“Synagogue,” from the Greek, means a “place of assembly,” a translation of the Hebrew, beit knesset. It is, of course, a place of Jewish worship, but it may have had a different function when it first appeared, more than two millennia ago. How, where and when the institution developed is uncertain, but scholars have weighed in with different opinions.
Some biblical background is helpful. King Solomon built the so-called “First” Temple in Jerusalem in the mid-10th century BCE. Modern-day Jewish “temples,” the term used for many Reform synagogues, for example, have nothing in common with the biblical one. The ancient Temple (with an upper-case “T”) was the one and only House of God. What went on there was sacrifice, officiated over by hereditary priests. There were no rabbis yet, no organized prayer, no fixed liturgy.
The Babylonians ravaged the Land of Israel in 586 BCE. Jerusalem and the Temple were razed, and the bulk of the population was exiled to what is today Iraq. “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion,” mourned the Psalmist. But half a century later Babylon fell to the rising Persian Empire, and the Persian king allowed the Jews to return home. Some did, but many did not, and the Babylonian Jewish community would thrive and become a center of Jewish life for the next 1,500 years.
Although the new “Second” Temple was completed in Jerusalem by about 516 BCE, and the sacrificial rites restored, it was a long and difficult journey for a pilgrim from Babylon. In its remoteness, some scholars say, the Babylonian Jewish community turned inward. One response, it is thought, was the synagogue, where people gathered informally to hear public readings of the Torah (the “Law”). This new way of maintaining a communal connection with their faith did not require a hereditary priest, just a literate teacher – a “rabbi” – who could declaim and explain God’s word.
Reading Torah remains a central pillar of the synagogue service to this day.
Synagogue versus Temple
In the 1st century CE, both Jewish and Christian sources speak of a proliferation of synagogues across the Mediterranean world and the Near East. The sense they convey is of already well-established centers of Jewish religious and social life. The Talmud (a later writing down of the existing Oral Law, at around 400 CE) speaks of hundreds of synagogues in Jerusalem alone – skeptics will concede “many” synagogues – including one on the Temple Mount itself. Jewish historians of the time give lists of contemporary synagogues from Rome through Alexandria to Damascus.
The New Testament records Jesus going “throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues,” with particular reference to Nazareth and Capernaum. And the apostle Paul and his fellow preachers were in and out of myriad synagogues in the region.
In Israel itself, archaeologists have dated some half a dozen synagogue ruins to that period.
The synagogue was and is more an institution than merely a place. A Greek commemorative inscription, discovered on a stone block near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, records the building of a synagogue in the late Second Temple Period by Theodotus son of Vettenos – the names of the donors are also mentioned, of course! – for the purpose of “the reading of the Torah and teaching of the commandments,” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica translation, which adds that “he also built the [hostel] and chambers and water installations for lodging needy strangers."
There is a common misconception that the ancient Temple and the early synagogues operated at best in parallel, if not actually at odds with each other: the ultimate institution with its choreographed rites versus an apparently spontaneous, grassroots phenomenon. Ancient writings tell a different story, demonstrating the occasional interlacing of Temple rites and synagogue rituals. The Mishna, the first phase of the Talmud, written about 200 CE, records a custom in the Temple before its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. On the sacred Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), “the hazzan hakenesset of the synagogue [an official] used to take the scroll of the Torah and hand it to the chief of the synagogue, who handed it to the prefect [some translate it ‘adjutant high priest’], who handed it to the high priest, and the high priest received it standing and read it standing” [Encyclopaedia Judaica translation].
The post-Temple period: When Judaism changed forever
With the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, everything changed. God’s House was gone, the daily sacrifices were defunct and the priests jobless. Synagogues and rabbis – already a mainstay of Jewish life and faith – now became the sole framework and authority for the Jewish community.
A fixed synagogue liturgy gradually took shape, using some of the Hebrew and Aramaic benedictions, petitions and piyutim (poetic devotions) of old. Devout Jews prayed three times a day – and still do –with the three worship services echoing the three sacrifices in the ancient Temple, and carrying the same names: Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon) and Arvit (evening). A fourth one – Musaf (additional) – was added on the Sabbath and holidays. Some prayers were filled with longing for the Temple, and the hope for and belief in its restoration. (Modern liberal communities tend not to share that vision.)
In the post-Temple period, the centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life only grew. In medieval Europe, for example, it embodied Community with a capital “C”. Thus the Encyclopaedia Judaica: “Any person having a private complaint could have the service interrupted until he was promised redress, and the results of lawsuits were announced In Italy, a man intending to leave the community had publicly to announce the fact so that any claims against him could be put forward In the synagogue, mourners were officially and publicly comforted [still common today], and the appearance of bridegrooms on the Sabbaths preceding and following the wedding made occasions for congregational rejoicing. The most powerful social sanction was the herem [excommunication] which, inter alia, banned the person against whom it was issued from participation in congregational worship.”
Modern-day local synagogues
Mainstream Orthodox Judaism, both the Modern Orthodox and the rigidly traditionalist ultra-Orthodox varieties, adhere to binding interpretations of religious law and behavior, as determined by generations of sages in the Talmudic period and the Middle Ages. The 19th century, however, witnessed a reformation by Jews, particularly in Germany, who looked to “modernize” their Judaism and make it more compatible with the ethos of their Christian environment. Gender distinctions were removed (men and women could now sit together in worship); services were often confined to Sabbath and holidays; the liturgy was reduced and some of it was conducted in the vernacular; elements considered antiquated or inappropriate were deleted from the liturgy. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements, and (to a lesser extent) the more traditionalist Conservative movement draw on that modernist world-view.
So what does your neighborhood synagogue look like? Chances are it’s not merely a prayer hall (or sanctuary), but a complex that serves its community in different ways: religious services, of course, but also social and cultural events and educational activities. If it’s an Orthodox synagogue, there will be separation between men and women in prayer, with the men occupying the central area, and the women either seated behind a partition or curtain on the same floor, or in a balcony section. There is no such separation in non-Orthodox congregations.
At the far end of the prayer hall is the cupboard-like Holy Ark, often an artistic creation in its own right. It contains the Torah scroll that are taken out and read aloud on Sabbaths and holidays, and on Monday and Thursday mornings in synagogues that conduct daily services. The Torah is divided into set weekly portions, and it takes one year on the Jewish calendar to complete the cycle and immediately begin again.
Synagogues traditionally face Jerusalem, or if the location makes this impossible, the worshippers will at least face Jerusalem when they face the Ark (as required at certain moments in the service). In Jerusalem itself, the orientation is toward the site of the ancient Temple. In a central place in the sanctuary is an elevated podium, the bimah, where the Torah scroll is read, and often where the cantor, rabbi or a lay member of the congregation leads the prayers.
Even in these less-fervent times, many Jews find their Jewish center of gravity in the synagogue or temple. Perhaps they’ve never heard of Rabbi Yosef Caro, the 16th-century kabbalist, yet they are with him in spirit. One may run going to synagogue, Caro instructed, but on leaving one must walk so as not to indicate a desire to get away from it.
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