VILNIUS, Lithuania — While excavating the premises of the Great Synagogue of Vilna complex in Vilnius’ old town, archaeologists have unveiled two out of four pillars that were surrounding the pulpit (bimah). They also uncovered 200-year-old Hebrew inscriptions.
The complex was once one of the most important centers of Jewish religion and culture in the region.
“The discovery of the pillars is a great moment for us because we have found one of the two most sacred parts of the building. These pillars used to be nine meters [29.5 feet] tall, and were located at a special place in the synagogue — exactly where rabbis were standing during the service,” said Dr. Jon Seligman, head of the research team. “The pillars were recognized by using the photos of the synagogue. We experienced great joy when finally stumbling upon them.”
The researchers also unveiled writings carved into the walls situated next to bimah, a cellar containing 300 coins, a mikveh (ritual pool) and 16th-century tiles. The writings refer to the Torah, with one of them a citation from Genesis, while others recount lines from religious hymns.
“The large and significant inscription,” said Seligman, “dated to 1796 [and] was part of a stone Torah reading table that stood on the magnificent bimah.”
It was from this table that the Torah was read to the congregants for about 200 years.
The text says that the table was donated by two 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 inscription also cites passages from Genesis, Isaiah and Psalms, as well as mentions the yahrzeits of Sarah, Adar 4, and Chaim, Nissan 7.
The coins vary in age: some of them date back to the 17th century, while others were made some time around the time the synagogue was demolished in the 1950s.
The synagogue was once the principal prayer home to the extensive Jewish community Vilnius once boasted.
Due to a thriving Jewish community in the city, which included as members the Vilna Gaon and other prominent thought leaders, Vilnius, or Vilna in Yiddish, was known as the “Jerusalem of the North.”
The synagogue was built at the beginning of the 17th century to replace an older wooden synagogue. It soon became a central venue for the city’s Jewish community.
Twelve Kloiz (small synagogues for study purposes), a community center and a bathhouse with mikvehs were built in the vicinity. The complex of these buildings had a separate name, the Shulhoyf, or synagogue courtyard.
The fast decay of the house of prayer built in the Renaissance-Baroque style started during WW II when it was severely damaged.
During 1955-1957, the Soviet government razed the remains of the Great Synagogue and built a kindergarten on top of them in 1964.
The archaeological research began in 2011. In 2018, two mikvehs, together with a significant fragment of a wall, floor and a part of bimah were discovered by a team of international researchers, from Israel, the US and Lithuania. The goal of the current excavation is to find the Aron Kodesh (the ark containing synagogue’s Torah scrolls).
The excavation project is led by Dr. Jon Seligman, director of Israel Antiquities Authority, and Justinas Racas, an archaeologist from Lithuania’s Kulturos Paveldo Issaugojimo Pajegos (Cultural Heritage Preservation Corps) organization.
The research is funded by the Good Will Foundation. Other partners include Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community and Vilnius city municipality.
The city of Vilnius plans to renovate the surroundings of the Great Vilna Synagogue once the research is complete. A project of Jewish street historic restoration is currently being finalized.