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1. Name
2. Origin
3. Spread of Synagogues
4. The Building
(1) The Site
(2) The Structure
(3) The Furniture
5. The Officials
(1) The Elders
(2) The Ruler
(3) The Servant (or Servants)
(4) Delegate of the Congregation
(5) The Interpreter
(6) The Almoners
6. The Service
(1) Recitation of the "Shema`"
(2) Prayers
(3) Reading of the Law and the Prophets
(4) The Sermon
(5) The Benediction

1. Name:
Synagogue, Greek sunagoge, "gathering" (Acts 13:43), "gathering-place" (Lk 7:5), was the name applied to the Jewish place of worship in later Judaism in and outside of Israel Proseuche, "a place of prayer" (Acts 16:13), was probably more of the nature of an enclosure, marking off the sacred spot from the profane foot, than of a roofed building like a synagogue. Sabbateion in Ant, XV, i, 6, 2, most probably also meant synagogue. In the Mishna we find for synagogue beth ha-keneceth, in the Targums and Talmud be-khenishta', or simply kenishta'. The oldest Christian meetings and meeting-places were modeled on the pattern of the synagogues, and, in Christian-Palestinian Aramaic the word kenishta' is used for the Christian church (compare Zahn, Tatian's Diatessaron, 335).
2. Origin:
That the synagogue was, in the time of our Lord, one of the most important religious institutions of the Jews is clear from the fact that it was thought to have been instituted by Moses (Apion, ii, 17; Philo, De Vita Moses, iii.27; compare Targum Jer to Ex 18:20). It must have come into being during the Babylonian exile. At that time the more devout Jews, far from their native land, having no sanctuary or altar, no doubt felt drawn from time to time, especially on Sabbath and feast days, to gather round those who were specially pious and God-fearing, in order to listen to the word of God and engage in some kind of worship. That such meetings were not uncommon is made probable by Ezek 14:1; 20:1. This would furnish a basis for the institution of the synagogue. After the exile the synagogue remained and even developed as a counterpoise to the absolute sacerdotalism of the temple, and must have been felt absolutely necessary for the Jews of the Dispersion. Though at first it was meant only for the exposition of the Law, it was natural that in the course of time prayers and preaching should be added to the service. Thus these meetings, which at first were only held on Sabbaths and feast days, came also to be held on other days, and at the same hours with the services in the temple. The essential aim, however, of the synagogue was not prayer, but instruction in the Law for all classes of the people. Philo calls the synagogues "houses of instruction, where the philosophy of the fathers and all manner of virtues were taught" (compare Mt 4:23; Mk 1:21; 6:2; Lk 4:15,33; 6:6; 13:10; Jn 6:59; 18:20; CAp, ii, 17).
3. Spread of Synagogues:
In Israel the synagogues were scattered all over the country, all the larger towns having one or more (e.g. Nazareth, Mt 13:54; Capernaum, Mt 12:9). In Jerusalem, in spite of the fact that the Temple was there, there were many synagogues, and all parts of the Diaspora were represented by particular synagogues (Acts 6:9). Also in heathen lands, wherever there was a certain number of Jews, they had their own synagogue: e.g. Damascus (Acts 9:2), Salamis (Acts 13:5), Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14), Thessalonica (Acts 17:1), Corinth (Acts 18:4), Alexandria (Philo, Leg Ad Cai, xx), Rome (ibid., xxiii). The papyrus finds of recent years contain many references to Jewish synagogues in Egypt, from the time of Euergetes (247-221 BC) onward. According to Philo (Quod omnis probus liber sit, xii, et al.) the Essenes had their own synagogues, and, from 'Abhoth 3 10, it seems that "the people of the land," i.e. the masses, especially in the country, who were far removed from the influence of the scribes, and were even opposed to their narrow interpretation of the Law had their own synagogues.
4. The Building:
(1) The Site.
There is no evidence that in Israel the synagogues were always required to be built upon high ground, or at least that they should overlook all other houses (compare PEFS, July, 1878, 126), though we read in the Talmud that this was one of the requirements (Tos Meghillah, edition Zunz, 4:227; Shabbath 11a). From Acts 16:13 it does not follow that synagogues were intentionally built outside the city, and near water for the sake of ceremonial washing (compare Monatsschr. fur Gesch. und Wissensch. des Judenthums, 1889, 167-70; HJP II, 370).
(2) The Structure.
