Kiryat Sefer was a Jewish Village with a Synagogue in the Second Temple Period. Kiryat Sefer, now called Modi’in Illit, is located some 25 km. east of Tel Aviv, on a hill near the ancient road from Caesarea via Beit Horon to Jerusalem. Modi’in Illit is the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
The Kiryat Sefer mentioned several times in the Book of Joshua and in the Book of Judges. However, this place is situated south of Hebron, and the Israeli Governmental names committee rejected calling the town Kiryat Sefer as was proposed initially, electing the name Modi’in Illit.
The village of Kiryat Sefer was abandoned during the suppression of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-70 CE). It was briefly resettled, but was destroyed during the Roman suppression of the Bar-Kokhba Rebellion (132-135 CE).
The remains of the village and the synagogue have been preserved within the area of the modern settlement of Kiryat Sefer. After reconstruction, the site will be opened to the public.
Three seasons of salvage excavations were carried out at the site in 1995–1997 by Y. Magen, Y. Tzionit, and O. Sirkis on behalf of the Staff Officer for Archaeology in Judea and Samaria. The site is divided into three main areas:
- the central hillock
- northern complex (buildings I–VI, including the synagogue)
- southern complex (buildings VII–VIII)
THE CENTRAL HILLOCK
The initial settlement was in a natural cave in the central hillock, where apparently agriculturalists first occupied the site during the Hellenistic period. Later remains from the Early Islamic period were also found inside the cave. Cut into the bedrock on the central hillock were cisterns, a treading floor, and a winepress. A mikveh attached to a large cistern, as well as a large Byzantine winepress, were revealed on the eastern slope of the hill.
The remains of a small Jewish village were found at the site. Several dwellings were arranged around a broad square, at the center of which stood a public building – the synagogue. The buildings were well constructed and separated by narrow alleys; their walls made of large, trimmed stones, and the entrances of well-dressed ashlars.
Each dwelling consisted of several rooms around an inner courtyard. In them were various installations, such as pits for storing water, cut into the rock to considerable depth, olive presses with stone basins for crushing and heavy stone weights for pressing. The mikva’ot (Jewish ritual baths) in the houses were cut into the rock and plastered, with stairs leading to the bottom. Their presence attests to the resident’s attention to Jewish ritual purity regulations. One structure, with several particularly large rooms, probably served as a warehouse for the products of the inhabitants.
A small building with a unique plan stood in the village square. It was a square structure (9.6 m. wide on each side), the façade with the main entrance facing north. This wall was particularly well built of large ashlars with margins and smoothed boss, unlike the other walls, which were constructed of large, trimmed stones like the village houses. The entrance in the center of the façade had a lintel with a rosette in relief, within a triangular frame.
The floor of the synagogue was carefully laid of large, trimmed stones. Around three of the building’s inner walls (all except the entrance wall) were high, wide benches constructed of stone. Four pillars made of stone sections and topped with Dorian-style capitals stood in the center. At each side of the entrance, and in the back wall of the building, protruded two pairs of square stone pilasters with capitals. The columns and the pilasters created two rows along the length of the building that supported arches, originally surmounted by a wooden structure that in turn supported the roofing. Fragments of red-painted plaster are evidence that the walls were painted. In the western wall of the building was an entrance to a small, plastered room in which ritual objects of the synagogue were probably kept.
The synagogue discovered at Kiryat Sefer demonstrates that synagogues were built even in small villages on the fringes of the area inhabited by Jews. The synagogue of Kiryat Sefer was a modest structure, built according to the economic means and the requirements of the village community.
The building has architectural features similar to those of other synagogues of this period, thereby aiding researchers in identifying it as a synagogue. The fact that it is not oriented towards Jerusalem leads to the conclusion, that during this period regulations governing synagogue orientation (prayer facing Jerusalem) had not yet been consolidated. Finds from the houses of the village, such as pottery and coins, show that the village had been founded in the Hellenistic period (3rd-2nd centuries BCE), but the buildings in the village and the synagogue date from the 1st century BCE.
The village was most likely established by Jews who had left the hills of Benjamin and Ephraim (the Samaria region). They developed vineyards and olive groves, sold their products on local markets, and even exported abroad. Export of olive oil and wine brought them economic prosperity, as reflected in several hoards of coins, including many gold coins, which were found in the ruins of the village. Though few in number, the inhabitants were able to construct spacious houses and to fund the building of a synagogue.
Khirbet Badd ‘Isa – ח’רבת בד עיסא
An archaeological site now known as Khirbet Badd ‘Isa on Meromei Sade Street – Mesilat Yosef Street was discovered during a salvage dig by the archaeology department of the Civil Administration in Modi’in Illit in 1994. First protested by the Haredi community, the excavations eventually revealed what is believed to have been a farming village from the Second Temple period with a synagogue in the center, a ritual bath, homes and large public and private buildings, a winepress, as well as a collection of 145 Roman coins from the first century CE. Khirbet Badd ‘Isa was designated “a heritage site for the Haredi public” in 2011, and the Israeli government contributed NIS 3 million to develop the site, with another NIS 1 million reportedly coming from the Civil Administration. According to Mod’in Illit’s Mayor Yaakov Gutterman of the Degel HaTorah party, the site “will operate according to the doctrines of our forefathers, according to the Jewish historical sources presented by the Bible, the Gemara and ancient Jewish sages only [and] will be open only to the ultra-Orthodox public, which will keep it a proper place for them to visit and connect to their Jewish roots, without the distortions and disruptions of other places, where there is fear of hearing false opinions.”
Unfortunately the “heritage site” was not created as of August, 2020, and the archaeological site known as Khirbet Badd ‘Isa is not mentioned in the city internet site.