Placing the tithing phenomenon

Magico-Religious Map:

Map of all sites where Magico-Religious deposits have been found. Hover over a triangle to see the name of the site.

Aside from the two Diaspora synagogues, almost all sites in which magico-religious coin deposits have been found are restricted to a small geographical region in north-eastern Israel (the Golan Heights, Upper Galilee, Lower Galilee, and the Carmel region, see This is the area which Aviam has designated as the “Mountainous Galilee.” [581] According to Aviam, synagogues in this region are characterized by a plethora of architectural decoration, mosaic or flagstone pavements, architectural influences of Roman public architecture and art, and the widespread use of spolia. The second area he distinguished, the “Northern Valleys,” located to the south of the Mountainous Galilee, does not have any synagogues in which floor deposits have been found. This makes the phenomenon exclusive to northern Galilee.[582] Only the site of ‘En Gedi, located in the Judean Desert, seems to be an anomaly. The fact that this site also contains the only magico-religious deposit in which the coins were not scattered but instead clustered, with no coins found under the floor of the main hall, and that the coin deposit was found under a “dirt” floor,[583] might indicate that this is either a different phenomenon, or that the “rules” for a floor deposit were interpreted differently here.[584]

What was it about Galilee and the Golan that prompted Jews to place tithing coins in their synagogues; what made this region so special? I believe that (one) reason might be that this area was the central “hub” for rabbinic studies during the third and fourth century, which undoubtedly left its traces throughout Late Antiquity. In the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, after Jerusalem was destroyed and Jews were barred from entering it, Tiberias became the most important Jewish spiritual center in Palestine. The Mishnah was completed in this region in 210 CE under the supervision of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi (“Judah the Prince”). The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, also fled from Jerusalem during the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, and after several attempted moves in search of stability, eventually settled in Tiberias in about 150 CE. When Johanan bar Nappaha (also known as Rabbi Yochanan) moved to Tiberias, the city became the focus of Jewish religious scholarship in Palestine: it was here, for example, that the writings of the Jerusalem Talmud were compiled before the project was abandoned sometime in the late 4th century. Rabbinic influence undoubtedly impacted the surrounding Galilean communities.[585] For example, at the synagogue of Huqoq in the Galilee, floor mosaics were discovered depicting biblical and non-biblical scenes, preliminary dated to the late 4th-early 5th century.[586] The exact interpretation of some of the mosaics, like the “Elephant Mosaic,” is still debated,[587] but one scene clearly portrays the Pharaoh’s Soldiers Drowning in the Red Sea.[588] According to Magness et al., this particular scene of the Red Sea was popular among rabbinic circles in Late Antiquity: “The predatory fish in the panels at the two sites [Huqoq and Wadi Hamam] likely were intended to embody the sea’s power to consume and then disgorge the drowning soldiers, a theme that may be alluded to in the Babylonian Talmud (and is made explicit in the medieval rabbinic commentarial tradition).”[589] They also point out that “several rabbinic sources link the punishment of the Egyptians at the sea to a series of other groups or individuals from whom God also exacts measure-for-measure punishment for their hubris, including notably the generation of the flood and those who built the tower of Babel,” [590] panels that also appear on the Huqoq floor. In the end they conclude “If approached with caution, these and other correspondences between visual and textual evidence may enable scholars to make progress regarding the vexed question of how to understand the relationship between rabbinic literature and late antique synagogues.”[591] Another example of possible rabbinic influence on local art and architecture can be found at Sepphoris, where the early 5th century synagogue depicts a basket of the first fruits on its mosaic floor. This basket, however, contains items not mentioned in the biblical commandment on the first fruits (Deut 26), but instead shows species that are mentioned in the rabbinic traditions.[592] In the synagogue at Wadi Hamam a floor mosaic depicts a maritime scene with a temple structure next to chariots and horses drowning in the Red Sea. According to the excavator, this temple could be a depiction of Ba’al-Zephon, a place where, according to the rabbinic traditions, the Egyptians worshipped Ba’al.[593] Last, the mosaic floor discovered in the synagogue at Rehob displays a 29-line halakhic inscription, while the columns further had halakhic writings painted on them.[594] Thus, while we previously stated that rabbis might not have much involvement with synagogue life in Late Antiquity on a practical level, people living in this region were clearly familiar with rabbinic sources, rabbinic stories, and rabbinic laws that were being redacted in their region (and the other way around).[595] As Uzi Leibner states, “Rabbinic literature, therefore, cannot be seen as a reflection of the world of a marginal and isolated elite only, but also contains many traditions that were shared with wider Jewish society.”[596] Thus, if the destruction or removal of the tithing coins from circulation is indeed a Tannaitic halakhic tradition, Galilee would have been the ideal fertile ground for this new synagogue tradition to take root.[597]

