The New International Encyclopædia/Synagogue

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SYNAGOGUE (Gk. συναγωγή, synagogē, assembly, collection, from συνάγειν, synagein, to bring together, from σύν, syn, together + ἄγειν, agein, to lead; translation of Heb. beth-hak-keneseth, the house of assembly). The name applied to the place of assembly used by Jewish communities primarily for public worship. The origin of this institution is probably to be traced to the period of the Babylonian captivity, when religious needs in the absence of an official cult could only be satisfied by private assemblies for religious communion. The example set during the Babylonian Exile led to the establishment of synagogues in Palestine after the days of Ezra, and with the impetus then given to the study of the law a further factor was introduced which encouraged the institution of assembly-houses for prayer and study. Although express notices of the synagogues are not found in the literature till the last century B.C., all indications point to their existence in the towns and even villages of Palestine at the time of the Maccabees.

Synagogues were erected from the common funds or free gifts of the community and supported by taxes and donations. Regarding their architecture it would appear that in Palestine the Græco-Roman model of public buildings was followed, though with some essential modifications. Abundant ornamentation was a feature both of the exterior and interior. The larger synagogues were divided by rows of pillars into several aisles and some had porticoes in front. In later times in Europe the Romanesque style was adopted, and in more modern times Moorish architecture is frequently chosen as a model. Little is known of any special law respecting the construction of these buildings, save that the faces of the worshipers should be directed toward Jerusalem; that, in accordance with the verse in the Psalms, there should be a slight descent of a step or two on entering the edifice; that the building should stand, if feasible, on a slightly elevated ground, or be somehow or other made visible from afar. Within at the extreme eastern end was the holy ark, or chest (tēbāh) containing several copies of the Pentateuch, from which the periodical readings were chanted. In front of this was the stand of the public reader of the prayers, not far from which was suspended the everlasting lamp. On a raised platform in the middle of the synagogue was the place of the reader or preacher. The women, who were not counted as members of the congregation, sat separated from the men.

The affairs of the synagogue were administered by a board of ‘ancients’ or ‘elders,’ at whose head stood a chief or principal (Rōsh hakkeneseth, archisynagogos). The ‘chief’ was not a scribe, though taking rank immediately after the scribes. The officiating minister, whose office it was to recite the prayers aloud, was called shĕlīachṣibbūr, messenger of the community. The chazzān had general charge of the sacred place and its books and implements. He had to present the scroll to the reader, received it back after the reading was finished, rolled up the scroll and deposited it in the chest, and it was he who announced the advent of the Sabbath or of a holy day from the roof of the synagogue with a thrice repeated trumpet-blast. During the week-days he had to teach the children of the town or village. He had to be initiated by a solemn imposition of hands. The name of chazzān, however, at a later period, came to designate the officiating minister, and it has retained that meaning until this day. Almoners or deacons, who collected or distributed the alms, possibly the same as the baṭlanīm or ‘idle men,’ whose office in relation to the synagogue cannot be exactly determined now, but who had always to be ready for the purpose of making up the requisite number of ten worshipers, were further attached to the general body of officials. The third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day were the times appointed for daily worship; the more special days were Monday and Thursday, when the judges sat, and the villagers came to town, and Saturday, on which the forms of some of the prayers were altered according to the occasion.

The reading from the Scriptures, though in Hebrew, was coupled in the synagogues of Palestine and Babylonia with a translation or paraphrase in the current Aramaic idiom, and presumably in the synagogues of Egypt a Greek translation was employed, but the chief prayers were always pronounced in Hebrew, though the Talmud admits the use of other languages in worship. Besides the prayers and the readings, a feature of early synagogue worship was the exposition of the law or of the lesson of the day by a competent person. In course of time a more elaborate liturgy developed. The oldest complete ritual, known as siddur (‘arrangement’), dates from the year A.D. 880, and was compiled by a Rabbi Aniram. In the liturgy as finally evolved two distinct elements are discernible: the Shema‘ (‘Hear, O Israel,’ etc.), being a collection of the three passages, Deuteronomy vi. 4-9, xi. 13-21, and Numbers xv. 37-41, expressive of the unity of God and of His government over Israel, put together without any extraneous addition; and the Tĕphillāh or prayer, consisting of a certain number of supplications, with a hymnal introduction and conclusion, followed by the priestly blessing. The single portions of this prayer gradually increased to eighteen and the prayer itself received the name of Shĕmōnāh ‘eshëh (eighteen). For a long time the prayers were recited only by the reader, the people joining in silent responses and amens. These readers by degrees — chiefly from the tenth century — introduced occasional prayers of their own, and ultimately religious doctrine, history, saga, angelology, and mysticism, interspersed with biblical verses, are found put together in a mosaic of the most original and fantastic, often grand and brilliant, often obscure and feeble kind. The ritual differed in different countries. At the beginning of the nineteenth century a movement began in Germany for the reform of the ritual and gradually spread to other countries. At first the changes consisted in the shortening of certain prayers, the omission of others and the introduction of German, English, or French by the side of the Hebrew.

The synagogues contributed more than anything else to the steadfast adherence of the people to their religion and liberty as long as there was any possibility of keeping both intact. At the same time they gradually undermined the priestly and aristocratic element that gathered around the temple, its gorgeous worship and kingly revenues. Their importance as a place of instruction as well as a place of worship was of profound influence on the development of Judaism. Both primary and advanced instruction in the Scriptures and subsequently in Talmudic literature was given in the synagogue, and in the early centuries of the Christian Era legal decisions were likewise announced there. The synagogue could also be used as the place of mourning for prominent members of the community, and there are instances on record of the use of synagogues for political gatherings. In Babylonia travelers were accommodated in the synagogue and ate their Sabbath meals there. In view of these various uses to which the synagogue was put, it is not surprising that it became in the Middle Ages the centre of the religious and intellectual life of the Jews and in a measure of their social life as well. The ‘reform’ movement within Judaism as well as the extension of the intellectual interests of the Jews has resulted in narrowing the influence and scope of the synagogue to purely religious affairs, though in orthodox Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and in the Orient the former status of the synagogue is still in large measure maintained.

Bibliography. Schürer, History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Eng. trans., London, 1886-90); Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 1896); Grätz, History of the Jews, vol. i. (Eng. trans., ib., 1893). For the ritual, Leopold Löw, Der synagogale Ritus (Gesammelte Schriften, vol. iv., Szegedin, 1889); Dembitz, Jewish Services in Synagogue and Home (Philadelphia, 1899); Zunz, Der Ritus synagogalen Gottesdienstes, geschichtlich entwickelt (Berlin, 1855-59); a complete English translation of the Portuguese ritual may be found in Lesser's Prayer-book (Philadelphia, 1845); and a translation of the German ritual in Sachs's Machsar (Berlin, 1866).