Encyclopedia of The Bible – Synagogue
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SYNAGOGUE, the general term for a congregation of Jews, people of Jewish religious faith and by extension the name of the building or structure in which such worship or other exercise takes place. Like the word “church” the term applies to the body of Jews acting corporately and not to the physical constructs primarily. This is made clear by both the etymology and usage of the term in Jewish and non-Jewish lit. The word is universally understood as describing Jewish religious bodies and is applied to no other. As can be seen below the term has traditionally been applied to the Jewish communities in the Diaspora and thus has found its way into many languages where it is a regular and accepted term: Lat. synagōga, -ae; Ger. Synagoge, -en; and likewise in French, Dutch, and even Russian and Japanese. The tension between sacerdotalism and memorialism which has divided the synagogues of Europe and Israel is paralleled by similar disputes throughout the history of the Church. Also comparative is the point of view in regard to the place of the OT in the life of the religious body. In the same fashion that doctrinal revisions have overwhelmed the Church, so breadth of interpretation and lack of conformity is found in the synagogue.

I. The name

Synagogue is derived from the Gr. συναγωγή, G5252, a term for any gathering of people for religious or secular purposes. The term is derived from the common verbal form Gr. συνάγω, G5251, “to gather” “to gather together,” “to bring together” (Matt 2:4 “assembling”; Mark 6:30; Luke 12:17; John 4:36 et al. frequently). The nominal form is used for any type of area or location where things or people gather or are gathered. It is a widely distributed classical term and is used in inscrs. as well as texts; e.g. W Asian inscr. of Cybele; Thucydides, et al. The earliest application of the term to the OT is found in the LXX itself. It is used to render nineteen different Hebraic words and expressions but in eighty percent of the occurrences it is equivalent to Heb. עֵדָה֒, H6337, “gathering,” which appears 145 times in the OT and which is rendered as synagōgē in 127 cases. The next most frequent equivalence is Heb. קָהָל, H7736, “assembly,” “convocation” (Gen 49:6, et al.), which is usually restricted to gatherings of people. Some authorities have offered the suggestion that the trs. of the various VSS of the LXX utilized the Aram. Targ. equivalent, Aram. כְּנִישְׁתָּא, which is much closer to Gr. synagōgē than any of the Hebraic terms involved. This supposition is without the necessary evidence but would explain the change in meaning which came about between the time of the OT, and the LXX and NT. In these later documents the synagogue and not the Temple is the central institution of Jewish worship for the vast majority of the Jews.

II. History of the synagogue institution

The history of the synagogue as an institution among the Jews is exceedingly difficult to trace to its source. Its origins seem to lie outside of Pal. and apart from that sector of Jewish life which governed the country and wrote the OT. The later traditions of the Aram. period assume the antiquity of the synagogue. There is little documentary evidence before the Hel. Age, the Elephantine Papyri and the NT for any synagogue. However, it must have come into being in the confused and disorganized state of affairs between the fall of the first commonwealth and the establishment of the second.

