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Many shuls in Eastern Europe have painted zodiac symbols (albeit in a rather symbolic manner) on the walls or ceiling. However, it is stated directly in the Mishneh Torah that one may not draw the constellations, and in Rambam's Commentary on the Mishna, it is stated that this does not refer to simply drawing the stars, but rather drawing the symbolic depictions of these stars and the like (for example, Venus as a young maiden). The sages clearly do consider the constellations to be real heavenly servants of Hashem, just as the cherubim are. So why was this not only permitted, but permitted in a house of worship?

Shul in Gwoździec Shul in Chodorow Shul in Krakow

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    Are you able to let us know which Shuls in Eastern Europe. Would like to see a photograph. – Daniel Ross Aug 26 '20 at 3:09
  • Sure! These are the examples I've seen. There are many others (such as Chernvisti and Mogilev, for example), but these were the ones I first saw and they are good examples. These are in Gwozdziec, Chodorow and Krakow, respectively (all in Poland.) – Ben Aug 26 '20 at 21:49
  • This is a tough question. It's rough. Are Zodiac symbols idols? Rambam seems to say so. Yes, they look pretty. That's why I say its rough. – Turk Hill Aug 27 '20 at 1:09
  • They aren't idols; they aren't being used for idolatry. There is a prohibition against depicting the entities within the heavens, as well as Hashem. Practically, this means that, for example, one can't draw the sun. However, in the zodiacs, it is a grey area; there is no intention in drawing these in a manner which shows them accurately as what they represent; for example, for Sagittarius, there is no archer, it's all represented as a bow. Similarly according to all opinions it is muttar to draw half of a sun in a corner of a page. So, is representing constellations as symbols also prohibited? – Ben Aug 27 '20 at 2:33
  • adessynagogue.com/en It's also worth noting that this seems to be acceptable in sephardic halacha, or at least this is something that some Syrians (Halabim) did and do. – Ben Aug 27 '20 at 3:38
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The Mishneh Torah is clear that these depictions may not exist in a synagogue. However, certain things just make it through the fences the Rabbi's put up to block something. Zodiac symbols are found throughout many of the oldest synagogues in Israel and in other parts of the world. These synagogues were sometimes considered extra beautiful and ornate in other ways that would set them apart from what might be called the more "traditional" synagogues.

The Rabbi's in the Talmud struggled with the Zodiac use in the synagogues, as did the Rabbis after them, and the Rabbis after them.... And yet somehow it persisted throughout the centuries. Another one of these odd outlawed phenomena that withstood the test of time was round tefillin. Not only were round tefillin found in the Cairo Genizah, but an old depiction of tefillin also shows a cylindrical tefillin shape.

So the answer is no. It's not permitted to have zodiac symbols in a synagogue according to the Talmud and Mishneh Torah. It hasn't been permitted for a long time. But the children of Israel did it anyways.

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    Please look in mishne berura hamvorar oz vehdor 90 211. Who brings a discussion on this and many poskim. It sounds like many would be mattir for this reason except that people would look at it during davenning. Maybe I should copy it on chat. – interested Aug 25 '20 at 9:41
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  • @interested Could you please copy? I can't find anything on Sefaria. – Ben Aug 25 '20 at 18:34
  • That first link is silly. Pointing to a synagogue in the 5th century (possibly Talmudic times) or maybe 6th century (post Talmudic) and not even clear if the pictures are zodiac or the 12 tribes? Come on. – user6591 Aug 26 '20 at 3:14
  • @user6591 remind me and I'll post pictures of some of my personal pictures from ancient synagogues I visited – Aaron Aug 26 '20 at 3:58

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