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SYNAGOGUE (Gr. synagōgē, place of assembly). A Jewish institution for the reading and exposition of the Holy Scriptures. It originated perhaps as early as the Babylonian exile. It is supposed that the synagogue had its precursor in the spontaneous gatherings of the Jewish people in the lands of their exile on their day of rest and also on special feast days. Since religion stood at the very center of Jewish existence, these gatherings naturally took on a religious significance. The Jews of the Exile needed mutual encouragement in the faithful practice of their religion and in the hope of a restoration to the land. These they sought and found in spontaneous assemblies, which proved to be of such religious value that they quickly spread throughout the lands of the Dispersion. G. F. Moore thinks that elements of the later synagogue service originated in the things that would have been most natural for the people to do and say under such circumstances (Judaism, 1927, 1:283).
No specific mention of a synagogue occurs in pre-Christian writings, with the possible exception of
From about the second century b.c. onward, the sect of the Pharisees assumed a leading role in the synagogues. It was an institution peculiarly adapted to achieve their ends. Moore says that “through it, more perhaps than by any other means, they gained the hold upon the mass of the people which enabled them to come out victorious from their conflicts with John Hyrcanus and Alexander Jannaeus and to establish such power as Josephus ascribes to them” (ibid., 2:287).
By NT times the synagogue was a firmly established institution among the Jews, who considered it to be an ancient institution, as the words of James in
In the first Christian century synagogues could be found everywhere in the Hellenistic world where there were sufficient Jews to maintain one. In large Jewish centers there might be numbers of them. However, the 480 synagogues claimed by the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 73 d) for Jerusalem must be taken with a grain of salt!
I. Purpose. The chief purpose of the synagogue was not public worship, but instruction in the Holy Scriptures. The very nature of Judaism, a religion of revelation, demanded such an institution to survive. For the Jews “it was not to be imagined that a man or a people could be righteous without knowing God’s holy character, and what was right in his eyes and what was wrong. And if God had revealed these things, plainly revelation was the place to go to learn them” (ibid., 1:282). All of the rabbis emphasized the importance of knowing the law. Hillel taught: “An ignorant man cannot be truly pious” (Aboth 2.5) and, “The more teaching of the law, the more life; the more school, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more reasonable action. He who gains a knowledge of the law gains life in the world to come” (Aboth 2.14). The destiny of both the nation and the individual was dependent on the knowledge of the law. It was the explicit purpose of the synagogue to educate the whole people in the law.
How effectively the synagogue, along with the school, fulfilled this purpose is to be seen (1) from the survival of Judaism, especially in the Dispersion despite the pressures of pagan influences; (2) from the thorough Judaistic nature of Galilee in the first century, which in the time ofwas largely pagan; and (3) from the knowledge of the Scriptures, which the apostle Paul assumes of his hearers in the Hellenistic synagogues.
II. Officials. Although there might be more in some of the larger synagogues, there were always at least two officials. The
The minister or attendant (Heb. hazzān, Gr. hypēretēs, cf.
III. Building and Furniture. Synagogue buildings varied greatly. They were usually built of stone and lay north and south, with the entrance at the south end. Their size and elegance were largely determined by the numerical strength and prosperity of the Jewish communities in which they were built. The principal items of furniture were (1) a chest in which the rolls of Scripture were kept, wrapped in linen cloth; (2) a platform or elevated place on which a reading desk stood; (3) lamps and candelabra, trombones and trumpets; and (4) benches on which the worshipers sat.
IV. Worship. The congregation was separated, the men on one side and the women on the other. The more prominent members took the front seats. The service began with the recitation of the Jewish confession of faith, the Shema‘: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (
After the Shema‘ came the prayer (Tefillah). The Ruler of the Synagogue could call on any adult male of the congregation to say this prayer. The person praying usually stood before the chest of the rolls of Scriptures. The oldest form of the Tefillah consisted of a series of ascriptions or petitions, each of which ended in the benedictory response: “Blessed art thou, O Lord.” About the close of the first century an arrangement was made in which there were eighteen of these prayers, from which the name “The Eighteen” (Shemoneh ‘Esreh) was derived, a name that was maintained even when a nineteenth prayer was added. Prayers 1-3 were in praise of God; 4-16 were petitions; and 17-19 were thanksgivings. On Sabbaths and festival days only the first three and last three were recited. A single prayer was substituted for the intervening thirteen petitions, so that the total prayer consisted of seven parts. On New Year’s, however, three prayers were substituted for the thirteen.
