Among the finds recovered during the excavation was a prayer book that survived the Holocaust.
For the first time since the beginning of the excavation project to expose the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which was burned during the Holocaust and demolished by the Soviets, Hebrew inscriptions have been discovered, says the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
The Great Synagogue of Vilna, which once stood at the end of Jewish Street, Vilnius, Lithuania, was built between 1630 and 1633 after permission was granted to construct a synagogue from stone. Standing on the spot of an existing synagogue built in 1572, the site had first been used to house a Jewish house of prayer in 1440. Damaged in World War II, it was demolished in 1955–1957 and replaced by a kindergarten and a primary school.
“The large and significant inscription, dated to 1796, was part of a stone Torah reading table that stood on the magnificent bimah (stage) of the synagogue in Vilnius,” according to researchers Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Justinas Račas of a cultural heritage conservation institute in Lithuania, who are said have conducted excavations in Lithuania every summer for the past four years.
The table was donated, according to the text, by two brothers, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shmuel, in memory of their mother Sarah and their father, Rabbi Chaim, who, the inscription says, had emigrated from Lithuania to the Land of Israel and settled in Tiberias. It was from this table that the Torah was read to the congregants for about 200 years, until the burning of the synagogue and its final destruction by the Soviets 70 years ago, says the IAA.
These brief sentences point to the deep connection between the Lithuanian (Litvak) community and the Holy Land, which existed since the days of the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) until the present day, say the researchers. According to the preliminary investigation, the donor family was one of the leading rabbinical families in Lithuania at the beginning of the 18th century.
But the IAA is also challenging the public: “Due to the absence of the family name in the inscription, the information we have is not complete, and we invite the public to complete the puzzle and provide information about the family through the Facebook page of the project,” says the authority.
Another personal greeting from the past was discovered, in the form of a seating plaque, for the head of the Tzedaka Gedola association, which managed the Great Synagogue of Vilna from the end of the 18th century until 1931, the researchers add.
The project of exposing the historic Great Synagogue of Vilna is part of the IAA’s Heritage without Borders concept, which also includes the research of sites outside the borders of the State of Israel, according to authority director Israel Hasson. The Good Will Foundation and Jewish Community of Lithuania have also taken part in this project.
Among the finds recovered during the excavation was a prayer book that survived the Holocaust, says the IAA.