A. Origin. Certain of the historical aspects which led to the formation of the synagogue can be ascertained from the society which existed under Pers. and later Hel. rule. The removal of the Levitical and other sacerdotal officers from Jerusalem deprived the Temple of its necessary complement of attendants. The prohibition of journeys to Jerusalem and the loss of revenue must have rendered the unified cult center inoperative. The collapse of the old religious state meant a great increase in personal rather than official religious functions, a trend seen in the great prophetic voices, Isaiah and Jeremiah, even before the final collapse and a theme renewed in Daniel. The necessity to preserve the Torah, the five books of Moses, not merely as the central religious document but also as the only communication of Jehovah to His people motivated corporate Torah study. This trend was enforced by the pressure for syncretism with the Persian and Grecian paganism and the slow deterioration of the classical Heb. language. The result was a move to preserve not only the Torah but also its ancient speech. The first desire brought about the recension of the MT, the second the Massoretes themselves. However, both grew up not in Jerusalem, but in the small Diaspora communities and in the lands later won by force of Jewish arms under the Maccabees and their followers. All that can be surely stated is that the synagogue arose as a corporate Torah study with all of the legal and binding relationships such a community would form among alien and displaced Jews. The later lit. always connects the origin of the synagogue with the period of Babylonian captivity and return under Ezra and Nehemiah. The terminology used for the great gathering and restatement of the Torah under Ezra is variant and uncertain showing that new institutions were in formation. The scholarly treatment of the problem has tended to fall under the influence of two opposing schools of thought. The traditional one that Moses founded the synagogue is as old as the Targums and cited by Josephus (Apion, II, xvii, 75). It was popular at various times throughout the recent centuries. The second thesis that the synagogue was of societal origin and appeared during the Exile was proposed by the Italian humanist Carlo Sigonio (1524-1584). His views wrecked havoc among the more conservative Jews and Christians of the time but were finally dominant in the treatment by the Dutch theologian Campegius Vitringa (1659-1722). In the modern period the synagogue and its teachings have been related in the views of many authorities with the documentary hypothesis and certain types of redaction. Their opinions, however, have not been universally accepted and the inherent subjectivity of the method renders the results questionable. Many other theories have been proposed, some locating the synagogue among the legal-political institutions of Israel rather than the religious. On the other hand some very modern views would tend to see it as the focus of town life in what was really a nation of villages. This view is supported by the excavation of ancient synagogue sites. The worship of the synagogue was very different from that of the Temple, in that it had no sacerdotal rituals and supported no sacrosanct priesthood. Instead a new order of religious leaders arose to serve the synagogue, the rabbi. The Hegelian dialectics which have been described as existing between Temple and synagogue cannot be supported from the documents. The influence of the Persians and the Hel. Greeks over the spread of the synagogue cannot be denied, and there is every reason to assume that although it was Babylonian in origin it was to some degree Gr. in spirit. The architecture of the early synagogues is similar to the Graeco-Romanesque of the contemporary pagan constructs. Of special importance is the Jewish temple at Elephantine in upper Egypt. The papyri discovered there in dicate that animal sacrifices took place and yet there is no evidence that this was true within the meeting houses in Pal. In fact the DSS indicate a strong preference for sacrifices and rituals only in the Temple in Jerusalem. It may be that the synagogue was only one type of worship arrangement known at the time and that it was the one which survived the Rom. destruction of the great Temple. It is even highly probable that one or more synagogues existed within the Temple compound in Jerusalem and it may have been there that Jesus was found sitting among the lawyers at the age of twelve (Luke 2:46). It is also clear from the later traditions that the basic unit of the synagogue was ten men who gathered for prayer. This would be similar to the OT congregations.

B. The intertestamental period. The vast growth of the synagogue and its appearance throughout the Diaspora is noted in many documents from the time between the OT and NT. Both Philo and Josephus regularly mention the synagogue as do the earliest rabbinical sources. The dominant language of its services became Aram. as the Pers. empire waxed and waned and the central autonomy of Israelite kingship faded into the past. In the new religious rituals, the chanting of the prayers and the reading of the Biblical text became the central function of the service. The officers of the new religious communities were given new titles and soon after the conquest of Alexander they are pronounced in Gr. to a degree that centuries later they were transliterated into consonantal script and introduced into the Heb. of the Mishnah and Talmud. This was the formative period that saw the final supremacy of the synagogue. It was the customary center of the Jewish community and house of worship throughout the known world in Jesus’ time.

C. The NT period. The term “synagogue” is used in the gospels over thirty times while an even greater frequency appears in Acts. It is assumed in both the Talmudic lit. and the NT, that this was the valid leadership and executive of Judaism, no matter whether it was in Jerusalem or Corinth. A few inscrs. have been located from synagogues of this era and they are distinctive in that they are in Gr. uncials written in the Hel. style. The most extensive is the Theodotus Inscription found on Mount Ophel not far from the ancient Temple precinct. It specifically states that the purpose of the building upon which it was a marker was for “reading of the law,” and that it was to serve as a hostel. The concept is Hebraic but the form is very obviously Gr. even to the titles of the officials mentioned: e.g. ἀρχισυνάγωγος, G801. Other inscrs. from the Galilee area often list OT characters or indicate the donors but in epigraphic Gr. It is this cosmopolitanism and appeal to the common conscience which marks the synagogal success. The gospel narratives mention a number of small towns in Galilee and the synagogues where Jesus taught (Matt 4:23; 9:35; Luke 4:16, 33). An additional group in this area has been excavated. They are small buildings with porches and columns often distyle in antis with stone seats and an outer portico. They must have served as law courts, schools, libraries and market places as well as for the Sabbath service. It is also clear that the Jewish males took part in the service. The most important legacy of the 1st-cent. synagogue was the form and organization of the apostolic church.

