1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Synagogue

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SYNAGOGUE (συναγωγή) , literally “assemblage,” is the term employed to denote either a congregation of Jews, i.e. a local circle accustomed to meet together for worship and religious instruction, or the building in which the congregation met. In the first sense the word is a translation of כנסת, keneseth (assemblage), in the second of בית הכנסת, bēth hakkeneseth (house of assemblage). Further the term is often used to denote the system of Judaism, as when the “Synagogue” is contrasted to the “Church.” The germ of the synagogue, that is, of religious assemblages dissociated from the ancient ritual of the altar, may be found in the circle of the prophets and their disciples (see especially Isa. viii. 16 seq.); but the synagogue as an institution characteristic of Judaism arose after the work of Ezra, and is closely connected with the development of Judaism, to which his reformation gave definite shape. From the time of Ezra downwards it was the business of every Jew to know the law; the school (bēth hammidrāsh) trained scholars, but the synagogue, where the law was read every Sabbath (Acts xv. 21), was the means of popular instruction. Such synagogues existed in all parts of Judaea in the time of Ps. lxxiv. 8 (probably a psalm of the Persian period); in Acts xv. 21 it appears that they had existed for many generations “in every city.” This held good not only for Palestine, but for the Dispersion; in post-Talmudic times the rule was that a synagogue must be built wherever there were ten Jews. In the Dispersion the synagogue filled a greater place in the communal life, for on Palestinian soil the Temple enjoyed a predominant position. In this sense the synagogue is a child of the Dispersion, but this does not imply that it was a product of the Hellenic diaspora. For the Aramaic papyri discovered at Assuan show that in the 5th century B.C. the Egyptian Jews had their place of worship in Syene long before Greek influences had begun to make themselves felt. The fact that the Books of the Maccabees never refer to synagogues is not evidence that synagogues were unknown in Judaea in the Maccabean period. These books refer mostly to a time of war, when assemblages in the cities were impossible; their interest, moreover, is concentrated in the Temple and the restoration of its services. During the second Temple there is no doubt but that public worship was organized in the provinces as well as in the Jewish settlements outside the Holy Land. And though the name “synagogue” varies with προσευχή (“place of prayer”), it appears that everywhere the assemblage was primarily one for instruction in the law; the synagogue, as Philo puts it, was a διδασκαλεῖον. Prayer, in the more restricted sense, invariably accompanied the instruction, and several parts of the extant liturgy go back to the 3rd century B.C. A formed institution of this sort required some organization: he general order of the service was directed by one or more “rulers of the synagogue” (ἀρχισυνάγωγοι, Luke xiii. 14; Acts xiii. 15), who called on fit persons to read, pray and preach; alms were collected by two or more “collectors ” (gabbāē ṣedāqā); and a “minister” (ḥazzān, ὑπηρέτης, Luke iv. 20) had charge of the sacred books (preserved in an “ark”) and of other ministerial functions, including the teaching of children to read. The discipline of the congregation was enforced by excommunication (ḥērem) or temporary exclusion (niddūi), and also by the minor punishment of scourging (Matt. x. 17), inflicted by the ḥazzān. The disciplinary power was in the hands of a senate of elders (πρεσβύτεροι, γερουσία), the chief members of which were ἄρχοντες. The principal service of the synagogue was held on Sabbath morning, and included, according to the Mishnah, the recitation of the shema (Deut. vi. 4-9, xi. 13-21; Num. xv. 37-41), prayer, lessons from the law and prophets with Aramaic translation, a sermon (derāshah) based on the lesson (Acts xiii. 15), and finally a blessing pronounced by the priest or invoked by a layman. On Sabbath afternoon and on Monday and Thursday there was a service without a lesson from the prophets; there were also services for all feast-days. Synagogues were built by preference beside water, in order to avoid proximity to the idol temples, rather than, as some think, for the convenience of the ceremonial ablutions (cf. Acts xvi. 13). Remains of very ancient buildings of this class exist in several parts of Galilee; they generally lie north and south, and seem to have had three doors to the south, and sometimes to have been divided by columns into a nave and two aisles.

Modern synagogues are mostly built of oblong shape, with a gallery for women. Since the middle ages, Renaissance and Moorish types of decoration have been generally favoured, but there is nowadays a great variety of types. The ancient synagogue of Alexandria (destroyed by Trajan) was a basilica. A number of recent synagogues have been built in octagonal form. The main interior features of the synagogue are the “ark” (a cupboard containing the scrolls of the law, &c.) and the almemar (or reading-desk, from the Arabic al-minbar, pulpit). This is sometimes in the centre, sometimes at the eastern end of the building. The Talmud prescribed an elevated site for the synagogue, but this rule has been impossible of fulfilment in modern times. The synagogues are theoretically “orientated” — i.e. the ark (which worshippers face during the principal prayer) is on the eastern side. But this rule, too, is often ignored under the stress of architectural difficulties.

Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about a body called “the great synagogue,” which is supposed to have been the supreme religious authority from the cessation of prophecy to the time of the high priest Simeon the Just, and is even said to have fixed the Old Testament canon (cf. v. 3 seq.). But Kuenen in his essay “Over de Mannen der Groote Synagoge” (Verslagen of the Amsterdam Academy, 1876) has powerfully argued that these traditions are fiction, and that the name keneseth haggădōla originally denoted, not a standing authority, but the great convocation of Neh. viii.-x. Some more recent scholars are, however, more willing to attach credence to the older tradition.

Compare, in general, Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes, § 27, where the older literature is catalogued. For some unconventional views the reader may refer to M. Friedländer, Synagoge und Kirche in ihren Anfängen (Berlin, 1908). For the usages of the synagogue in more recent times, see Buxtorf, Synagoga judaica (Basel, 1641). On the history of synagogue services the works of Zunz are the chief authorities; there is also a good article on Liturgy in the Jewish Encyclopedia. Useful summaries in English are to be found in Dembitz, Jewish Services in Synagogue and Home (Philadelphia, 1898); and Oesterley and Box, The Religion and Worship of the Synagogue (London, 1907). The article “Synagogue” in the Jewish Encyclopedia is illustrated with numerous pictures of buildings and plans.