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Mikvahs Excavated At Destroyed Great Synagogue of Vilna

Team of Israeli, Lithuanian and American archaeologists are following a 19th-century plan for the restoration of the synagogue’s mikvah facilities that was discovered in the Vilna city archives.

A team of Israeli, Lithuanian and American archaeologists has unearthed the remains of two mikvahs (ritual baths) used by congregants at the Great Synagogue in Vilna, today the capital of Lithuania.

This synagogue, which was at heart of the Vilna’s large Jewish community for hundreds of years, was completely destroyed in the Holocaust, but evidence of underground spaces discovered in a study carried out last year led to the excavation of the site and the exposure of the ritual baths.

The Great Synagogue of Vilna, built in the 17th century in Renaissance-Baroque style, was a large community center and a center of Torah study. It was at the heart of Lithuanian Jewry and included 12 synagogues and study halls; mikvahs; the community council building; kosher meat stalls; the school of famed Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon, and more.

During the Holocaust, Germans looted and burned the synagogue complex. Any remains were completely obliterated by the Soviets after the war, who built a modern school on the site.

Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority explained that “most of the historical descriptions of the Great Synagogue in Vilna and the community courtyard relate to the Great Synagogue and the surrounding prayer halls. Until now, we have found little information about the bathhouse and mikvah building of the Jewish community, a community that comprised almost half of the city’s population.”

The excavation is following an architectural plan from the end of the 19th century for the restoration of the ancient bathhouse that was discovered in the municipal archive of Vilna.

The team, led by Seligman, along with Mantas Daubaras of the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Organization and Professor Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, discovered the mikvahs in July. The sections the team found are the recent ones, dating to the early 20th century. They feature tiled walls and floors, steps leading to the pool and an auxiliary pool in which water is collected for the mikvah.

“These discoveries add a new dimension to the understanding of the daily lives of the Jews of Vilna, and will certainly provide a new focus for understanding the lost cultural heritage of the Jewish community of Vilna, the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania,’” the researchers explained.

By Yori Yalon and Israel Hayom Staff
(exclusive to JNS.org)

 

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