The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction, Essay # 3

The mishna has no tractate dealing with the synagogue. Regulations with regard to location, orientation and and architecture have been gleaned from splinters of texts from the tosephta and later additions to the mishna. The sources to draw from are scarce.

Rabbinic regulation for synagogue location fixes “the highest point of the city.” This may have been based on the past location of the Jerusalem Temple that was located on an elevated part of the city. Most Galilean synagogues were located on high commanding points.

Many of the synagogues were located near water. Was this based on ancient Jewish habits of reciting prayers near a body of water or the practicality of being close to water for the practice of tevilah or immersion in a natural pool of water rather than in a mikveh pool?

The physical orientation of the synagogue was determined by the principle of the orientation of the worshiper during prayer: Those outside of Israel should turn their heart [mind] toward Israel; those in Israel toward Jerusalem; etc., Following this schema, those in the North of Jerusalem turn south; those East of Jerusalem turn West, and so on.

Practically all excavated ancient synagogues both in Israel and in the diaspora have the shape of a Roman basilica, i.e., a rectangular shape. The roof of the building was supported by stone pillars whose cross section was either round or heart-shaped. The row of these pillars divided the interior laterally into three parts: a central relatively large empty area and two side areas along whose two walls there was seating on one or two rows of stone benches. Most early Galilean synagogues featured a monumental facade with three entrance doors.

Some scholars suggest that the tendency to emulate within the synagogue features of the destroyed Jerusalem Temple caused some rabbinic sources to protest. Hence the talmudic ruling,

“One shall not make a house after the pattern of the temple, nor a porch after the temple porch, nor a courtyard like that of the temple, nor a table like the temple table, nor a menorah like that of the temple,” (Tb Menahoth 28b).

The Torah scrolls, the indispensable religious as well as physical center of any synagogue, were housed in the tevah (ark) or Torah shrine. It seems that the term aron hakodesh (holy shrine) was introduced at a later time and that there was controversy regarding this innovation. Many scholars believe that until the 4th century the Torah scrolls were housed in an adjoining room and brought into the main synagogue hall at the time of worship only and then temporarily placed into a niche of the wall. Interesting in this connection might be a part of a frieze at the excavated beautiful synagogue at Capernaum (k’far nahum) on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is a four wheeled small wagon holding Torah scrolls. I wonder whether such a wagon may have been used to wheel-in the Torah scrolls from a synagogue annex to the main hall where the worshipers had assembled to hear the Torah reading. It is reasonable to assume, as the synagogue system of worship developed, that a wooden cupboard holding Torah scrolls was eventually permanently installed in the main hall where Torah was read in formal worship.

Next to the Torah shrine there was the bima , an elevated podium from where translation into Aramaic (targum), interpretations, and blessings were given (Neh. 4:3-5).

The Early synagogues in Palestine as well as in the Diaspora had ornamentation. Second and third century sources suggest that menorahs were favorite gifts given to synagogues. Names of donors were often chiseled into stone pillars or expressed in mosaics in floors. The menorah which is the earliest specifically Jewish symbol was also incorporated in the walls of synagogues and burial sites.

While geometric, flora and fauna ornamental representations predominated in ancient synagogue floor mosaics, surprisingly, also human representations are found there. The motifs are often pagan as, for instance, zodiacs. To my amazement, in the mosaic floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, in its bottom register representing the akedah (the binding of Isaac), the artist incorporated not only the humans involved in the biblical story, but also a hand reaching down from above, next to which we read the word “Avraham,” representing either the hand of an angel or the hand of God stopping Abraham from killing his son Yitzchak (see below). How to explain this seeming transgression of the second of the Ten Commandments which explicitly forbids such representations?

This is this essay’s cliff hanger.

The Ancient Synagogue: Mini-Essay # 2

In the last essay on the subject I indicated that the exact time and place of origin of the synagogue can no longer be determined. The rabbinic sources do not offer us any clues on the subject. ,

Nothing prevents us, however, from making educated guesses. The suggestion that the term “synagogue,” designating both a Jewish assembly and a specific locus of that assembly in terms of a building, first originated in the Babylonian exile, i.e., after 586 BCE, in response to the need of those deprived of the Jerusalem Temple where they used to pray and teach, makes most sense. After the exiled Jews’ liberation and return home from Babylon in 538 BCE and the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple in 515 BCE, these Jewish folks retained the by now established institution of the synagogue. The residents of Jerusalem and visitors to the city were once again able to attend the reading of Torah in the Temple while those outside of Jerusalem attended Torah readings in their respective local synagogues. This arrangement was further consolidated in the Persian period, especially with the work of Ezra in the 5th c. BCE. But there are, as can be expected, variations of this explanation.