D. The Diaspora synagogues. The growth of popular religious organizations in Pal. was paralleled by similar establishments among the Jews of the dispersion. Large halls were built in Dura Europus and various parts of Egypt and the worship of the Jews from the Diaspora mentioned in Acts 2:9-11, was presumably in synagogues in all those widely scattered places. In all some fifty synagogues have been located within Pal., a few more in Syria, and perhaps another ten in the neighboring lands of the E Mediterranean. There must have been hundreds of others by the end of the 2nd cent. a.d. By that time the original Gr. term had come to mean exclusively a Jewish house of worship. These communities were displaced but in many cases had attained considerable wealth and their synagogues are richly carved and well appointed with the crafts of their time. Like the church the synagogue was becoming an institution of stature and capital and both were to produce a long and involved literary tradition, the church the Patristic writings; the synagogue, the Talmud.

E. The medieval, renaissance and modern age. As the Jews moved through the W Mediterranean and up into Spain and France they built and rebuilt synagogues. Where Christian states forbade public buildings a new tradition of private and semi-private chapels arose. Some of these have been found and many are well known from lit. The education of the young was more and more a function of the community through the synagogue, and its ancient tradition of a “Torah study” became very strong as the common speech became eroded and finally ceased to function in alien societies. From the 8th cent. the synagogues of Spain at Toledo were the centers of European Jewry. Later the same situation held true in Austria and E Germany from which such travelers as Petahia of Ratisbon and others set out before the year 1000 to communicate with the great synagogue centers of the Orient. The change of the millennium found Jewish synagogues stretching from England to the borders of China. However, the uneasy peace in which the Jews had lived between the Christian Holy Roman Empire and the Islamic E finally evaporated in the crusades. The reaction to the inability of Western Christian feudalism to regain Pal. led to pogrom after pogrom against the Jews. Thus they were driven into the newer lands of the Baltic coast and along the rivers of Orthodox Russia. There the great synagogues of Breslau, Leipzig, Vilna, Moscow and the like held sway over world Jewry. In the 18th cent. Spanish and Portuguese Jews began to migrate to North America, the earliest American synagogue being the Congregation Touro of Newport, R.I. founded in 1763. However, several congregations in Philadelphia were soon functioning thereafter and the Maimonides College became their first institution of higher learning. The modern synagogue can take many forms and be found in many places, but its primary function still continues to be that of house of worship, school for study and social center for the Jewish people.

III. Architecture and function

The architecture of the early Middle Eastern synagogues was similar to that which prevailed throughout the Hel. and later Rom. age. The synagogue grounds were surrounded by a low wall within which the synagogue met. Documents from Turkey and other countries of the early Medieval period show that often the congregation met out-of-doors although at other times in private rooms. Usually this room was divided in some fashion into a sector for men and a separate and lesser room for the women. In the magnificent Moorish and Italian synagogues this women’s section took the form of a balcony running around three sides of the room and reached by outer stairs up through a sort of narthex. In the earliest Palestinian synagogues, such as that at Masada and those at Capernaum, Chorazin and Kefr Bir’im stone seats in the form of a double tier ran the length of three walls. Such buildings had either a separate balcony for women or some separation down the center. In the Rom. age many of these buildings were of a type of Corinthian Gr. design with free standing columns in the front portico and arranged in rows within the sanctuary to support the vaulted ceilings.

A. Location. In accord with certain Talmudic instructions which must have been in the oral lore of Judaism, all the synagogues were built in such a fashion that the congregations could face Jerusalem. The legal lore of the synagogue is found in the opening paragraphs of the Tractate Megillah. The customs resolving the matter of synagogue construction are later. The common practice was to erect the building on a small hill or prominence, sometimes near water but always in such a fashion that the back wall which faced the door was toward Jerusalem. The Temple in Jerusalem represented the sacerdotal element and ritual in Judaism and so the elaborate ceremonial architecture of the later synagogues was unnecessary until after the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70. Whether or not the local synagogues were built as models or miniatures of the great Temple, or whether they were conceived as centers for the rituals is debated. By the 1st cent. the style of construction was set and the synagogue was located in the center of the market square.