The Scripture lesson that followed the Tefillah could be read by any member of the congregation, even children. The only exception was that at the Feast of Purim a minor was not allowed to read the
Prescribed lessons out of the Pentateuch for special Sabbaths were established early. For other Sabbaths the reader himself chose the passage, but subsequently all the Pentateuchal readings became fixed. Sections, called sedarim, were established in order to complete the reading of the Pentateuch within a prescribed time. Babylonian Jews divided the Pentateuch into 154 sections and thus completed reading it in three years, whereas Palestinian Jews read it through once every year.
A lesson from the Prophets immediately followed the reading from the Pentateuch. This custom is mentioned as early as the Mishnah and was practiced in NT times. When Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth and entered the synagogue, he stood up to read (
The worship in the synagogue closed with a blessing that had to be pronounced by a priest and to which the congregation responded with an “Amen.” If no priest was present, a prayer was substituted for the blessing.
The form of worship of the synagogue was adopted by both the Christian and Muslim religions, and that form in its general outline is to be found today in Jewish places of worship.
Bibliography: I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, vol. 1, 1917; E. L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece, 1934; G. F. Moore, Judaism, 1937, 1:281-307; C. W. Dugmore, The Influence of the Synagogue Upon the Divine Office, 1944; I. Levy, The Synagogue, 1963.——WWW
SYNAGOGUE, the general term for a congregation of Jews, people of Jewish religious faith and by extension the name of the building or structure in which such worship or other exercise takes place. Like the word “church” the term applies to the body of Jews acting corporately and not to the physical constructs primarily. This is made clear by both the etymology and usage of the term in Jewish and non-Jewish lit. The word is universally understood as describing Jewish religious bodies and is applied to no other. As can be seen below the term has traditionally been applied to the Jewish communities in the Diaspora and thus has found its way into many languages where it is a regular and accepted term: Lat. synagōga, -ae; Ger. Synagoge, -en; and likewise in French, Dutch, and even Russian and Japanese. The tension between sacerdotalism and memorialism which has divided the synagogues of Europe and Israel is paralleled by similar disputes throughout the history of the Church. Also comparative is the point of view in regard to the place of the OT in the life of the religious body. In the same fashion that doctrinal revisions have overwhelmed the Church, so breadth of interpretation and lack of conformity is found in the synagogue.
History of the synagogue institution
The history of the synagogue as an institution among the Jews is exceedingly difficult to trace to its source. Its origins seem to lie outside of Pal. and apart from that sector of Jewish life which governed the country and wrote the OT. The later traditions of the Aram. period assume the antiquity of the synagogue. There is little documentary evidence before the Hel. Age, the Elephantine Papyri and the NT for any synagogue. However, it must have come into being in the confused and disorganized state of affairs between the fall of the first commonwealth and the establishment of the second.
Certain of the historical aspects which led to the formation of the synagogue can be ascertained from the society which existed under Pers. and later Hel. rule. The removal of the Levitical and other sacerdotal officers from Jerusalem deprived the Temple of its necessary complement of attendants. The prohibition of journeys to Jerusalem and the loss of revenue must have rendered the unified cult center inoperative. The collapse of the old religious state meant a great increase in personal rather than official religious functions, a trend seen in the great prophetic voices, Isaiah and Jeremiah, even before the final collapse and a theme renewed in Daniel. The necessity to preserve the Torah, the five books of Moses, not merely as the central religious document but also as the only communication of Jehovah to His people motivated corporate Torah study. This trend was enforced by the pressure for syncretism with the Persian and Grecian paganism and the slow deterioration of the classical Heb. language. The result was a move to preserve not only the Torah but also its ancient speech. The first desire brought about the recension of the MT, the second the Massoretes themselves. However, both grew up not in Jerusalem, but in the small Diaspora communities and in the lands later won by force of Jewish arms under the Maccabees and their followers. All that can be surely stated is that the synagogue arose as a corporate Torah study with all of the legal and binding relationships such a community would form among alien and displaced Jews. The later lit. always connects the origin of the synagogue with the period of Babylonian captivity and return under Ezra and Nehemiah. The terminology used for the great gathering and restatement of the Torah under Ezra is variant and uncertain showing that new institutions were in formation. The scholarly treatment of the problem has tended to fall under the influence of two opposing schools of thought. The traditional one that Moses founded the synagogue is as old as the Targums and cited by Josephus (Apion, II, xvii, 75). It was popular at various times throughout the recent centuries. The second thesis that the synagogue was of societal origin and appeared during the Exile was proposed by the Italian humanist Carlo Sigonio (1524-1584). His views wrecked havoc among the more conservative Jews and Christians of the time but were finally dominant in the treatment by the Dutch theologian
The intertestamental period.
