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.

A 10th grader responds.

After one of my recent Holocaust-related talks at UNC-A for a large group of Middle School through College students, I received from a 10th grader the following essay which I thought was worth sharing with you.

“My heart is pounding, and I am on the edge on my seat. I can feel the energy around me as I graciously listen to his words. Seventy-eight years have passed, yet he is telling his story as if he is the same thirteen-year-old boy living in treacherous misery. His name is Dr. Walter Ziffer, and he is a Holocaust survivor. Dr. Ziffer speaks of many hardships that morning, and I am clinging on to every word. The pain, the fear, the agony, that he must have gone through, alone. He was just barely a teenager when the Nazi soldiers brought down their wrath, murdering six million of his brothers and sisters.

I had heard of the Holocaust, but I did not know what it was until I was about 12 years old. I remember sitting there in that history class thinking, “A person really did that? A person really tried to eliminate an entire race? Why would he do that?” Here I am, years later, thinking the same thing. Before now, I had read stories and memoirs, and I have even watched a couple of interviews. But there is something so incredibly breathtaking about being in that auditorium, hearing that sorrow in his voice, feeling the passion in his soul growing louder and louder. Dr. Ziffer explains that it hurts him, even now, to recall his past and speak about it. But, he says, he must. He must let young people like me know what really happened, and he must bring awareness to the topic. In that auditorium, there are kids as young as 11 and 12. And Dr. Ziffer doesn’t sugar coat anything either. He speaks of being ripped away from his family, of men and women being raped and killed, of being worked nearly to death at the camps, of all the murder that surrounded him. Everyone is touched by his words. As nothing but humans, our differences seem irrelevant now as we listen to him speak.

Here’s what I think. Without a doubt, I am more than in awe of people like Dr. Ziffer. I am beyond thankful for Elie Wiesel, Samuel Bak, Primo Levi. In Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference” speech, he inspires members of the twenty-first century to never show indifference to others, and to always possess compassion. This is key. These survivors have witnessed and experienced things that most people only have nightmares about. They use that to inform young people about this monstrosity. Adolf Hitler, former chancellor of Germany, responsible for the death of over 6 million people. But here we are today, united as a people at least on the opinion that the Holocaust was simply evil. It was inhumane and wrong. We have to learn to effectively communicate, especially when we disagree. The is precisely why Dr. Ziffer’s story needs to be told.  In America, we are fighting about politics, religion, civil rights … everything. But we can all join together on this, and never let it happen again.”