In archaeological excavations conducted last month in Lithuania, Israeli and Lithuanian archaeologists discovered the bimah (central platform) from which the Torah was read to the Jews of Vilna (Vilnius) for some 300 years. This tradition suddenly ceased during the Holocaust, when the Great Synagogue of Vilna, the center of Jewish life, was destroyed by the Nazis 63 years ago.
The remains were later destroyed by Soviet authorities, and a modern school was constructed on the site.
Built in the 17th century in Renaissance-Baroque style, the synagogue was surrounded over time with other community buildings, including twelve synagogues, the community council, kosher meat stalls, the famous Strashun library, a complex of mikvaot (ritual baths) and other communal institutions that formed a great center of Torah study, the beating heart of the Lithuanian Jewish movement of Mitnagdim and the home for Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon.
The bimah was excavated below the floors of the school that was built over the Great Synagogue in the 1950s. The ornate bimah, that was documented prior to its destruction, was a two tiered Baroque structure decorated with 12 columns. It was constructed in the 18th century, thanks to a donation by the noted Jewish benefactor known by his acronym as the Yesod. The excavations also revealed part of the massive back wall of the Great Synagogue, together with long sections of the walls of the adjacent bathhouse and the men's mikvah (ritual bath), which was decorated with colored tiling.
In the words of Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Justinas Račas.of the Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos, "the discovery of the walls of the bimah and the mikvah shows the further potential for excavation at the site and the exciting possibility to present the remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilna (Vilnius) and the Shulhoyf in the future to both the local and international audience."
The work was conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos, the Good Will Foundation, and the Jewish Community of Lithuania. It was aided by Zenonas Baubonis (Kultūros paveldo išsaugojimo pajėgos); Prof. Richard Freund (University of Hartford); Prof. Harry Jol (University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire) and Prof. Philip Reeder (Duquesne University).