The vast growth of the synagogue and its appearance throughout the Diaspora is noted in many documents from the time between the OT and NT. Both Philo and Josephus regularly mention the synagogue as do the earliest rabbinical sources. The dominant language of its services became Aram. as the Pers. empire waxed and waned and the central autonomy of Israelite kingship faded into the past. In the new religious rituals, the chanting of the prayers and the reading of the Biblical text became the central function of the service. The officers of the new religious communities were given new titles and soon after the conquest of Alexander they are pronounced in Gr. to a degree that centuries later they were transliterated into consonantal script and introduced into the Heb. of the Mishnah and Talmud. This was the formative period that saw the final supremacy of the synagogue. It was the customary center of the Jewish community and house of worship throughout the known world in Jesus’ time.
The NT period.
The term “synagogue” is used in the gospels over thirty times while an even greater frequency appears in Acts. It is assumed in both the Talmudic lit. and the NT, that this was the valid leadership and executive of Judaism, no matter whether it was in Jerusalem or Corinth. A few inscrs. have been located from synagogues of this era and they are distinctive in that they are in Gr. uncials written in the Hel. style. The most extensive is the Theodotus Inscription found on Mount Ophel not far from the ancient Temple precinct. It specifically states that the purpose of the building upon which it was a marker was for “reading of the law,” and that it was to serve as a hostel. The concept is Hebraic but the form is very obviously Gr. even to the titles of the officials mentioned: e.g. ἀρχισυνάγωγος, G801. Other inscrs. from the Galilee area often list OT characters or indicate the donors but in epigraphic Gr. It is this cosmopolitanism and appeal to the common conscience which marks the synagogal success. The gospel narratives mention a number of small towns in Galilee and the synagogues where Jesus taught (
The Diaspora synagogues.
The growth of popular religious organizations in Pal. was paralleled by similar establishments among the Jews of the dispersion. Large halls were built in Dura Europus and various parts of Egypt and the worship of the Jews from the Diaspora mentioned in
The medieval, renaissance and modern age.
As the Jews moved through the W Mediterranean and up into Spain and France they built and rebuilt synagogues. Where Christian states forbade public buildings a new tradition of private and semi-private chapels arose. Some of these have been found and many are well known from lit. The education of the young was more and more a function of the community through the synagogue, and its ancient tradition of a “Torah study” became very strong as the common speech became eroded and finally ceased to function in alien societies. From the 8th cent. the synagogues of Spain at Toledo were the centers of European Jewry. Later the same situation held true in Austria and E Germany from which such travelers as Petahia of Ratisbon and others set out before the year 1000 to communicate with the great synagogue centers of the Orient. The change of the millennium found Jewish synagogues stretching from England to the borders of China. However, the uneasy peace in which the Jews had lived between the Christianand the Islamic E finally evaporated in the crusades. The reaction to the inability of Western Christian feudalism to regain Pal. led to pogrom after pogrom against the Jews. Thus they were driven into the newer lands of the Baltic coast and along the rivers of Orthodox Russia. There the great synagogues of Breslau, Leipzig, Vilna, Moscow and the like held sway over world Jewry. In the 18th cent. Spanish and Portuguese Jews began to migrate to North America, the earliest American synagogue being the Congregation Touro of Newport, R.I. founded in 1763. However, several congregations in Philadelphia were soon functioning thereafter and the Maimonides College became their first institution of higher learning. The modern synagogue can take many forms and be found in many places, but its primary function still continues to be that of house of worship, school for study and social center for the Jewish people.
Architecture and function
The architecture of the early Middle Eastern synagogues was similar to that which prevailed throughout the Hel. and later Rom. age. The synagogue grounds were surrounded by a low wall within which the synagogue met. Documents from Turkey and other countries of the early Medieval period show that often the congregation met out-of-doors although at other times in private rooms. Usually this room was divided in some fashion into a sector for men and a separate and lesser room for the women. In the magnificent Moorish and Italian synagogues this women’s section took the form of a balcony running around three sides of the room and reached by outer stairs up through a sort of narthex. In the earliest Palestinian synagogues, such as that at Masada and those at Capernaum, Chorazin and Kefr Bir’im stone seats in the form of a double tier ran the length of three walls. Such buildings had either a separate balcony for women or some separation down the center. In the Rom. age many of these buildings were of a type of Corinthian Gr. design with free standing columns in the front portico and arranged in rows within the sanctuary to support the vaulted ceilings.