B. Structure. By the 1st Christian cent. the basilica type of building with its massive and ornamented façade became the standard synagogue form. However, the extent of symbolism and the expanse was limited by the economic ability of the congregation. There is no clearcut evolution of synagogal architecture and each community of the Diaspora seems to have built structures eclectic to their situation. The widespread use of the half square and round columns and the elaborate shell niches, both associated with Rom. buildings, demonstrates how deeply the Graeco-Roman civilization altered the Jewish mind. In or about the middle of the blank wall opposite the entrance doors was the location of the niche or chamber in which the sacred rolls of the Torah were kept. Such cabinets or chests called in Heb. ’arōn hā-Qōdes, set in the E wall were often ornamented and decorated with hangings and embellishments of considerable value. One of the most interesting appointments of the early synagogues was the genīzah, a place either in a cellar or pit or in an old attic high in the wall where the worn and frayed parchment scrolls were placed. Since they bore the divine name of God they could not be desecrated or destroyed and so their contents called semōt were interred. Ancient scrolls of inestimable value have been discovered in a number of genizahs from synagogues. In the center, later front, of the hall was an upraised platform on which the scrolls were placed for reading, the bema which was also used for the sermon, a sort of explanation of the text. Special coffers, cabinets and closets for the ritual implements were later added through time-honored tradition and specific names became applied to them. Certain differences have also developed between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews because of their different cultural backgrounds. The German-Russian synagogues were more on the ord er of Gothic and Romanesque style churches, while the Spanish-Portuguese synagogues, some of the most magnificent ever built, were influenced by Mediterranean styles with Arabesque vaults and other such features. In modern times the synagogues of the Western world have shown all the innovations of contemporary architecture; pre-stressed concrete, stainless steel, glass and plastics have been used in these timeless expressions of Israel’s faith. The magnificence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for Beth Shalom, N of Philadelphia, Beth Am in suburban New York and many recent synagogues in Europe and Israel are based upon ancient traditions and symbolisms but stated in the avant garde of the 20th cent.

