The Jewish Synagogue

J. R. Charlesworth, Barnstaple

Part 5 of 6 of the series Aspects of Jewish Life

"Synagogue" is a transliteration of a Greek word, used repeatedly in the Gospels and the Acts, to mean a place where people were led together with the main purpose of hearing an interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Sometimes the word was used in the sense of the organized communities who so met for worship, e.g. Acts 6. 9; 9. 2.

Origin. The record of Jehoshaphat's mission of princes, priests and Levites in 2 Chronicles 17. 7-9 implies that, before the captivity which commenced in 586 B.C., there was no provision in Israel for regular instruction in the Word of the Lord, except the septennial reading of the law at the feast of boothes, Deut. 31. 10-13. Two of the Psalmists mention gatherings held previously in the land of Israel. Psalm 107. 32 possibly has reference to the prophets' assemblies for psalmody which apparently commenced in Samuel's day, 1 Sam. 9. 12; 10. 5; 19. 20-24, and laid the foundation for such rallies as were found later, e.g. Ezra 3. 1. Asaph probably had similar places in mind, as well as the house of the Lord, when, in Psalm 74. 4, 8, he used a word rendered "congregations" and "synagogues" in the Authorized Version (cf. Exod. 33. 7).

It was during the Babylonian exile that synagogical practice seems to have had its real roots. The idea of spiritual worship independent of locality had been alien to Jewish thinking; but, far from their homeland and with the temple at Jerusalem destroyed, Jewish captives spontaneously met together in groups. They thus kept alive their faith and hopes. God spoke to them through Ezekiel. At first the elders met to hear Jehovah's words and learn that He was their sanctuary, Ezek. 8. 1; 11. 15-16; 14. i;20. 1-3. Later the common people also sat before the prophet, 33. 30-31. Upon the return of the godly remnant to Judah, periodic meetings, arranged so that the law and prophets could be read, became quite customary, Neh. 8. 2; 9. 1; Acts 15. 21.

By the time of the Maccabean struggle, buildings called "synagogues" had sprung up wherever there was sufficient support from wealthy Jews or proselytes, cf. Luke 7. 5. In poorer settlements, quiet rendezvous, like that at Philippi, Acts 16. 13, were used. So national patriotism was rekindled and maintained throughout the dark days that preceded the birth of the Saviour. "Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another", Mai. 3. 16. This need for "gathering" has always been characteristic of saints; we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is, Heb. 10. 23-25. Christian devotion, discipleship and fruitful-ness are inevitably improved as "we have fellowship one with another".

The Deuteronomic law permitted sacrificial worship only at Jerusalem. Consequently, apart from two or three exceptions, Jewish religious buildings among the dispersion were used only for prayer and instruction. At the time of our Lord's earthly ministry, such synagogues were to be found throughout the Hellenistic world and there were many in Jerusalem; one existed within the precincts of the rebuilt temple itself!

Structure and Furniture. Synagogues varied in size but the direction of these unpretentious, rectangular buildings was always towards Jerusalem. Thus the entrances of those that our Saviour visited in Galilee faced south. The roof of a synagogue was supported by two or three rows of pillars. As there were no altar and no sacrifices, no priests were required. At the far end an ark contained the law, a veil hung before it and a lamp burnt continuously. Nearby were the "chief seats", Matt. 23. 6; (cf. James 2. 2-3). In New Testament times a platform, centrally placed, supported the reading desk. Most of the remaining floor space was occupied by benches for the congregation. The women did not sit with the men but gathered in an area reserved for them; in some buildings this would include galleries built along three sides of the central aisle.