In accord with certain Talmudic instructions which must have been in the oral lore of Judaism, all the synagogues were built in such a fashion that the congregations could face Jerusalem. The legal lore of the synagogue is found in the opening paragraphs of the Tractate Megillah. The customs resolving the matter of synagogue construction are later. The common practice was to erect the building on a small hill or prominence, sometimes near water but always in such a fashion that the back wall which faced the door was toward Jerusalem. The Temple in Jerusalem represented the sacerdotal element and ritual in Judaism and so the elaborate ceremonial architecture of the later synagogues was unnecessary until after the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70. Whether or not the local synagogues were built as models or miniatures of the great Temple, or whether they were conceived as centers for the rituals is debated. By the 1st cent. the style of construction was set and the synagogue was located in the center of the market square.
By the 1st Christian cent. the basilica type of building with its massive and ornamented façade became the standard synagogue form. However, the extent of symbolism and the expanse was limited by the economic ability of the congregation. There is no clearcut evolution of synagogal architecture and each community of the Diaspora seems to have built structures eclectic to their situation. The widespread use of the half square and round columns and the elaborate shell niches, both associated with Rom. buildings, demonstrates how deeply the Graeco-Roman civilization altered the Jewish mind. In or about the middle of the blank wall opposite the entrance doors was the location of the niche or chamber in which the sacred rolls of the Torah were kept. Such cabinets or chests called in Heb. ’arōn hā-Qōdes, set in the E wall were often ornamented and decorated with hangings and embellishments of considerable value. One of the most interesting appointments of the early synagogues was the genīzah, a place either in a cellar or pit or in an old attic high in the wall where the worn and frayed parchment scrolls were placed. Since they bore the divine name of God they could not be desecrated or destroyed and so their contents called semōt were interred. Ancient scrolls of inestimable value have been discovered in a number of genizahs from synagogues. In the center, later front, of the hall was an upraised platform on which the scrolls were placed for reading, the bema which was also used for the sermon, a sort of explanation of the text. Special coffers, cabinets and closets for the ritual implements were later added through time-honored tradition and specific names became applied to them. Certain differences have also developed between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews because of their different cultural backgrounds. The German-Russian synagogues were more on the ord er of Gothic and Romanesque style churches, while the Spanish-Portuguese synagogues, some of the most magnificent ever built, were influenced by Mediterranean styles with Arabesque vaults and other such features. In modern times the synagogues of the Western world have shown all the innovations of contemporary architecture; pre-stressed concrete, stainless steel, glass and plastics have been used in these timeless expressions of Israel’s faith. The magnificence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for Beth Shalom, N of Philadelphia, Beth Am in suburban New York and many recent synagogues in Europe and Israel are based upon ancient traditions and symbolisms but stated in the avant garde of the 20th cent.
Furniture and decoration.
The furniture of the ancient and early medieval synagogue was utilitarian and connected with the service. The Torah Ark was frequently carved or encrusted with some type of decoration and covered with magnificent hangings and covers called paroḥet and often richly ornamented with silver and gold embroideries. The bema or lecterns were carved and inlaid, and often the great seven-branched candelabra, menorah, was also richly decorated and examples of the finest in the casting and etching arts were found in their manufacture for the wooden synagogues of Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Many smaller articles, lamp stands, the ritual implements for the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah,and the lesser pilgrimages of Peṩaḥ, Shavuot and Sukkoth were found in the synagogue. Special vestments and scroll tabernacles, usually in the form of elaborate miniatures, as well as the communal wedding rings were also kept in the special cabinets provided. Of special beauty are the Torah Crowns, exquisite tiaras with precious and semiprecious stones hung or held over the Torah Ark, or carried about in procession. Few people in history have held any book in such esteem and reverence that finery of such value was lavished upon the ornamentation of it. It is a sight of strange and reverential beauty. The decoration of the synagogues was a subject of much debate and alteration of tastes. The earliest ones often show a strangely exotic degree of profusion in Hel. and Rom. motifs. The ancient congregations at Capernaum and Chorazin decorated their edifice with stone lions, elaborate bands of botanomorphic design and epigraphic inscrs. in uncial Gr. They carved many similar natural motifs on the furniture, and pomegranates, grapes and similiar fruit and vegetables are seen. This type of symbolism was developed from the OT as the Temple was to have such ornamentation in the same fashion as the wilderness Tabernacle. However, strict prohibition against the portrayal of the human form was also in evidence. Under times of persecution the elaboration of the synagogue became simpler and as various mystical movements caught the popular fancy