The Temple in Jerusalem was the unquestioned center of Judaism from the beginnings of the Jewish nation and again after the return of the remnant from Babylon. However, the Temple, in and of itself, could not fulfill the spiritual needs of a highly religious people, especially those who lived beyond a day’s journey from Jerusalem. A method or manner was critical so the Jewish faithful could worship and encourage one another. This became what came to be known as the synagogue. Ancient writers did refer to the practice of Jews coming together in small groups to study and worship. Philo wrote how the Jews would gather together “especially on the seventh day, as I (Philo) have already explained, to discuss matters of philosophy; the ruler of the people beginning the explanation, and teaching the multitude what they ought to do and to say, and the populace listening as to improve in virtue, and being made better both in their moral character and in their conduct through life.” [i] Josephus also noted the presence of the synagogue when he wrote how Moses instructed, “the law to be at the best and the most necessary instruction of all others, permitting the people to leave off their other employments, and to assemble together for the hearing of the law, and learning it exactly, and this not once or twice, or oftener, but every week.” [ii] For those living a distance from the Temple, the synagogue, by definition, played a larger role in religious instruction and identity.
Scholars such as Dr. Louis Finkelstein, believe the synagogue was an established institution during the time of the first Temple, long before the Babylonian exile. R. W. Moss states the synagogue existed long before the exile and “was a school and a court of local government before it became pre-eminently a place of worship, and that from the period of the exile dated the important modifications of its function whereby its religious use became it most important one.” [iii] “Even in pre-exilic times groups had gathered to hear Levites give information while prophets had attracted circles of disciples.” [iv] The synagogue was vital to minister to the day-to-day spiritual needs of the Jews.
While there is considerable evidence the Jews met in the Jewish nation and outside the borders of the from the Roman period, “we have no evidence for the existence of distinctive buildings erected for this purpose.” [v] Despite the lack of archeological evidence, it is accepted that synagogues existed in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Jewish nation “at least two centuries prior to the Christian era, if not before.” [vi] Another reason for the lack of archeological signs of synagogues is that it would not be unusual for the expense of constructing a synagogue would be beyond the means of the congregation. In this case “a large room in a private house was set apart for the purpose.” [vii] Another author comments that is quite feasible that “some synagogues were converted houses” [viii] instead of a free-standing structure. This would explain the lack of discovery of dated synagogue ruins and the relationship between the synagogue and the Temple before the destruction of the center of Jewish religious life and the Babylonian exile. “The earliest historical evidence of a synagogue is an inscription from Lower Egypt, which states that the Jews of Schedia, near Kafr El-Dawar, fourteen miles east-southeast of Alexandria, built a place of prayer about 225 BCE in honor of Ptolemy III and his family.” [ix] Skarsaune agrees and writes, “the earliest archeological evidence (of the synagogue) comes from Egypt and suggests that synagogues existed there ca. 250 BC.” [x]
During the Babylonian exile, the Jewish sacrificial system and Temple were lost. The Jews faced the choice of absorption into pagan religions or to commit to the worship of God. They chose the second option. As part of their decision and as part of this choice, the Jews embraced the synagogue. This accomplished three important functions for the Chosen People: the synagogue served as “a means of worship; a school for teaching the Torah; and…a community center for the Jews of the village or city” [xi] thus becoming the center of religious, social, and community life for the Jews. “As the meeting place of the community, the synagogue served a plethora of functions, from social and political to educational and religious.” [xii] As Ezra 8:17 and Ezekiel 11:16 reveal, Jews would gather there to study and teach the Law and worship God. “The study of the Law became a substitute for animal sacrifices, and ethical observances took the place of ritual.” [xiii] This change in the Jewish religion, along with the lack of unity inherent in the proliferation of synagogues and the loss of the central entity, the Temple, which served as a unifying instrument all were a part of the rise of different ideas and interpretations of the Law. Even after Herod built the Second Temple, the synagogue continued an important role. “Indeed, the synagogue with its prayers and responses, directly influenced by the temple worship, reminded every Jews of the Temple itself.” [xiv] Because of distance to the Temple for many Jews, the synagogue remained in existence and would serve a vital component of Jewish life. While the synagogue was essentially a lay organization led by an adult Jewish male, worship in the synagogue was structured and contained the same elements regardless of where the synagogue was established.
As far as the physical structure, “whenever possible the synagogue was located on the highest spot in town.” [xv] Ideally, the building would be located near running water to allow the worshippers to perform ceremonial washing. Physically, the synagogues were “substantial structures of stone, sometimes richly furnished if the congregation or sponsor was wealthy. Typically it would be a two-story building in the form of a basilica, a rectangle divided by colonnades with a central nave and two aisles, surrounding a courtyard. Every synagogue had a chest in which the roll of the law was kept, a platform facing Jerusalem with a reading desk from which the Scripture of the day was read, lamps for lighting the building, and benches or seats for the congregation.” [xvi] Worshipers would sit on benches at one end of the structure and seated before the congregation was the elders. The last section behind the elders was the Holy Place. In it was the ark holding the scrolls of the Law and the Prophets. During the worship, the Shema, or creed of faith, which included Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41, would be recited. After the recitation of the Shema, they would speak prayers patterned after the Psalms. These prayers were often known as benedictions because the congregation would stand and say “Amen” at appropriate times. In the second century, these prayers were arranged into the Shemoneh esreh or the eighteen benedictions. If the chosen leader were a priest, he would recite the Aaronic blessings upon the congregation.
With the conclusion of the liturgical portion of the service, the central portion of the worship would begin with the reading and study of the Law, or the Pentateuch, which would be read through on a regular basis. “On the Sabbath, at least seven persons were called upon successively to read portions from the Law, none of them consisting of less than three verses.” [xvii] A descendant of Aaron would read the first reading; a Levite would read the second reading, and others in the group would read the remaining readings. After reading from the Law, a section would be read from the Prophets. “The custom arose of reading the Hebrew Bible in the synagogue service, after which an explanation would be given in the vernacular Aramaic. This oral explanation in time became a discourse, interpreting and applying the Biblical message.” [xviii] This gave rise to the oral tradition and, indirectly, to different interpretations and applications of the Law.