C. Furniture and decoration. The furniture of the ancient and early medieval synagogue was utilitarian and connected with the service. The Torah Ark was frequently carved or encrusted with some type of decoration and covered with magnificent hangings and covers called paroḥet and often richly ornamented with silver and gold embroideries. The bema or lecterns were carved and inlaid, and often the great seven-branched candelabra, menorah, was also richly decorated and examples of the finest in the casting and etching arts were found in their manufacture for the wooden synagogues of Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Many smaller articles, lamp stands, the ritual implements for the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the lesser pilgrimages of Peṩaḥ, Shavuot and Sukkoth were found in the synagogue. Special vestments and scroll tabernacles, usually in the form of elaborate miniatures, as well as the communal wedding rings were also kept in the special cabinets provided. Of special beauty are the Torah Crowns, exquisite tiaras with precious and semiprecious stones hung or held over the Torah Ark, or carried about in procession. Few people in history have held any book in such esteem and reverence that finery of such value was lavished upon the ornamentation of it. It is a sight of strange and reverential beauty. The decoration of the synagogues was a subject of much debate and alteration of tastes. The earliest ones often show a strangely exotic degree of profusion in Hel. and Rom. motifs. The ancient congregations at Capernaum and Chorazin decorated their edifice with stone lions, elaborate bands of botanomorphic design and epigraphic inscrs. in uncial Gr. They carved many similar natural motifs on the furniture, and pomegranates, grapes and similiar fruit and vegetables are seen. This type of symbolism was developed from the OT as the Temple was to have such ornamentation in the same fashion as the wilderness Tabernacle. However, strict prohibition against the portrayal of the human form was also in evidence. Under times of persecution the elaboration of the synagogue became simpler and as various mystical movements caught the popular fancy of Christian and Jew alike in the high Middle Ages the churches and the synagogues were often devoid of very much ostentation. There is no evidence that when the flavor of the arts was renewed in the Renaissance the Jewish synagogue builders followed suit. The types of murals and decorations which later played such a basic part in the humanist movement were never popular among the Jews. The strange mixture of classical themes and Christian symbolism seen in the art of the Renaissance was not adopted in the synagogue. Even the scrolls themselves are free of miniature paintings, initial embossing and the other church decorations of the time. However, an Arab. Muslim custom did become widespread, viz. the decoration of the upper parts of the synagogue with inscrs. which were later inlaid or leafed with gold, silver, or bronze. Such texts from the OT with the use of the unvaried Heb. script made a pleasing decorative device. The words of the Scriptures were often carved into the wood work and paneled walls. The glass windows were painted but stained glass came to the synagogue long after it came to the church and then its designs and motifs are carried over from the glyptic arts, and often only Heb. letters were placed in them. The innovative notions of the buttress and span which allowed the vast areas of glass in Chartres and Notre Dame are nowhere in evidence in the construction of the synagogues. One decorative feature which survived the ages in the synagogue was the use of mosaic tiles. Numerous elaborate natural figures including the signs of the zodiac and small animals are found. The ancient synagogue at Beth Alpha is esp. noted for these fine mosaics, much of the furniture and ritual of the religious year are shown in these illustrations. Few synagogue frescos have survived from antiquity but those from Dura Europus, and elsewhere, show artistic affinities as does contemporary Christian art of the period to the sculpting of the mosaics. Again, the scenes are of the various festivals with some few architectural constructs and what may be patriarchal stories in smaller registers. The motif of the sun, the wheel, the candle, the plant, the fruit, and the various Gr. running figures, arrow and egg and dart are all found in the synagogue. Reverence for the creation has been a continuing theme in such art and pure color and its blending and disjunction has become the theme of many modern synagogue treasures by Marc Chagal and other contemporary masters. Since the purpose of the non-sacerdotal church buildings and the synagogues are functionally similar their furniture with the exception of the ritual implements is practically indistinguishable. With the present pressure toward ever wider ecumenicity growing, it is conceivable that future synagogues and churches will be nearly identical.

D. Religious and educational usage. In the OT, it is impossible to separate religion from education. No ancient society subscribed to the modern notion of “secular.” The community as a whole was responsible for the education of children and youths and this took place in the synagogue. The later instruction of youth in the Bible and the Talmud was carried on in the yeshivot, the special schools for pre-rabbinical studies. In the earlier periods such usage of the sanctuary was frowned upon but as the Heb. language and learning began to fade from daily life the preservation of the ancient heritage became a sacred mission and the synagogue was used for the purpose. In this regard both lower schools and libraries of Hebraic and later Yiddish books were housed in the synagogue. To the greater number of Jews the synagogue was a teaching organization and its house a school (Yiddish still refers to it as schul), but to the Gentiles of the Graeco-Roman world it was a school of philosophy. Since the primary responsibility of the adult Jew in the corporate synagogue service was to read, reading the unpointed Heb. text of the Torah was the goal of synagogue education. The earliest lessons were undoubtedly in the form of simple memorizations of Biblical passages followed by simple readings such as the familiar shema. The advanced students read the lessons from the great synagogue scrolls in which they were guided by the commonplace synagogue official known as the ḥazzan. It was in these simple schools that the elaborate oral tradition which grew up around the Torah began to take form. Unfortunately there is hardly any evidence derived from archeology of the shape or substance of these studies except for some Egyp. papyri which may be fragments of school texts. The early Jewish lit. of the Haskalah movement in Eastern Europe grew out of the synagogue school. The personages and episodes which are vividly portrayed by such masters as Sholem Aleichem give the non-Jew a vital picture of life in the agricultural communities of Europe where the synagogue and its services were the center and crown of life. In such lit., the teacher is a man both respected and satirized in the community. The restrictions of modern life have rendered the majority of synagogue schools operable only on Sunday. However, they have survived and flourished as instructors in Jewish culture and art as well as Heb. language and religion. The future of the synagogue in education appears to be leading in the direction of general community social service and many newer synagogues have the phrase “Jewish Community Center” in their names. A parallel development has begun in the Church as it seeks to secularize its appeal.