of Christian and Jew alike in the high the churches and the synagogues were often devoid of very much ostentation. There is no evidence that when the flavor of the arts was renewed in the Renaissance the Jewish synagogue builders followed suit. The types of murals and decorations which later played such a basic part in the humanist movement were never popular among the Jews. The strange mixture of classical themes and Christian symbolism seen in the art of the Renaissance was not adopted in the synagogue. Even the scrolls themselves are free of miniature paintings, initial embossing and the other church decorations of the time. However, an Arab. Muslim custom did become widespread, viz. the decoration of the upper parts of the synagogue with inscrs. which were later inlaid or leafed with gold, silver, or bronze. Such texts from the OT with the use of the unvaried Heb. script made a pleasing decorative device. The words of the Scriptures were often carved into the wood work and paneled walls. The glass windows were painted but stained glass came to the synagogue long after it came to the church and then its designs and motifs are carried over from the glyptic arts, and often only Heb. letters were placed in them. The innovative notions of the buttress and span which allowed the vast areas of glass in Chartres and Notre Dame are nowhere in evidence in the construction of the synagogues. One decorative feature which survived the ages in the synagogue was the use of mosaic tiles. Numerous elaborate natural figures including the signs of the zodiac and small animals are found. The ancient synagogue at Beth Alpha is esp. noted for these fine mosaics, much of the furniture and ritual of the religious year are shown in these illustrations. Few synagogue frescos have survived from antiquity but those from Dura Europus, and elsewhere, show artistic affinities as does contemporary Christian art of the period to the sculpting of the mosaics. Again, the scenes are of the various festivals with some few architectural constructs and what may be patriarchal stories in smaller registers. The motif of the sun, the wheel, the candle, the plant, the fruit, and the various Gr. running figures, arrow and egg and dart are all found in the synagogue. Reverence for the creation has been a continuing theme in such art and pure color and its blending and disjunction has become the theme of many modern synagogue treasures by Marc Chagal and other contemporary masters. Since the purpose of the non-sacerdotal church buildings and the synagogues are functionally similar their furniture with the exception of the ritual implements is practically indistinguishable. With the present pressure toward ever wider ecumenicity growing, it is conceivable that future synagogues and churches will be nearly identical.
Religious and educational usage.
In the OT, it is impossible to separate religion from education. No ancient society subscribed to the modern notion of “secular.” The community as a whole was responsible for the education of children and youths and this took place in the synagogue. The later instruction of youth in the Bible and the Talmud was carried on in the yeshivot, the special schools for pre-rabbinical studies. In the earlier periods such usage of the sanctuary was frowned upon but as the Heb. language and learning began to fade from daily life the preservation of the ancient heritage became a sacred mission and the synagogue was used for the purpose. In this regard both lower schools and libraries of Hebraic and later Yiddish books were housed in the synagogue. To the greater number of Jews the synagogue was a teaching organization and its house a school (Yiddish still refers to it as schul), but to the Gentiles of the Graeco-Roman world it was a school of philosophy. Since the primary responsibility of the adult Jew in the corporate synagogue service was to read, reading the unpointed Heb. text of the Torah was the goal of synagogue education. The earliest lessons were undoubtedly in the form of simple memorizations of Biblical passages followed by simple readings such as the familiar shema. The advanced students read the lessons from the great synagogue scrolls in which they were guided by the commonplace synagogue official known as the ḥazzan. It was in these simple schools that the elaborate oral tradition which grew up around the Torah began to take form. Unfortunately there is hardly any evidence derived from archeology of the shape or substance of these studies except for some Egyp. papyri which may be fragments of school texts. The early Jewish lit. of the Haskalah movement in Eastern Europe grew out of the synagogue school. The personages and episodes which are vividly portrayed by such masters as Sholem Aleichem give the non-Jew a vital picture of life in the agricultural communities of Europe where the synagogue and its services were the center and crown of life. In such lit., the teacher is a man both respected and satirized in the community. The restrictions of modern life have rendered the majority of synagogue schools operable only on Sunday. However, they have survived and flourished as instructors in Jewish culture and art as well as Heb. language and religion. The future of the synagogue in education appears to be leading in the direction of general community social service and many newer synagogues have the phrase “Jewish Community Center” in their names. A parallel development has begun in the Church as it seeks to secularize its appeal.
Organization and offices
Over the centuries the roles of the synagogue officers have altered and the needs of the Jewish community have changed. The most important alteration has been the development of the rabbinate. In the OT, the authority of the Jewish community was vested in the convention or council of “elders,” ziqney, “elders of—” (
Elders and rulers.