Of the style of the architecture we have no positive records. From the description in the Talmud of the synagogue at Alexandria (Toc Cukkah, edition Zunz, 198 20; Cukkah 51b one imagrees the synagogues to have been modeled on the pattern of the temple or of the temple court. From the excavations in Israel we find that in the building the stone of the country was used. On the lintels of the doors were different forms of ornamentation, e.g. seven-branched candlesticks, an open flower between two paschal lambs, or vine leaves with bunches of grapes, or, as in Capernaum, a pot of manna between two representations of Aaron's rod. The inside plan "is generally that of two double colonnades, which seem to have formed the body of the synagogue, the aisles East and West being probably used as passages. The intercolumnar distance is very small, never greater than 9 1/2 ft." (Edersheim). Because of a certain adaptation of the corner columns at the northern end, Edersheim supposes that a woman's gallery was once erected there. It does not appear, however, from the Old Testament or New Testament or the oldest Jewish tradition that there was any special gallery for women. It should be noted, as against this conclusion, that in De Vita Contemplativa, attributed by some to Philo, a certain passage (sec. iii) seems to imply the existence of such a gallery.
(3) The Furniture.
We only know that there was a movable ark in which the rolls of the Law and the Prophets were kept. It was called 'aron ha-qodhesh, but chiefly tebhah (Meghillah 3 1; Nedharim 5 5; Ta`anith 2 1,2), and it stood facing the entrance. According to Ta`anith 15a it was taken out and carried in a procession on fast days. In front of the ark, and facing the congregation, were the "chief seats" (see CHIEF SEATS) for the rulers of the synagogue and the learned men (Mt 23:6). From Neh 8:4 and 9:4 it appears that the bemah (Jerusalem Meghillah 3 1), a platform from which the Law was read, although it is not mentioned in the New Testament, was of ancient date, and in use in the time of Christ.
5. The Officials:
(1) The Elders.
These officials (Lk 7:3) formed the local tribunal, and in purely Jewish localities acted as a Committee of Management of the affairs of the synagogue (compare Berakhoth 4 7; Nedharim 5 5; Meghillah 3 1). To them belonged, most probably, among other things, the power to excommunicate (compare Ezr 10:8; Lk 6:22; Jn 9:22; 12:42; 16:2; `Edhuyoth 5 6; Ta`anith 3 8; Middoth 2 2).
(2) The Ruler.
Greek archisunagogos (Mk 5:35; Lk 8:41,49; 13:14; Acts 18:8,17), Hebrew ro'sh ha-keneseth (Sotah 7 7,8). In some synagogues there were several rulers (Mk 5:22; Acts 13:15). They were most probably chosen from among the elders. It was the ruler's business to control the synagogue services, as for instance to decide who was to be called upon to read from the Law and the Prophets (Yoma' 7 1) and to preach (Acts 13:15; compare Lk 13:14); he had to look after the discussions, and generally to keep order.
(3) The Servant (or Servants).
Greek huperetes; Talmud chazzan (Lk 4:20; Yoma' 7 1; Sotah 7 7,8). He had to see to the lighting of the synagogue and to keep the building clean. He it was who wielded the scourge when punishment had to be meted out to anyone in the synagogue (Mt 10:17; 23:34; Mk 13:9; Acts 22:19; compare Makkoth 16). From Shabbath 1 3 it seems that the chazzan was also an elementary teacher.
(4) Delegate of the Congregation.
Hebrew sheliach tsibbur (Ro'sh ha-shanah 4 9; Berakhoth 5 5). This office was not permanent, but one was chosen at each meeting by the ruler to fill it, and he conducted the prayers. According to Meghillah 4 5, he who was asked to read the Scriptures was also expected to read the prayers. He had to be a man of good character.
(5) The Interpreter.
Hebrew methargeman. It was his duty to translate into Aramaic the passages of the Law and the Prophets which were read in Hebrew (Meghillah 3 3; compare 1 Cor 14:28). This also was probably not a permanent office, but was filled at each meeting by one chosen by the ruler.
(6) The Almoners.
(Dema'i 3 1; Kiddushin 4 5). Alms for the poor were collected in the synagogue (compare Mt 6:2). According to Pe'ah 8 7, the collecting was to be done by at least two persons, and the distributing by at least three.
6. The Service:
(1) Recitation of the "Shema`".
At least ten persons bad to be present for regular worship (Meghillah 4 3; Sanhedhrin 1 6). There were special services on Saturdays and feast days. In order to keep the synagogue services uniform with those of the temple, both were held at the same hours. The order of service was as follows: the recitation of the shema`, i.e. a confession of God's unity, consisting of the passages Dt 6:4-9; 11:13-21;. Nu 15:37-41 (Berakhoth 2 2; Tamidh 5 1). Before and after the recitation of these passages "blessings" were said in connection with the passages (Berakhoth 1 4). This formed a very important part of the liturgy. It was believed to have been ordered by Moses (compare Ant, IV, viii, 13).