But why at the end of the 5th century? While it is true that the main corpus of rabbinic literature was written between the first and fourth century CE, including references to the changed attitudes concerning tithing, and the tradition could thus have started much earlier, many of the classical Midrashim (such as Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana, etc.) were only compiled in the middle to late 5th century.[598] These later texts contain multiple references to synagogues containing the shekhinah, or God’s presence, reflecting the idea that the buildings were sacred and on par with the Temple; a process called templizationor Imitatio Templi.[599]As Fine states: “The relation between synagogues and the Temple became so basic to Jewish conceptions that sources go as far as to treat the biblical Tabernacle as a kind of big synagogue and the Ark of the Covenant as a Torah Shrine.”[600] Thus, coin deposits reflect the development of a concept connecting the synagogue and temple. Perhaps this idea of sacredness also became more prominent because of the growing competition with Christianity during this period. While Christians had, of course, been around for many centuries, it was only during the 4th to 6th centuries that Palestine went through a process of Christianization of space.[601] Connections between Christian traditions and specific sites in Palestine were made which established the pilgrimage routes in Galilee. Churches and monasteries were built, attracting Christians from around the Mediterranean to visit the region. Starting in the late 4th to early 5th century CE, this also included the eastern Galilee and around the Sea of Galilee.[602] This process happened before the eyes of the Galilean population and undoubtedly impacted their attitudes concerning “sacred sites.” Seeing Christian holy spaces pop up around the region might have influenced their attitudes towards their own spaces of prayer and religious learning: synagogues. As Levine states:

“The fact that churches were also being referred to as “holy” or compared to a temple generally, and to the Jerusalem temple in particular, may have motivated Jews to make similar assertions regarding synagogue sanctity … The synagogue would have provided a setting for the Jewish community to express whatever disappointment and despair it felt, on the one hand, and its longings and hopes, on the other. What they were powerless to realize in the political realm, Jews might have hoped to achieve within the confines of their synagogues, albeit in an associative and symbolic vein.” (Levine 2000, pp. 245–246)

Thus, the floor deposit tradition was the result of the collective commemorative attitude towards the sacredness of the space and halakhic choices concerning tithing sparked by particular groups in Northern Galilee and the Golan.

Late antiquity was also the era when the new literary genre of the piyyut flourished.[603] These poems were created to substitute for, adorn, or preface a passage from the Jewish liturgy or a liturgical rite and were meant to be read out loud in the synagogue. Piyyutim display deep familiarity with rabbinic traditions of interpretation and their rhetorical characteristics. Recent scholarly work by Laura Lieber and Michael D. Swartz has been exploring the connections between piyyutim and magic.[604] According to them, poetry recited in synagogues could possess intrinsic power. The poet Yannai, for example, who lived in the Galilee in the late 5th-early 6th century, and who is considered the father of piyyut, offered his community potent conceptual magic by praying to contain and purge the dark impulses of humankind.[605] The language in his poems echoes the phrasing of the magical language on the Aramaic magic bowls and amulets. In other words, synagogues were the perfect environment for religion, sacredness, and magic to come together at this exact moment.

Finally, the Jewish Patriarchate, the leading Jewish institution in the Late Roman Empire, was abolished by emperor Theodosius II in 429 CE.[606] Scholarship is divided on when the Patriarchate emerged as a prominent communal institution, but we know that by the third century CE, the patriarchal authority was extended to various spheres of Jewish society in Palestine as well as in the Diaspora communities, including a measure of involvement in synagogue affairs.[607] The 4th century witnessed a dramatic rise in the prestige and standing of the office, reaching its peak in the late 4th–early 5th centuries.[608] During this time, the Patriarchate and urban aristocracy were often in close alliance, dominating Jewish communal affairs.[609] Imperial laws of the 390s recognized the patriarch’s jurisdiction over the primates (leaders) of the Jews throughout the empire, who in turn were authorized to legislate and judge in matters of Jewish religious, but not civil, law.[610] Decrees issued by several Late Roman emperors attest to the authority of the patriarchs in a wide range of synagogue matters as well.[611] At the beginning of the 5th century, however, the Patriarchate disappeared, perhaps in connection with the growing power of the church. Unfortunately, there is no formal declaration of its abolition,[612] but a law dated to 429 CE indicates that the Patriarchate had already ceased to exist and stipulates that all funds previously collected by the patriarch were now to be given to the two Sanhedrins of Palestine.[613] Not much research has been conducted on the consequences of the disappearance of the Patriarchate in Galilee, but one result could have been the loosening grip of Jewish leaders and elites on the synagogue and its rituals. Perhaps this lack of oversight opened up space for new traditions to arise. More scholarship on the direct and indirect consequences of the abolition of the Patriarchate on the synagogue and its rituals could shed more light on this in the future.

