A while back I shared with you some photos of Toronto’s oldest synagogue. (If you haven’t seen them yet, do take a quick visit to this post.) If you’ll remember, I was a shocked that this synagogue had paintings depicting the signs of the zodiac on the walls. From my reference point, the bible mostly frowns upon astrology; so what was such an obvious representation of the twelve signs doing in a meeting place for Orthodox Jews?
Well, I am happy to say there may be an explanation! While doing research for a paper on Jewish mysticism, I came across an intriguing theory in Rachel Elior’s The Three Temples. In the book, she lays out the conflict between the priests and the rabbis (or what would become the rabbis) during the Second Temple period. Basically, as the rabbis ascended to power amongst the Jews, they deliberately suppressed much of the priestly material that came before.
But what does this have to do with our zodiac? Well, Elior does a lot of math in The Three Temples, and emphasizes the priestly preference for a solar calendar (over the rabbinic lunar calendar), one defined by the number seven, and represented in the calendar through various multiples of this important number, for example 52×7=364, the number of days in a solar year (or thereabouts, these ancients had a complex system akin to our leap year for dealing with the precise alignments of the celestial bodies). But it isn’t just seven that gets a lot of play, seven-based numbers that can be divided into four are also very important, as four represents the Cherubim that carry God’s throne or chariot. To make a long story short, you end up with a division of 12 months, which are represented by—ta da!— the zodiac.
Let’s see what Elior has to say about this:
“Among other synagogue decorations associated with the Temple ceremonies one finds citrons and palm branches, which recall the institution of pilgrimage; and perhaps one can similarly associate the zodiac, with its division of the year into twelve ‘signs’, with conceptions of the cosmic and ritual cycle represented in the Temple and its service…Works discovered at Qumran also refer to the zodiac, as does Sefer Yetisirah (The Book of Creation), and ancient priestly work which discusses the zodiac in detail in connection with the priestly conception of the universe.” (14)
By Elior’s reasoning, the zodiac in modern synagogues is a remnant from the Second Temple Period—one that should have disappeared, but didn’t. This certainly provides one explanation for their use in synagogue decoration.
Source: Elior, Rachel. 2004. The Three Temples. Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Conservation.
Photo by Emmanuel Dyan.