The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction, Essay #5 (final)

Scholarship generally agrees that the institution of the ancient synagogue was shaped by larger social, material, cultural and religious contexts. The impact of the surrounding culture on the Jews in the Greco-Roman and Byzantine worlds was significant. We can be certain that no area of Jewish life was immune to these influences which were of an infinite variety.

The Jewish people never possessed an independent architectural tradition. The exhibits of miniature replicas of synagogue buildings from various periods in Tel Aviv’s museum of the Diaspora shows that each was constructed and decorated in the style of the predominant culture of that time. The exhibit shows that it was almost impossible to distinguish a synagogue from a non-Jewish edifice by looking at its exterior only. This is further corroborated by a rabbinic tradition where it was debated whether one was guilty of an intentional or unintentional sin by bowing before a pagan temple, thinking it was a synagogue (Tb Shabbat 72b).

It is very likely that the Jews of the Diaspora worshiped in the vernacular. In a well known document published by Roman emperor Justinian dated from 553 CE it is stated that Jews read the Torah in Greek. Furthermore, “those who read in Greek shall use the Septuagint tradition which is more accurate than all the others.” The Yerushalmi (Talmud of the Land of Israel) preserves a story about two rabbis entering a synagogue in Caesarea in the 4th century where they heard the worshipers reciting the shema in Greek. One of the rabbis wanted to stop the service right then and there but the other suggested that it was better for these Jews to pray in Greek than not at all (Y Sotah 7, 1, 21b). It is generally thought that in the Galilee and in Babylonia, on the other hand, prayer and some sermons were delivered in Hebrew. The targum, i.e., the translation of the liturgy into Aramaic, the lingua franca of the land at that time, is well known to have been used to help the Jews understand Torah texts. A few Aramaic prayers in the liturgy have been preserved to this day as, for instance, the Kaddish.

The sanctity the Palestinian synagogue acquired must be seen as a sort of transfer of this attribute from the destroyed Jerusalem Temple. It also developed naturally as a counter-balance to the ubiquitous presence of pagan places of worship that were considered sacred. Undoubtedly it was also the presence of the Torah scrolls housed within the synagogue building that contributed to the synagogue being seen as a holy place. Possible also is that the growing Christian interest in Palestinian holy places may have influenced Jewish attitudes of holiness attributed toward their own place of worship, the synagogue.

The variety of artistic and architectural forms that have been alluded to in previous essays points undoubtedly to the influence of Hellenization. There is evidence that suggests that this influence was not uniform. Large cities along the coast of Roman Palestine with their cosmopolitan culture show this effect to have been stronger there than in rural areas. But even within urban areas there was diversity, with certain synagogues being more and others less receptive to non-Jewish influences.

What were the uniquely Jewish characteristics of the ancient synagogue? The orientation of the synagogue was one of these, as was pointed out elsewhere. Pagan temples and Christian churches almost always faced eastward, toward the rising of the sun. Synagogues outside of Israel were oriented toward Israel and those within Israel toward Jerusalem. Prayer was directed toward Jerusalem. While the stone benches in synagogues were generally on either two or three sides of the building, the fourth wall faced Jerusalem and it is this wall that contained either a semi-circular niche or the aron ha-kodesh, housing the Torah scroll(s).

The artistic representations consisted generally of Jewish symbols, ethrog, lulav, shofar and incense shovel, the latter being a reminder of the incense sacrifices burnt on the incense altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Very popular was also the seven-branched menorah, appearing in various forms and shapes, sculpted into walls and appearing in mosaic floors. A departure from these specific cultic objects was the Jewish adoption and adaptation of the zodiac. While Christians generally did not depict religious scenes or symbols, the cross being definitively banned from such use, a number of synagogues such as Beth Alpha, Hammat Tiberias and Sepphoris did not shrink from depicting religious artifacts such as Torah shrines and biblical scenes containing persons in their mosaic floors.