(2) Prayers.
The most important prayers were the Shemoneh `esreh, "Eighteen Eulogies," a cycle of eighteen prayers, also called "The Prayer" (Berakhoth 4 3; Ta`anith 2 2). Like the shema` they are very old.
The following is the first of the eighteen: "Blessed art Thou, the Lord our God, and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: the great, the mighty and the terrible God, the most high God Who showest mercy and kindness, Who createst all things, Who rememberest the pious deeds of the patriarchs, and wilt in love bring a redeemer to their children's children for Thy Name's sake; O King, Helper, Saviour and Shield! Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the Shield of Abraham."
The prayers of the delegate were met with a response of Amen from the congregation.
(3) Reading of the Law and the Prophets.
After prayers the parashah, i.e. the pericope from the Law for that Sabbath, was read, and the interpreter translated verse by verse into Aramaic (Meghillah 3 3). The whole Pentateuch was divided into 154 pericopes, so that in the course of 3 years it was read through in order. After the reading of the Law came the HaphTarah, the pericope from the Prophets for that Sabbath, which the interpreter did not necessarily translate verse by verse, but in paragraphs of 3 verses (Meghillah, loc. cit.).
(4) The Sermon.
After the reading from the Law and the Prophets followed the sermon, which was originally a caustical exposition of the Law, but which in process of time assumed a more devotional character. Anyone in the congregation might be asked by the ruler to preach, or might ask the ruler for permission to preach.
The following example of an old (lst century AD) rabbinic sermon, based on the words, "He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation" (Isa 61:10, a verse in the chapter from which Jesus took His text when addressing the synagogue of Nazareth), will serve as an illustration of contemporary Jewish preaching:
"Seven garments the Holy One--blessed be He!--has put on, and will put on from the time the world was created until the hour when He will punish the wicked Edom (i.e. Roman empire). When He created the world, He clothed Himself in honor and majesty, as it is said (Ps 104:1): `Thou art clothed in honor and majesty.' Whenever He forgave the sins of Israel, He clothed Himself in white, for we read (Dan 7:9): `His raiment was white as snow.' When He punishes the peoples of the world, He puts on the garments of vengeance, as it is said (Isa 59:17): `He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke.' The sixth garment He will put on when the Messiah comes; then He will clothe Himself in a garment of righteousness, for it is said (same place) : `He put on righteousness as a breast-plate, and an helmet of salvation upon His head.' The seventh garment He will put on when He punishes Edom; then He will clothe Himself in 'adhom, i.e. `red,' for it is said (Isa 63:2): `Wherefore art Thou red in Thine apparel?' But the garment which He will put upon the Messiah, this will shine afar, from one end of the earth to the other, for it is said (Isa 61:10): `As a bridegroom decketh himself with a garland.' And the Israelites will partake of His light, and will say:
`Blessed is the hour when the Messiah shall come!
Blessed the womb out of which He shall come!
Blessed His contemporaries who are eye-witnesses!
Blessed the eye that is honored with a sight of Him!
For the opening of His lips is blessing and peace;
His speech is a moving of the spirits;
The thoughts of His heart are confidence and cheerful-ness;
The speech of His tongue is pardon and forgiveness;
His prayer is the sweet incense of offerings;
His petitions are holiness and purity.
O how blessed is Israel, for whom such has been prepared!
For it is said (Ps 31:19): "How great is Thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee" ' "
(Pesiqta', edition Buber).
(5) The Benediction.
After the sermon the benediction was pronounced (by a priest), and the congregation answered Amen (Berakhoth 5 4; Sotah 7 2,3).

L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstlichen Vortrage der Juden, 2nd edition; Herzfeld, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, III, 129-37, 183-226; Hausrath, Neutestamentliche Zeitgesch., 2d edition, 73-80; HJP, II, 357-86; GJV4, II; 497-544; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 5th edition, I, 431-50; Oesterly and Box, "The Religion and Worship of the Synagogue," Church and Synagogue, IX, number 2, April, 1907, p. 46; W. Bacher, article "Synagogue" in HDB; Strack, article "Synagogen," in RE, 3rd edition, XIX.
Paul Levertoff
Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'synagogue'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". - ISBE; 1915.

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