IV. Organization and offices

Over the centuries the roles of the synagogue officers have altered and the needs of the Jewish community have changed. The most important alteration has been the development of the rabbinate. In the OT, the authority of the Jewish community was vested in the convention or council of “elders,” ziqney, “elders of—” (Gen 50:7, et al.). The ritual and ceremonial administration was under the direction of the Levitical priesthood assisted by a number of groups of professional aids such as singers, musicians and the like. These officials represented a special and privileged class in the state. After the collapse of the monarchy and its attendant feudalism and the rise of an entrepreneurial class in the period of Hellenism the offices of the synagogue were open to all. The increased democratization led to wider participation and a common religious interest. Without this change Judaism would never have survived the Hel. age and would have followed the other archaic religious states into oblivion. There were about five in number; however, some of them were prob. simply voluntary and carried no stipend or salary.

A. Elders and rulers. The chief executive of the synagogue was called in Heb. rosh hakeneset, Gr. ἀρχισυνάγωγος, G801, “president of the synagogue.” This official was known also among pagan associations, but by the 1st Christian cent. was more commonly applied to the Jewish officials and by the 5th cent. exclusively so. The name has also been found upon epigraphic inscrs. He was responsible not merely for the upkeep and operation of the house but also for the order and sanctity of the service (Luke 13:14). Three individuals in the NT are so designated: Jairus (Mark 5:22; Luke 8:41); Crispus (Acts 18:8); and Sosthenes (18:17). The interesting fact that two of these are Gentile names indicates the degree of syncretism Hel. Judaism had permitted. The archisynagōgos had the responsibility of selecting the Torah reading and may have read it himself in the congregation. At first the evidence indicates that this was an elective office only becoming hereditary and finally perfunctory after centuries of the synagogue’s existence. The pl. which appears in Acts 13:15, archisynagōgoi, has been the center of some debate, but a text from Apamaea in Syria contains a listing of three such officials and uses the pl. term. A similar difficulty has arisen concerning the simpler term Gr. ἀρχῶν, in the phrase ἀρχων τῆς συναγωγῆς, “leader of the synagogue,” which appears only in Luke 8:41. This term is rare but has been located in contemporary inscrs. as an alternate and less proper form of archisynagōgos. Since the terms were still in a state of flux and as yet not fixed in the literary language, it is to be expected that such variants would be found. The second functionary in the synagogue was the ḥazzan ha-keneset, “servant of the synagogue,” Gr. ὑπηρέτης, G5677, “servant,” “helper” (Luke 4:20) and later used of ministers of the Gospel (Luke 1:2; Acts 26:16, et al.). The duties of the ḥazzan undoubtedly varied, but included at various times cleaning the premises, removing and replacing the scrolls, and perhaps overseeing the teaching of the children; but this has been debated. He also carried out the corporal punishments of the council (Matt 10:17; 23:34; Mark 13:9). In later times the ḥazzan became the chief singer of the service and the term is now used for “cantor.” In modern times the ḥazzan is also the director of religious education, and many Jewish institutions of higher learning offer curricula in the proper administration of the synagogue schools. The title and its etymologies have had a wide expansion. However, it is now accepted that the term was originally an Assyrianism in late Jewish Aram. derived from Akkad. ḥazānu(m), meaning “superintendent,” “overseer.” Although the title was sometimes used for a position as “sexton,” it was usually applied to one of the high officers of the synagogue. The fact that the ḥazzan handled the sacred scrolls while in the synagogue points to the importance of the office. Most older commentators utilized an Arab. etymology for the term and thus only confused the meaning of the word. As with all offices of the ancient Israelite religious state, the ḥazzan was functional. No doubt the functions varied from town to rural communities and from great to humble congregations, but the importance of the office grew with time. As the festivals and ceremonies developed along separate lines in Diaspora Judaism, so did the officers of the synagogue. The result is that a bewildering array of functions and honors are assigned to the ḥazzan in the lit. of the rabbis. One can only surmise the initial purpose of the office. It appears that the best tr. in regard to the evidence is “second in authority.” The modern responsibility of heading the synagogue school seems to have arisen after the Renaissance.

