli-Lithuanian archaeology team reported on Thursday.

The team, which is directed by Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Dr. Jon Seligman, has now wrapped up its sixth annual season of digs at the site, which began with ground-penetrating radar testing at the site in the city, which is known in Yiddish as Vilna. The city was a major center of Jewish life prior to the Holocaust.

The silver Yad found during the excavation.Credit: Jon Seligman / Israel Antiquities Authority

The Great Synagogue was built in the 17th century in Renaissance-Baroque style and was part of a larger complex of Jewish institutions that included 12 synagogues and prayer halls and ritual baths.  On Thursday morning, while sifting earth at the site, a silver Torah pointer, yad in Hebrew, was discovered, which had been used at the Great Synagogue.

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During the Holocaust, the site was plundered and burned by the Nazis and then in 1956 to 1957, what remained of the building was demolished by the Soviet authorities. Lithuania was a republic of the Soviet Union at the time and a school was built at the site.

Imaging of the 18th-century Bimah at the Great Synagogue of Vilna.Credit: UAB Inlusion Netforms

A number of years ago, Seligman visited the site as part of a Jewish roots trip and decided to undertake the excavations there. “When we arrived to excavate the aron kodesh [Torah ark] and the bimah, from which generations of Jews read the Torah scroll for 300 consecutive years, it became clear, unfortunately, that the core of the synagogue had been greatly damaged by Soviet destruction,” he said.

Two staircases, which are clearly visible in old photos of the synagogue, had been destroyed but the archaeology team found evidence of their prior presence. In front of the ark, the remains of which were also discovered in the most recent season of excavations, a decorative floor was found depicting rays of the sun. In the course of the excavations of the bimah, the team also recovered one of four huge pillars that supported the synagogue’s roof.

The excavations were sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Good Will Foundation, the Jewish community of Lithuania and Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajgos, a preservation organization.

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