The third officer of the ancient synagogue was the שְׁלִיחַ עֵדָה, “leader of the prayers,” lit. “messenger of the congregation.” This individual was chosen as representative of the congregation in whose place he responded to the liturgical prayers. Some scholars have assumed that he fulfilled the role of priest in this delegated responsibility, but it is clear that he was not sacrosanct and acted as a layman. In the NT period, the function could be assigned to any adult male in the congregation who was of good standing in the synagogue. It may be in this regard that Jesus read the passage from
A number of less certain officers are found in records and discourses on the synagogue. Some of these must have existed in Rom. times and have been absorbed into the later offices of the congregation. One of these was the Heb. מְתוּרְגְּמָן, “interpreter,” “translator,” a person who was apparently chosen from the congregation to interpret the text of the Scripture from Hebrew into Aram. for the purpose of the lesson. This practice may be involved in the phrase, “which being interpreted is,” found six times in the NT (
The reading of the seliah zibbur and the interpretation of the metōrgmān were preceded by the public proclamation of the shema prayer. This was stated by a special officer the, “Herald of the Shema.” This officer prob. read the shema prayers as found in
When in the medieval period the decalogue was no longer used in the congregational worship and the scrolls were no longer read for the shema prayers, then the character of the congregational offices changed also. Several administrative positions appear in the later history of the synagogue. The chief of these is the “collector” or “almoner,” whose task it was to collect and distribute funds for the poor. The public giving of alms was a feature of the late Jewish religious community. It is mentioned in the rabbinic lit. and frequently in the NT (e.g.
Rabbis and laity.
The actual origin of the rabbinical office is lost in antiquity. The term “rabbi” is of great antiquity and can be traced to Akkad. usage. In the Biblical context it simply means “teacher,” “master,” and was at no time a sacerdotal or ordained office. Any laymen learned in the Torah and Jewish law could be called “rabbi.” In the tradition of Babylonian Judaism the term was pronounced “rāv.” After the destruction of the Temple and its officialdom some attempt appears to have been made to continue the sacerdotal offices, but as the majority of Jews moved in succeeding generations to the area of Galilee the rabbinical system arose. During the High Middle Ages it assumed the authority and primacy in the synagogue. When this time came the rabbinate was supreme and no longer one of the laity. The ordination to the rabbinate was not based upon some noumenal contention, but was determined by the individual’s knowledge of Heb., Torah, Talmud, and Jewish law in general. Although the modern rabbinate still inherits the background of Pharisaic Judaism it is more concerned with learning than ritual. In fact, most Jewish rituals are performed in the home with the father or eldest son officiating. The synagogues in Catholic lands have tended to retain livery for the rabbis and certain laity, and rich vestments for certain services. On the other hand those thriving in Protestant cultures have assumed many aspects of congregationalism and the dress of the bourgeoisie. This cultural syncretism has been the subject of both encouragement and scorn within Jewish circles for the whole of this cent. The rise and progress of the State of Israel has tended to make the synagogues of the Diaspora emulate oriental Judaism in an ever increasing number of aspects. The contemporary rabbi is not only a Torah teacher but also a representative and instructor in Jewish custom, much of which is initiated and preserved in terms of Israel.
The recitation of the shema and the blessings accompanying was the central portion of the simplest synagogue service which as few as ten male members might enact. It was traditionally held that this prayer service stressing the monotheism of Jehovah was instituted by Moses himself. The eighteen short prayers which make up the general blessing are certainly earlier than the Christian era and may be pre-Aramaic. The prayers in the service were always followed by the general “Amen” said by the congregation.
Scripture and sermon.
The reading of the whole Torah in Heb. was the central act of congregational worship and has been carried down in various forms to the present day. The Torah was divided into 154 or 155 sections and read through in its entirety in a three-year cycle. The selections were known as Sedariym and there is evidence in the writings of
Fasts and festivals.
The OT festivals of the Jewish religion follow the agricultural year. Since it was impossible after the diaspora for all the Jews of the Mediterranean world to return to the Temple in Jerusalem, many of the congregational feasts were held in the synagogues. These were held on the same date and at the same time as the Temple ceremonies. Most of the feasts celebrated in the Jewish calendar are of later origin and appeared during the time of the synagogue. Only the faintest remnant of the great sacrifices of the atonement are still observed and these are wholly limited to the household observance of Pesaḥ, “passover,” which occurs in March-April. In the social gatherings of the synagogue it is more frequently the holidays of the State of Israel which are observed, e.g. Israeli Independence Day, fifth of Iyar (May 14th) and the celebrations are derived from the Jewish cultures of central Europe.
The addition of Heb. schools has expanded the traditional role of the synagogues to seven days a week. The result has been a development of a professional corps of educators, teachers and administrators to operate the system. Many synagogues in various parts of the world are large community centers and thus provide a wide array of social services as well as the formal religious services. The traditional oversight of the synagogue in the hands of a board of “elders” has not materially changed during the long history of the institution, although for efficiency’s sake many synagogues also have a separate board of financial trustees. Unlike the variety of religious and structural variations in Christian church denominations, the rabbi is the executive of the synagogue in all cases.
