The Jewish Synagogue

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Today, synagogues are recognized as the main setting for prayer. This was not the case in the earliest synagogues of antiquity. First of all, there is absolutely no mention of synagogues explicitly in the Hebrew Bible. When synagogues appeared for the first time, they carried all sorts of other functions, like the reading of the Torah, but not prayer.

The word synagogue, in fact, suggests that it serves a communal purpose. The word synagogue in Greek means “assembly”. The Hebrew equivalent is beyt knesset, literally “house of assembly”. I think this suggests that the role of early synagogues was that of a place for communities to gather for all sorts of reasons. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus describes a gathering in the synagogue of Tiberius in Galilee to prepare for an imminent war against the Romans. This is clearly not a function of worship.

Services in the Synagogue

The major function of synagogues before the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. was the public reading of Torah and its exposition through the delivery of a sermon. The New Testament, among other sources, describes Jesus and Paul delivering sermons in synagogues.

The Torah is regularly read in the synagogue as part of the service. Larger portions are read on the Sabbath and on the holidays. On weekdays, small portions are read. What is important is that the complete Torah is read in the course of one year. The day in which Jews reach the final portion of the Torah is the very same day in which they begin the new yearly cycle.

Prayer, Torah reading and a sermon would become the core of synagogue service in many synagogues today as well. The first two, prayer and Torah reading, are required. The sermon, on the other hand, is not.

Synagogue Architecture and Design

There is no required architecture for synagogues. In principle, a synagogue service can be conducted anywhere, even in a private house. In fact, this phenomenon occurred in recent generations, where young people have an aversion towards entering cathedral-like synagogues. They actually prefer much smaller and simpler surroundings in which to pray.

Certain common characteristics, nevertheless, appear in most synagogues. For instance, the scrolls of the Torah are usually deposited in an arc which stands at the front of the hall. Prayers are usually recited and directed while facing that arc. In fact, in religious law, one does not pray towards the Torah, one faces the city of Jerusalem while praying, in a manner similar to the Islamic direction of prayer towards a particular site.

Orthodox synagogues would have separate sittings for men and women. They have some kind of barrier between the two. Conservative and reform synagogues today have dismissed that separation completely.

Ancient synagogues were frequently designed in the manner of other public buildings of the surrounding culture. For instance, we have unearthed in the last few decades scores of ancient synagogues in Roman Byzantine Palestine. What is striking is that their architecture is very similar to the Christian churches that are to be found in the very same area.

Not only is the architecture similar. At times, the artistic motives that are found on mosaic floors are also very similar. For instance, depictions of Bible scenes are to be found in synagogues and the early Christian churches. One of the most popular Bible scene was the binding of Isaac, which was considered one of the great stories of ultimate faith.

There seems to be a common influence, or mutual influence between early synagogues and early Christian churches, certainly in the Middle East.

The Synagogue: Universal Symbol of Judaism

For much of Jewish history, throughout the last 2000 years, synagogues served as the most recognizable symbol of Judaism. In fact, it is interesting that opponents to Judaism usually would single out particular books and particular buildings in times of persecution. The Talmud, for instance, was the classic book to be burned if you wanted to get at the essence of Judaism. There were public burnings of the Talmud throughout the Middle Ages. The same is true regarding synagogues.

Synagogues would be singled out in times of persecution as the first structure to be destroyed. This has a history going to back to the Byzantine period. One of the law books describes how they should actually attack synagogues, destroy them or confiscate them and hand them off as a gift to the Church. What is interesting is that some early Roman emperors actually came out against this. There were times where there were tensions between the Roman emperor and the Catholic Church.

The destruction of synagogues has a very long and sad history, down to our generation. On the 9th and 10th of November 1938, hundreds of synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed within the period of 24 hours. This evening was known as Kristallnacht, the “the night of the shattered glass”. It was clear that the synagogue epitomized the essence of Judaism.

In many ways, if we do look at the prayers, they tell us a tale. The constant prayer tells a tale of Jewish aspirations and hopes for a future. It is telling that the last blessing in the Amidah is a blessing to God who blesses his people with peace. We then look at those additional prayers that were added over the generations, they tell the sometimes sad tale of what happened and what Jews were forced to address in their synagogue liturgy over the years.