The third officer of the ancient synagogue was the שְׁלִיחַ עֵדָה, “leader of the prayers,” lit. “messenger of the congregation.” This individual was chosen as representative of the congregation in whose place he responded to the liturgical prayers. Some scholars have assumed that he fulfilled the role of priest in this delegated responsibility, but it is clear that he was not sacrosanct and acted as a layman. In the NT period, the function could be assigned to any adult male in the congregation who was of good standing in the synagogue. It may be in this regard that Jesus read the passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:17-28). In later tradition the seliah zibbur lost this spontaneous quality and was a regularly employed person of the congregation. There is an opinion that in the absence of any person willing to act as seliah zibbur the chief officers might act themselves in this capacity. Undoubtedly this practice led to the merging of the office of seliah zibbur with the permanent one of ḥazzan so that the distinction between them became obliterated and the two terms interchanged. In the later synagogues of European Jewry, the liturgy became fixed with musical anthems and the office of the ḥazzan and the seliah zibbur required cantorial training and musical talent.

A number of less certain officers are found in records and discourses on the synagogue. Some of these must have existed in Rom. times and have been absorbed into the later offices of the congregation. One of these was the Heb. מְתוּרְגְּמָן, “interpreter,” “translator,” a person who was apparently chosen from the congregation to interpret the text of the Scripture from Hebrew into Aram. for the purpose of the lesson. This practice may be involved in the phrase, “which being interpreted is,” found six times in the NT (Matt 1:23; Mark 5:41; 15:22, 34; John 1:41 and Acts 4:36). The root of metōrgmān is used as the name of such a VS in Aram., “Targum.” This custom may also be in view in Paul’s exhortation in regard to speaking in tongues, “if there be no interpreter” (1 Cor 14:28). The whole complex problem of the usage of Hebrew, as against the more common Aram. and Gr. is difficult to unravel in light of the paucity of 1st cent. MSS. The metōrgmān played a very important part in the synagogue service in areas such as Galilee where Judaism of the Hebraic period had no tradition. A similar sort of personage must have functioned in lands of the Diaspora where Gr. and Lat. were spoken, because the inscrs. on such synagogue buildings are usually in those languages and rarely in Heb. It was the notion of a Targumic tr. for use in the synagogue which led to the formation of the LXX and Lat. Vul. In the smaller synagogues where no Yeshiva or Torah-Talmud study was attached the ḥazzan undoubtedly fulfilled this function also. There is evidence that Heb. teachers may have also interpreted orally the Scripture readings, possibly even commenting upon them.

The reading of the seliah zibbur and the interpretation of the metōrgmān were preceded by the public proclamation of the shema prayer. This was stated by a special officer the, “Herald of the Shema.” This officer prob. read the shema prayers as found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and followed by passages from 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41; after which the congregation answered “Amen.” Such a public use of the prayer was always led by an officer and was referred to by a different terminology than that of private prayer. There is some evidence that the public praying of the shema was read from a scroll and that other passages such as Exodus 20 may have been included. Some scholars have interpreted this action of the reading of the Decalogue as the promulgation of God’s imperial decree, His law. Thus they would associate this “Herald of the Shema” with the notion of the “Herald of the Gospel” mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11 and 2 Peter 2:5. This would accord well with the scriptural use of terms of royalty and the court to describe the reign of God. The lit. of Judaism of all the ages makes clear that the kingly court of God was the synagogue in the Jewish mind and that the most sacred place and the utmost reverence was afforded the Torah. It was in light of this devotion that all the offices of the congregation took their place and authority. From the archisynagōgos, to the “herald” all were servants of the Torah.