It is worth mentioning also that while in the Byzantine church there was a strict division between groups such as clergy, laymen, laywomen, catechumens, etc., such divisions were unknown in the ancient synagogue.

I would have liked to report here that the status of women in the ancient synagogue was equal to that of men. This, I regret, was not the case. Woman’s place was seen primarily as domestic and was often discussed in rather disparaging and uncomplimentary terms. Josephus writes: “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man (Against Apion 2, 201). Paul in I Cor. 14:34 expresses similar sentiments about women. History, on the other hand, reports notable exceptions regarding some Jewish women’s societal status: the Hasmonean Queen Salome, Queen Helena of Adiabene and Beruria, wife of rabbi Meir. These are examples of Jewish women who became powerful in the politics of their time and were known for their intellectual and religious achievement in society. These and lesser known women’s remarkable achievements, however, were not the rule either in Jewish society nor in the surrounding Greco-Roman circles.

It can be said with certainty that women attended worship in synagogue. Both Paul of Tarsus and also Philo write about the presence of women in worship. Some rabbinic sources, as well, speak of the presence of women in synagogue. Among the Christian Church Fathers it is the rabid antisemite John Chrysostom (4th cent.) who claims that the synagogue is a place of abomination because men and women gather there together (Adv. Jud. 3,1-2, 7,4).

For a long time it was assumed that women sat in a separate section in synagogue. Based on archaeological findings, however, the claim now can be made that women in the early synagogue did not sit separately from men. No archaeological or documentary traces have been found suggesting a separate synagogue area designated exclusively for the seating of women.

Did women play a role in the ancient synagogue’s ritual? Did they lead in prayer, preach sermons and read from Torah? Only one text in the Tosephta (Megillah 3:11-12) addresses this question. Unfortunately, this text is ambiguous. The statement reads: “Everyone is included in the counting of seven [people to be called up to read from the Torah on Shabbat], even a woman, even a child.” This is followed by, “One does not bring a woman to read to the public.” The ambiguity and seeming contradiction of these sentences following each other lead us to a dead end.

Much more could be said on the subject of women in synagogue as for instance on their altruistic roles and their various support functions within the institution. Chiselled inscriptions on synagogue pillars and texts in mosaic floors witness to women’s contributions to the richness of synagogue life. To my disappointment I did not find that women played any kind of liturgical role in the synagogue. Their role in synagogue was supportive but liturgically peripheral. This by no means suggests, however, that their role in synagogal life was negligible.

Summarizing this very quick excursion into the reality of the ancient synagogue a few final reflections are in order. What strikes me most is that the synagogue was all inclusive. Communal needs were met within its framework and the synagogue reflected the community’s wishes in its physical appearance, its functions and leadership.

Jewish elements existed alongside elements taken from the surrounding world. Rather than damaging what was uniquely Jewish, the resulting amalgam strengthened Judaism. The inclusivity also made it possible for Judaism and Jewish life to survive the many crises it was forced to undergo. The strong communal and religious dimensions shaped Jewish concern for society at large and, in my opinion, provided Judaism with the ability to be in some ways society’s ongoing conscience.

Having personally experienced Christian church-dominated life for twenty-two years, it pleases me enormously that Judaism, via the ongoing presence as community, guided and led by synagogue, is not hierarchy dominated, let alone governed. Every willing Jew has the opportunity to actively participate in Torah and Haftarah readings, in sermons, prayers as well as in Jewish community-led activities that participate in or interface with non-Jewish activities. And it is, of course, in such activities that both the importance and joy of the “synagogue-as-people” lies.

For Gail and me the term synagogue evokes feelings of home and family. This is how it has been for most Jews for millenia. May it remain so in the future! Something to be thankful for.

Note: The preceding mini-essays were written with the help of prof. Lee I. Levine’s magisterial book The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. I am also greatly indebted to prof. Herbert Gordon May (z”l) who not only encouraged my research of the ancient synagogue in graduate school but had me join him on a lengthy research trip through much of the Middle East in the late 1960s.

 

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.