There are a large number of Jewish encyclopedias and special reference volumes on all aspects of the synagogue. The reader is directed to these under the special headings listed above, also to E. Goodenough, et al., Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (1953 on); C. V. Vitringa, De synagoga vetere libri tres (1696); A. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, I (1883); L. Löw, “Der synagogale Ritus,” Gesammelte Schriften (1898); W. O. E. Oesterley and G. H. Box, Synagogue (1907); M. Rosemann, Der Ursprung der Synagoge (1907); M. Friedländer, Synagoge und Kirche in ihren Anfängen (1908); I. Elbogen, Der jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (1913); H. Kohl and C. Watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galilaea (1916); ed. E. R. Bevan and C. Singer, The Legacy of Israel (1927); R. Krantheimer, Mittelalterliche Synagogen (1927); L. Finkelstein, “The Origin of the Synagogue,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research (1930), 49-59; S. Zeitlin, “The Origin of the Synagogue,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research (1931), 69-81; E. L. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogues of Beth-Alpha (1932); Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934); The Ancient Synagogue of El-Hammeh (1935); G. Girmunski, “L’architettura delle sinagoghe in Europa” (in Italian), Israel X (1936), 397-408; L. Rost, Die Vorstufen von Kirche und Synagoge im Alten Testament (1938); H. Graetz, History of the Jews I-III, 2nd ed. (1940); S. W. Baron, The Jewish Community (1942); L. Ginzberg, “Synagogues in Palestine,” BA VII, Feb. (1944); G. K. Lukomski, Jewish Art in European Synagogues (1947); Rabbinowitz Fund for the Synagogues, Bulletin (1949 on); L. Rabbinowitz, “Synagogues,” in A Companion to the Bible (1950), 453-461; J. Morgenstern, “The Origin of the Synagogue,” Studi orintalistici in onore di G. d. Vida, II (1955), 192-221; C. H. Kraeling, The Excavations of Dura-Europos, Final Report VIII, Pt. 1, “The Synagogue” (1956); S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Vols I-III, 2nd. ed. (1958): B. Kanael, Die Kunst der antiken Synagoge (1961); I. Sonne, “Synagogue,” IDB, Vol. 4 (1962), 476-491; I. Levy, The Synagogue (1963); R. Wischnitzer, The Architecture of the European Synagogue (1964); S. Krauss, Syngagogale Altertümer (1966); A. Schlatter, Kleinere Schriften von A. Schlatter, Bd. III (1966); B. Porten, Archives From Elephantine (1968), 105-122.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
3. Spread of Synagogues
4. The Building
(1) The Site
(2) The Structure
(3) The Furniture
5. The Officials
(1) The Elders
(2) The Ruler
(3) The Servant (or Servants)
(4) Delegate of the Congregation
(5) The Interpreter
(6) The Almoners
6. The Service
(1) Recitation of the "Shema`"
(3) Reading of the Law and the Prophets
(4) The Sermon
(5) The Benediction
Synagogue, Greek sunagoge, "gathering" (
3. Spread of Synagogues:
4. The Building:
(1) The Site.
There is no evidence that in Palestine the synagogues were always required to be built upon high ground, or at least that they should overlook all other houses (compare PEFS, July, 1878, 126), though we read in the Talmud that this was one of the requirements (Tos Meghillah, edition Zunz, 4:227; Shabbath 11a). From
(2) The Structure.
Of the style of the architecture we have no positive records. From the description in the Talmud of the synagogue at Alexandria (Toc Cukkah, edition Zunz, 198 20; Cukkah 51b one imagrees the synagogues to have been modeled on the pattern of the temple or of the temple court. From the excavations in Palestine we find that in the building the stone of the country was used. On the lintels of the doors were different forms of ornamentation, e.g. seven-branched candlesticks, an open flower between two paschal lambs, or vine leaves with bunches of grapes, or, as in Capernaum, a pot of manna between two representations of Aaron’s rod. The inside plan "is generally that of two double colonnades, which seem to have formed the body of the synagogue, the aisles East and West being probably used as passages. The intercolumnar distance is very small, never greater than 9 1/2 ft." (Edersheim). Because of a certain adaptation of the corner columns at the northern end, Edersheim supposes that a woman’s gallery was once erected there. It does not appear, however, from theor or the oldest Jewish tradition that there was any special gallery for women. It should be noted, as against this conclusion, that in De Vita Contemplativa, attributed by some to Philo, a certain passage (sec. iii) seems to imply the existence of such a gallery.
(3) The Furniture.
