The Jewish place of worship: shul, beit knesset, the Reform “temple,” the Karaite kenesa, beit tefilah — and the synagogue. Whence this odd-sounding word? Vaguely Greek? Not “vaguely” at all. The Greek word synagogé means “assembly,” and the word indeed reflects what has been a central function of the Jewish house of worship for centuries, if not millennia. Going back even further, to the origins in Greek of the word synagogé, Journal Watcher notes that the “agogé” of synagogé means “learning” or “studying,” and the “syn” part means “together.” “Studying together” is what the synagogue, ancient and modern, is all about.
Whence the synagogue itself? Journal Watcher begins his quest for the Jewish synagogue with a counterintuitive source: the Christian Scripture, specifically the Gospel of John. A fascinating article by Judith Lieu of King’s College London, “Temple and Synagogue in John” (New Testament Studies, 2009), explores the relationship between the Temple in Jerusalem, the place for Divine manifestation and the emerging synagogue, in which the relationship between individuals and the community played out — each a locus for the new Christian revelation. Lieu notes that the fact of the use of the two terms in John suggests that sociological and historical differences between the two venues developed early on. By the first century — the period when the first three Gospels were written — there are many references to “synagogues.” But “evidence for ubiquitous synagogues in pre-70 C.E. Palestine [the time of the destruction of the Second Temple] is lacking … the ‘synagogé’ in John may refer to community rather than to a specific building.” The Temple, in contrast, was for early Christians not only a symbol for the “Judaic system,” but for the primary location where one (for example, the Gospels’ Jesus) “claimed the absolute authority to speak for and represent God.” Lieu’s scriptural analysis tells us that the Temple, therefore, was to John (and presumably to other early Christian leadership) the supreme center of the Jews. The synagogue by the first century had developed a more intimate character, that of a community and indeed a physical “community center,” a role that it was to continue to play in the future.
Bar Ilan’s Shubert Spero weighs in with his comprehensive “From Tabernacle (Mishkan) and Temple (Mikdash) to Synagogue (Beit Keneset)” (Tradition, Fall, 2004). Spero’s take on history differs from that of the Gospels, which were, to be sure, theologically driven. According to Spero, by the first century the synagogue was a well-established institution in every Jewish community both in Judea/Palestine and in the Diaspora. When and where the synagogue originated is, of course, the question, and Spero, drawing on the relationship between the synagogue and the Temple, tackles this question with gusto. The conclusion of his lengthy article, which encompasses the broad sweep of the history of “sacred spaces” in Jewish tradition, suggests that the synagogue institution derived from the takanah (a normative enactment rooted in a change in social or religious circumstances) that regularized the mishmarot — “watches” that served the Temple in rotation. More to the point was the analogous division of the lay people into their own mishmarot, so that at the time that a particular congeries of Priests would be serving at the Temple, a group of Israelites from the region would come to Jerusalem to “stand in” for the entire community for whom the Priests were offering sacrifices. The week that the Priests were “on,” there were those of the assigned Israelites who did not accompany the others to Jerusalem. They would gather in their town for special prayers. This practice, involving large numbers of people all over the country coming together for prayer and Torah-reading, stimulated the setting aside of a special building: the beit knesset, or early synagogue.
So, connecting the dots: from the enclosed sacred space of the mishkan, the tabernacle, first in the desert, thence in Shiloh; to the Temple with its centrality for the polity of Israel, especially during pilgrimage festivals; to the beit knesset, which filled a special need even as early as Temple times.
Finally, a curious article caught Journal Watcher’s eye, this analysis using artifacts from an ancient synagogue to flesh out the historical and sociological development from Tabernacle to synagogue. The venerable Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria — one of the oldest synagogues in the world, dating from 244 C.E. — is unique in that it was preserved intact and is resplendent with extensive wall paintings. The use of painted decorations and other artifacts in Dura as vehicles for teasing out the history of synagogues is the subject of Kära Schenk’s (Maryland Institute College of Art) “Temple, Community, and Sacred Narrative in the Dura-Europos Synagogue” (AJS Review, November, 2010).
Amongst the suggestions that emerge from rabbinic texts is that prayer in early synagogues was timed to continue the prayer that had been offered by the Priests in the Temple (and earlier, probably, in the Tabernacle) at the time of the Tamid, the regular daily sacrifice. (Indeed, the interruption of the Tamid toward the end of the first Jewish revolt in 70 C.E. was understood as a great national calamity. This happened, according to Josephus, on the 17th day of Tammuz, commemorated thereafter as a fast day.) Amongst the many findings in Schenk’s detailed discussion is that in the Dura — whose life was contemporaneous with the rabbinic period — the conception, indeed the very wording, of the ‘Amidah (the central daily prayer consisting originally of 18 benedictions) offered at Dura had a strong resonance with the depictions of the Tamid in one of the panels found in the synagogue. “Although we don’t know precisely what the synagogue community at Dura prayed … the ‘Amidah may have served as a test case as to how liturgical prayer may have created a context for the congregation’s own interaction with the images [of the Tamid sacrifice].”
Form follows function? No question. But as Journal Watcher learns from this thoughtful article, function follows form as well, true to be sure in the evolution of the synagogue.
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Anti- Semitism through the Ages”(ADL), editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community”(Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming “The Future of American Jewish Religion”(Columbia University Press).