Officials. The general management of a synagogue, which in a village might also act as a courtroom and school, was normally in the hands of local elders, Luke 7. 3. The leader of a service held no official position but would be selected for his suitability. Generally a ruler was appointed to be responsible for the care of the fabric, the organization of services and the maintenance of peace and order, 8. 41,49; 13.10-14. I*1 a few places two men acted in this role, Acts 13.15. Another official, the paid attendant, Luke 4. 20 r.v., looked after the sacred rolls, 4. 17,20. He normally lived at or near the synagogue and was also cleaner and caretaker. To him fell the task of scourging criminals condemned by the court, Matt. 10. 17; 23. 34; Mark 13. 9. (Excommunication was also practised, John 9. 22; 12. 42). Among other duties he blew three trumpet blasts from the roof of the synagogue announcing the start and end of the sabbath.

Purpose. The three ways in which rabbinical writers refer to the synagogue express its threefold function.

A "house of assembly". This Hebrew appellation is the root of the title "Knesset", the name given to the modern Israeli parliament. While all synagogues were united by the aim to promote local philanthropic and communal efforts, each enjoyed a large measure of self-government. This had distinct advantage in times of war and unrest. Similarly have Christians found the autonomy of local churches, as presented in the New Testament, to be of practical benefit. During the Second World War the Nazi authorities occupied Jersey and ordered the closure there of all denominational buildings belonging to organizations with headquarters in Great Britain. The assembly at St. Helier continued to operate - its Head was in heaven!

A "house of prayer". Many of the scribes who carried forward the work that Ezra started were not merely scholars but also men of piety. Through them various prayers became part of a synagogue's liturgy. Most of these prayers were drawn from the Old Testament (cf. Luke 1. 46-55 with 1 Samuel 2. 1-10), many coming from the Psalms. The times of prayer were the third, sixth and ninth hours, Acts 3. 1; 10. 3, 9, in agreement with Psalm 55. 17, Daniel 6. 10. It is noteworthy that Prayer Meetings found a vital place in the life of the early church, e.g. Acts 12. 5. The attitude of a local church (ecclesia) to its responsibilities in this respect has always been a good guide to the spiritual condition of that assembly (cf. "the prayers", Acts 2. 42 r.v.).

A "house of study". The synagogue was the popular home of adult education in the Torah, Acts 15. 21. Nehemiah 8. 8 set the pattern. By dividing the books of Moses into set lessons, Babylonian Israelites read through the law once every three years, while the Palestinian Jews read it through once in twelve months. How does our private Bible reading compare with such former public standards? After the Sabbath reading from the Pentateuch, a passage chosen by the reader would be taken from the prophets, Luke 4. 16-20. Later these portions also became fixed, and, as the knowledge of the ancient Hebrew died out, a translation into Aramaic or Greek would accompany the readings. On all principal occasions a sermon would follow. The preacher sat for this ministry which is sometimes described as "teaching", Matt. 4. 23; Mark 1. 21; 6. 2. The ruler of the synagogue might invite a likely stranger present to address the congregation, Acts 13. 15. This "freedom of the synagogue" enabled Paul to preach in many such places. The services began with prayer and the recitation of Deuteronomy 6. 4, and ended with the quotation of Numbers 6. 24-26, the priestly benedic­tion. Occasionally a request for alms on behalf of the poor would be made, Matt. 6. 2.

As well as the main Sabbath morning services, weekday gatherings were held in the larger towns, where the minimum legal requirements of a congregation of ten men could be fulfilled.

The effect of regular instruction in the synagogues may be measured by (i) the reformation in many areas from heathen practices to Judaism, (ii) the extent to which Jews held to their beliefs under the pressure of pagan influence, and (iii) the knowledge of the Scriptures that Paul assumed his hearers to possess.

The Saviour must have found much to disturb Him in the synagogues in Israel. But He nevertheless made it His custom to attend the services, and He taught to correct Pharisaical misconceptions, Luke 4. 16; 6. 6-11. To-day the Holy Spirit indwells every believer, 1 Cor. 6. 19, and each assembly, 3. 16 r.v. There must be many things that grieve Him. "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches". "These things command and teach". We must "hold fast the form of sound words". The example given us by the apostles, Acts 6.4, is not to be treated lightly. "Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profit­ing may appear to all", 1 Tim. 4. 15.