But what about the synagogues in Galilee where no floor deposits have been found, such as Gush Halav, Nabratein, Huqoq, Meiron, Khirbet Qana, or H. Shema’ in the Lower Galilee; in Magdala, Wadi Hamam, Horvat Amudim, and Hammath Tiberias in the eastern Lower Galilee; and in Gamla and Majduliyya in the western Golan Heights?[614] There are several explanations possible for the lack of such deposits in these particular sites. The first one is chronological. If the phenomenon only started in the second half of the 5th century, then these synagogues were established (long) before this period: from the Second Temple period (Magdala, Gamla, and probably Majduliyya) until the Late Roman period (the other sites), before the practice appeared. And while it is true that we have evidence of repairs or renovations at some of these sites, these probably happened when the practice was already in its decline or had disappeared, such as the later phases of Nabratein[615] and Hammath Tiberias.[616]Another possible explanation is that different communities adopted these beliefs to varying degrees – some abstaining from them, perhaps because they (or a local synagogue leader) did not agree with the magical connotation of the coins, or because they believed tithing coins should not be disposed of in this matter. Palestine in Late Antiquity was a complex sociopolitical and religious melting pot, with different forms of Judaism inhabiting the same territories: perhaps some clung to rabbinic instructions, while others did not.[617] However, due to the lack of direct archeological or textual evidence these theories must remain speculative. What we do know it that there does not seem to be a link between the type of synagogue building and the presence of floor deposits: they appear in Galilean-type synagogues (like Capernaum), as well as in Transitional synagogues (like Hammath Tiberias), and Byzantine synagogues (like Beth Alpha).[618]

Pinpointing the end of the phenomenon is difficult due to the lack of archaeological evidence. To date, no synagogues have been excavated in Israel/Palestine that can be dated to the 8th century, or post-Muslim conquest. Whatever may have been the reason(s), it seems that synagogue construction came to a halt at the end of Late Antiquity and with that, synagogue floor deposits ceased as well.


[581] Aviam 2019, pp. 299–305.

[582] To be fair, many more synagogues have been excavated in the northern parts of Israel than in the central area or the South, providing a higher chance of finding examples of this phenomenon here. Nevertheless, of the dozens of synagogues that have been excavated in Israel/Palestine outside of the Galilee and the Golan, not one contained floor deposits (see also the map on

[583] This is mentioned by Ahipaz and Leibner 2021, p. 222, note 35. It is unclear where they get this information from, but if true, then this is vital in understanding this specific deposit. If this is indeed a magico-religious deposit, this would be the only example of such a deposit below a beaten earth floor.

[584] This would not be far-fetched: the synagogue at ‘En Gedi is in many other regards an exception as well: its mosaic floor, for example, does not have any biblical scenes or references to the Temple, but instead long inscriptions, making some scholars believe that the congregation was much more “conservative” than Jews elsewhere in the country (Levine 1981b).

[585] In this time period and beyond. In fact, even in the 6th century Tiberias was still the seat of Jewish religious learning; we know that Bishop Simeon of Bet-Arsham urged the Christians of Palestine to seize the leaders of Judaism in Tiberias, to put them to the rack, and to compel them to command the Jewish king, Dhu Nuwas, to desist from persecuting the Christians in Najran (Assemani 2002, i. 379).

[586] Magness et al. 2014; Britt and Boustan 2017; Magness et al. 2018; Magness 2021.

[587] Britt and Boustan 2017; Erlich 2018; Fine 2018; Gordon and Weiss 2018; Talgam 2018.

[588] Magness et al. 2018, pp. 102–106.

[589] Magness et al. 2018, p. 106. Here, the authors refer to b. Pesah 118b.