We only know that there was a movable ark in which the rolls of the Law and the Prophets were kept. It was called ’aron ha-qodhesh, but chiefly tebhah (Meghillah 3 1; Nedharim 5 5; Ta`anith 2 1,2), and it stood facing the entrance. According to Ta`anith 15a it was taken out and carried in a procession on fast days. In front of the ark, and facing the congregation, were the "chief seats" (see Chief Seats) for the rulers of the synagogue and the learned men (
5. The Officials:
(1) The Elders.
These officials (
(2) The Ruler.
(3) The Servant (or Servants).
Greek huperetes; Talmud chazzan (
(4) Delegate of the Congregation.
Hebrew sheliach tsibbur (Ro’sh ha-shanah 4 9; Berakhoth 5 5). This office was not permanent, but one was chosen at each meeting by the ruler to fill it, and he conducted the prayers. According to Meghillah 4 5, he who was asked to read the Scriptures was also expected to read the prayers. He had to be a man of good character.
(5) The Interpreter.
Hebrew methargeman. It was his duty to translate into Aramaic the passages of the Law and the Prophets which were read in Hebrew (Meghillah 3 3; compare
(6) The Almoners.
(Dema’i 3 1; Kiddushin 4 5). Alms for the poor were collected in the synagogue (compare
6. The Service:
(1) Recitation of the "Shema`".
At least ten persons bad to be present for regular worship (Meghillah 4 3; Sanhedhrin 1 6). There were special services on Saturdays and feast days. In order to keep the synagogue services uniform with those of the temple, both were held at the same hours. The order of service was as follows: the recitation of the shema`, i.e. a confession of God’s unity, consisting of the passages
The most important prayers were the Shemoneh `esreh, "Eighteen Eulogies," a cycle of eighteen prayers, also called "The Prayer" (Berakhoth 4 3; Ta`anith 2 2). Like the shema` they are very old.
The following is the first of the eighteen: "Blessed art Thou, the Lord our God, and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: the great, the mighty and the terrible God, the most high God Who showest mercy and kindness, Who createst all things, Who rememberest the pious deeds of the patriarchs, and wilt in love bring a redeemer to their children’s children for Thy Name’s sake; O King, Helper, Saviour and Shield! Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the Shield of Abraham."
The prayers of the delegate were met with a response of Amen from the congregation.
(3) Reading of the Law and the Prophets.
After prayers the parashah, i.e. the pericope from the Law for that Sabbath, was read, and the interpreter translated verse by verse into Aramaic (Meghillah 3 3). The whole Pentateuch was divided into 154 pericopes, so that in the course of 3 years it was read through in order. After the reading of the Law came the HaphTarah, the pericope from the Prophets for that Sabbath, which the interpreter did not necessarily translate verse by verse, but in paragraphs of 3 verses (Meghillah, loc. cit.).
(4) The Sermon.
After the reading from the Law and the Prophets followed the sermon, which was originally a caustical exposition of the Law, but which in process of time assumed a more devotional character. Anyone in the congregation might be asked by the ruler to preach, or might ask the ruler for permission to preach.
The following example of an old (lst century AD) rabbinic sermon, based on the words, "He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation" (
"Seven garments the Holy One--blessed be He!--has put on, and will put on from the time the world was created until the hour when He will punish the wicked Edom (i.e. Roman empire). When He created the world, He clothed Himself in honor and majesty, as it is said (
`Blessed is the hour when the Messiah shall come!
Blessed the womb out of which He shall come!
Blessed His contemporaries who are eye-witnesses!
Blessed the eye that is honored with a sight of Him!
For the opening of His lips is blessing and peace;
His speech is a moving of the spirits;
The thoughts of His heart are confidence and cheerful-ness;
The speech of His tongue is pardon and forgiveness;
His prayer is the sweet incense of offerings;
His petitions are holiness and purity.
O how blessed is Israel, for whom such has been prepared!
For it is said (
(Pesiqta’, edition Buber).
(5) The Benediction.
After the sermon the benediction was pronounced (by a priest), and the congregation answered Amen (Berakhoth 5 4; Sotah 7 2,3).
L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstlichen Vortrage der Juden, 2nd edition; Herzfeld, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, III, 129-37, 183-226; Hausrath, Neutestamentliche Zeitgesch., 2d edition, 73-80; HJP, II, 357-86; GJV4, II; 497-544; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 5th edition, I, 431-50; Oesterly and Box, "The Religion and Worship of the Synagogue," Church and Synagogue, IX, number 2, April, 1907, p. 46; W. Bacher, article "Synagogue" in HDB; Strack, article "Synagogen," in RE, 3rd edition, XIX.