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.

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