[590] t. Soṭah 3:6–19; Mek. R. Ish. Shirata 2; Mek. R. Sim. b. Yoh. 28.1.

[591] Magness et al. 2018, p. 106. In another article from 2018, Adi Erlich further interprets the arcade on the Elephant Panel, depicting a Jewish leader seated on a throne in the central arch flanked by eight young men, as the seminary of Rabbi Judah the patriarch seminary or his court, further linking the mosaic to the rabbis of early Antiquity (Erlich 2018, pp. 554–555).

[592] Weiss 2000; Leibner 2016, p. 143.

[593] Leibner 2016, pp. 146–151. This scene is also mentioned by Magness et al. in comparison with the Huqoq Red Sea scene (Magness et al. 2018, pp. 105-106.), indicating that, according to them, there existed a shared visual culture in the broader Galilean region.

[594] Sussman 1982; Vitto 2015.

[595] As for the Diaspora synagogues: we know that the rabbis had pupils who would travel outside of the country to teach the halakhic traditions. Perhaps some of these pupils ended up in Ostia or Sardis, influencing the local Jewish congregation with their opinions on tithing. This is, of course, very speculative.

[596] Leibner 2016, p. 141.

[597] To confirm our theory, it would of course be ideal to find floor deposits in ancient synagogues in Tiberias itself. Unfortunately, since Tiberias has been inhabited continuously, most remains from Late Antiquity have been destroyed. The only ancient synagogue that has been intensively excavated here, Hammath Tiberias, had multiple phases with several repairs to the mosaic floor, making it unknown if coins were placed under the floor.

[598] Wilfand 2014, p. 13, no. 34; Leibner 2016, p. 142.

[599] Branham 1995; Fine 1996, 2005; Levine 2000, p. 246; 2005. References to the Shekhinah are found in older rabbinic literature but appear with much greater frequency after the 4th century. See, for example, Deut. Rabbah 7:2; Lev. Rabbah 11:7; Midrash Tehillim 84:4-6; Pesikta de Rav Kahana 28:8.

[600] Fine 1996, p. 32.

[601] Levine 2000, pp. 242–248; Ben-Eliyahu 2019, pp. 145–147.

[602] Aviam 1999, pp. 297–298, in which he states that by the late 5th century, the status quo [between Christians and Jews] changed as “in the Lower Galilee, no border between Christians and Jews could be distinguished.”

[603] On piyyutim, their development and recitation, see also Münz-Manor 2013.

[604] For example, Leiber 2018, 2019 (a forthcoming article seems to go even deeper into this topic, entitled: “Late Antique Liturgical Poetry at the Intersection of Ritual, Magic, and Art,” in Jewish Studies Quarterly) and Swartz 2018.

[605] Lieber 2019.

[606] Levine 2000, pp. 454–465; 2018.

[607] Levine 1979, pp. 654–659, 2013; Schwartz 2001, pp. 112–116.

[608] Levine 1996.

[609] This alliance can be seen in the Hammath Tiberias synagogue, where the patrons of the building are identified in the Greek inscriptions (which contain Greek and Latin names, e.g., Ioullos, Zoilos, Maximos). As some of the most wealthy and acculturated residents of Tiberias, these men also held official positions in the synagogue or community. The main donor to this building, for example, one Severus, is identified twice as “a protégé (θρεπτός) of the Illustrious Patriarchs” (Dothan 1962, 1963a, 1963b, 1968, 1983, 2000; Levine 2018).

[610] Schwartz 2001, p. 117.

[611] For examples, see Levine 2000, pp. 461–463.

[612] The only thing we know is that Gamaliel VI, the last nasi, died in 425 CE without leaving a son as an heir.

[613] Levine 2018 (online source). The Theodosian Code 16.8.29 states: “The Primates of the Jews, who are nominated in the Sanhedrins of either of the provinces of Palestine or stay in other provinces, shall be forced to pay all that they had received as tax since the cessation of the Patriarchs.” (Translation by Linder 1987, no. 53, pp. 320–323).

[614] See also Ahipaz and Leibner 2021, pp. 223–224.

[615] Dated to 564 CE (Meyers and Meyers 2009, pp. 63–67).

[616] Dated to the late 6th-early 7th century (Magness 2005a, p. 10).

[617] See, for example, Neusner 1994; Satlow 2006.

[618] These groups are based on the latest typological division made by Magness (Magness 2021).