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.

An Alt-Neu Synagogue in Asheville

A few days ago, Gail and I had the pleasure of worshiping at our renovated Beth Israel synagogue building in the style of a 1st cent. Palestinian synagogue. The transformation is stunning and, in my opinion, well done. Its new architectural layout, though new but really old, symbolizes “community” much better than the previous one.

The words “new” and “old” hold a special meaning for me as they send me back to my native country and its special Jewish heritage.

As you know, I am a native of what was Czechoslovakia before WW II and is now the Czech Republic. Its capital Prague, or in Czech Praha, is often considered the most beautiful city of Europe. No exaggeration here!

We, Czech Jews, or better, the few of us who survived the Holocaust, have the honor of boasting to have in Prague Europe’s oldest active synagogue, known as the Altneuschul or in Czech Staronova synagoga. The building was completed in 1270 which means that it has been standing there for many centuries before America was discovered.

The synagogue was originally called the New or Great Synagogue, but later, when other synagogues were built in Prague in the16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue or in German or Yiddish Alt-NeuSchul.

But there is another explanation for the name that is more intriguing. This other explanation derives the name Alt-Neu from the Hebrew al tnai which means “on condition that….” Notice the similarity of pronunciation: Alt-Neu and al tnai,

Where then do the Hebrew words come from and what is their meaning? According to legend, angels brought stones from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem to help with the building of the Prague synagogue “on condition” or, in Hebrew al tnay, that they be returned when mashiach-Messiah comes and these stones will be needed for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple.

Which of the two interpretations of the synagogue’s name seems correct in your opinion?

The Prague Alt-NeuSchul is also renown for housing under its roof the body of the lifeless Golem, the robot constructed by the synagogue’s famous rabbi called the MaHaRal which is an acronym for Moreynu HaRav Loew, meaning “Our Teacher Rabbi Loew. “ The legend has it that Rabbi Loew made the Golem, a huge powerful robot, to protect the Jewish population of Prague during pogroms.

As my mind wanders back to the Alt-NeuSchul in Prague, I am especially attracted by the Hebrew inscription on one of its stucco walls. There, in Hebrew, we read, shiviti adonay lenegdi tamid, which means, “I will hold Adonay before me always” or, “I place God before me always” ( Psalm 16:8).

This text is often written on meditative representations on tapestries, decorative plaques or on an illustrated page in the siddur or prayer book. It is this text that has inspired me to make the many dozens of mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) that now adorn the entrances to many a Jewish home here and elsewhere and even some of the door frames of our newly renovated Beth Israel synagogue in Asheville.

So why mention all this here and now? Because our synagogue, just like the one in Prague, has now become an Old-New synagogue, an AltNeuSchul and, as some of you know from many a dvar Torah or sermon I have given, and from my memoir published on my 90th birthday and beautifully celebrated in this place of worship, I am a secular Jew, but a Jew! When I contemplate this beautiful text that carries in its heart the name of Hashem, I think not of God as a person but rather as a metaphor for all the Jewish values we Jews admire, honor and try to act out in our lives.

The Altneuschul in Prague has been an active place of worship for almost one thousand years. As a place of worship it has inspired tens of thousands of worshipers and tourists. I am sure that the world has greatly benefited from its existence. It is my hope that our Asheville AltNeuSchul will do the same for our community and the many visitors who worship with us over time.

It is my hope that the Prague synagogue’s inscription shiviti adonay lenegdi tamid will guide our Jewish peoples’ lives and bring a bit of tikkun olam or “repair of the world” to our local society and beyond.