Uncovering Vilna Gaon’s Ancient Lithuanian Synagogue

August 7, 2018

2 min read

An international team of archaeologists has uncovered the bima (pulpit platform) of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius in Lithuania. The synagogue dates back to the 1630’s and it is possible that Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the leading Torah scholar of the 18th century known as the Vilna Gaon, prayed at the bima.

The site was first used as a Jewish house of prayer in 1440 and a synagogue was first built in 1572. The structure being studied by archaeologists was damaged by the Nazis in World War II and demolished by the Soviets in 1955–1957 to be replaced by a kindergarten and a primary school.

“We’ve found the bimah, the central prayer platform, which was in Tuscan Baroque style. It was one of the central features of the synagogue,” Israeli archaeologist Jon Seligman, who led the team, told AFP.

The pulpit was described by the archaeologists as “a two-tier Baroque structure built of four Corinthian and eight Tuscan columns, decorated with lions facing the Aron Kodesh (ark containing the Torah scrolls)”. A fire damaged the structure in the 18th century and Yehuda ben Eliezer, a writer and judge in the community, donated the ornate bima.

In 2011, the Lithuanian government announced plans to demolish the Soviet era structures and replace them with a memorial after an archaeological study was done of the site. Excavations began in 2016 and researchers discovered what they believe to be a mikveh (ritual bath).

“The school will be demolished within two years and we’ll create a respectful site, displaying rich Jewish heritage by 2023, when Vilnius celebrates its 700th birthday,” the city’s mayor Remigijus Simasius said.

“It is really a very exciting development,” Seligman said about the discovery of the bima. When we talk about the presentation of the site to the public in the future, this will be one of the central features of the display.”

In his lifetime, the Vilna Gaon was a strong proponent of Jews making Aliyah and developing the community in Israel. His disciples, known as Perushim (because they isolated themselves from worldly concerns to study Torah), originally settled in the Galilean town of Safed.

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