Most excavated synagogues in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, date from the Roman and Byzantine periods from the 3rd to the 7th c. CE. Synagogues dated to before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE are at Gamla, Masada and Herodium.

What we know about the early synagogue, its congregational functions which, in turn, determined its physical layout, comes to us from Hellenistic Jewish writings (Philo and Josephus), early rabbinical writings, archaeological and epigraphical material and the New Testament.

From both Mishna and Tosephta we learn that there was a synagogue within the precincts of the Temple itself. It was located in “the hall of hewn stones.” Its purpose was seemingly “for the reading of Torah” and it was adjoined by a “house of study.” Both Jewish and New Testament sources attest the existence of several synagogues outside the Jerusalem Temple.

One of the most intriguing Greek inscriptions found in excavations on the hill Ophel SW of Jerusalem reads as follows:

“Theodotos, son of Vettenos, priest and archisynagogos [synagogue leader], son of a archisynagogos and grandson of a archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and study of the commandments and the guest house and the rooms and supplies of water as an inn for those in need when coming from abroad, which his fathers and the elders and Simonides founded.”

Many synagogues dating to the talmudic era and onwards had annexes to the main structure, suggesting that they also functioned as a type of hostel or community center.

This said, I want to point to the similarity of function between those ancient ones and our synagogue.

The long ago established twin meaning of the term synagogue as assembly of Jews and the physical locus of assembly has been maintained to this day. The activity of the twice weekly formal reading of Torah and that of Shabbat and festival readings continues to be observed. The study of Torah and other Jewish texts has been an ongoing activity ever since the founding of the synagogue. And there is, of course, our synagogue building, newly refurbished.

Given the deterioration of our country’s political life these two last years and our president’s ongoing hate-mongering against refugees from Central and Latin America fleeing to save their lives, many synagogues and churches have declared themselves “places of refuge,” sheltering these women, men and children against forced deportation by our Immigration and Customs Enforcement organism, better known by its acronym I.C.E. I am proud of the many churches and synagogues in our country, having annexes similar to those described (above) in the ancient Theodotos inscription, that follow the Hebrew Bible’s admonition on the establishment of Cities of Refuge (Hebr.: ‘arey miklat) or Sanctuary Cities where safety from unjustified pursuit is offered to innocents even today.

I am pleased that Congregation Beth Israel, our synagogue, supports the Sanctuary Movement.

Next time: ancient synagogue buildings, layout and interiors.

The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction (in 3 or perhaps 4 short essays)

This is the first of a few brief essays that deal with some of the characteristics of the ancient synagogue. The idea of introducing our congregation to this subject must be attributed to our synagogue’s recent interior redesign. As we see the radical changes of this remapping of our shul space, questions come to mind such as what is the origin of the synagogue, does the term apply to the concept of congregation or to a building or to both, what was its original function, were all synagogue buildings built the same way, were there differences in the architectural conceptions of the synagogue between those in the Land of Israel and those in the diaspora, etc. etc.

While responding to all such questions would require the writing of a book, something that has, of course, been done, I want to deal in these essays with major aspects of synagogue existence and function. The origin of the term synagogue is especially interesting in view of the fact that the word is Greek while the institution is Jewish.

What does the Greek term “synagogue” literally mean? The syn is a prefix, meaning “together” and the rest of the word derives from the Greek ago meaning “to lead.” Combined, the word means “to lead together” or “to assemble.”

In the Septuagint, the oldest Greek version of the Hebrew Bible made for Greek speaking Jews in Egypt in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, the Greek synagoge is most frequently used for the Hebrew edah (congregation) and sometimes for the Hebrew kahal (assembly).

With the 1st c. CE the term synagogue appears in Jewish sources such as Philo and Josephus as “place of assembly, house of worship and instruction,” and so also in the Greek New Testament.

About the same time the place of worship in Tannaitic literature (the writings of the tannaim, the sages of the mishna) is beit hakneset, “house of assembly.” Where these rabbis use the shorter form kneset alone, they refer to the congregation and not to the place of assembly of the congregation.

Can the beginning of the synagogue both as congregation and location of the assembly be determined? Unfortunately not. Rabbinic sources offer no help in the matter. There are passages in the Targum and in Midrash that suggest that the existence of the synagogue goes back to the inception of the Jewish people. But when was that? Was that with Adam and Eve (hardly!), the semi-nomadic Habiru tribe in Canaan, Abraham or Moses? To that question there is no absolute answer, other than the historical fact that we Jews have been around for a long time.

Next time: surprise about the synagogue’s multi-function and decor.