When in the medieval period the decalogue was no longer used in the congregational worship and the scrolls were no longer read for the shema prayers, then the character of the congregational offices changed also. Several administrative positions appear in the later history of the synagogue. The chief of these is the “collector” or “almoner,” whose task it was to collect and distribute funds for the poor. The public giving of alms was a feature of the late Jewish religious community. It is mentioned in the rabbinic lit. and frequently in the NT (e.g. Matt 6:2-4, et al.). The gospels and other contemporary sources indicate that while the Temple in Jerusalem was supported by the royal establishment and received its revenue from special taxes, the synagogues were voluntary and free offerings were commonplace. There is no doubt that the “collector” or “almoner” of the synagogue who ministered to the poor was the model for the “deacon,” διάκονος, G1356, (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 10, 12, 13). In later rabbinic times when the sacerdotal rituals were replaced by the synagogue service this usage was retained. It is this tradition which has become the base for the many Jewish philanthropic organizations which have brought aid to both Jews and non-Jews throughout the world. In the Christian Church the model of the synagogue organization was retained in the Old Catholic Church and reclaimed in the Reformation. The Catholic churches from medieval times have followed the principle of sacerdotalism basic to the Temple and the Levitical priesthood.

B. Rabbis and laity. The actual origin of the rabbinical office is lost in antiquity. The term “rabbi” is of great antiquity and can be traced to Akkad. usage. In the Biblical context it simply means “teacher,” “master,” and was at no time a sacerdotal or ordained office. Any laymen learned in the Torah and Jewish law could be called “rabbi.” In the tradition of Babylonian Judaism the term was pronounced “rāv.” After the destruction of the Temple and its officialdom some attempt appears to have been made to continue the sacerdotal offices, but as the majority of Jews moved in succeeding generations to the area of Galilee the rabbinical system arose. During the High Middle Ages it assumed the authority and primacy in the synagogue. When this time came the rabbinate was supreme and no longer one of the laity. The ordination to the rabbinate was not based upon some noumenal contention, but was determined by the individual’s knowledge of Heb., Torah, Talmud, and Jewish law in general. Although the modern rabbinate still inherits the background of Pharisaic Judaism it is more concerned with learning than ritual. In fact, most Jewish rituals are performed in the home with the father or eldest son officiating. The synagogues in Catholic lands have tended to retain livery for the rabbis and certain laity, and rich vestments for certain services. On the other hand those thriving in Protestant cultures have assumed many aspects of congregationalism and the dress of the bourgeoisie. This cultural syncretism has been the subject of both encouragement and scorn within Jewish circles for the whole of this cent. The rise and progress of the State of Israel has tended to make the synagogues of the Diaspora emulate oriental Judaism in an ever increasing number of aspects. The contemporary rabbi is not only a Torah teacher but also a representative and instructor in Jewish custom, much of which is initiated and preserved in terms of Israel.

V. The service

A. Shema. The recitation of the shema and the blessings accompanying was the central portion of the simplest synagogue service which as few as ten male members might enact. It was traditionally held that this prayer service stressing the monotheism of Jehovah was instituted by Moses himself. The eighteen short prayers which make up the general blessing are certainly earlier than the Christian era and may be pre-Aramaic. The prayers in the service were always followed by the general “Amen” said by the congregation.

B. Scripture and sermon. The reading of the whole Torah in Heb. was the central act of congregational worship and has been carried down in various forms to the present day. The Torah was divided into 154 or 155 sections and read through in its entirety in a three-year cycle. The selections were known as Sedariym and there is evidence in the writings of Philo Judaeus, Flavius Josephus, the NT and the Patristic authors that this system was in vogue in NT times. A reading from the prophets in the Jewish canon was also given in the form of the Haphtarah. Both of these were followed by Aram. interpretation. An extempore commentary followed given by a learned member of the congregation, a visiting rabbi or possibly a visitor from another congregation. It is this custom which was apparently the means of Paul’s frequent invitations to preach in the synagogues (Acts 13:14-41, et al.). The combination of Torah plus Haphtaroth together is called the Chumash. After the lectionary readings and on some occasions between them there were prob. cantorical renditions of the Psalms which were followed by set congregational responses. In the Temple worship these passages were sung by antiphonal choirs but in the local synagogues they were congregational. There were undoubtedly some sung parts which terminated the service. Just what part a formal sermon played is unknown. However, it is clear from the discourses of the prophets and kings of the OT, that exhortations based upon the Torah were not unknown. The traditional material of the Targ. and the involved rabbinic commentaries of the Mikraoth Gedoloth must have originated as running commentaries and organized sermons once delivered in the synagogue. Since Judaism had little evangelistic appeal during the early Diaspora the true sermonic type of presentation never developed. Later rabbis appear to have adopted the type of personal appeal in their homiletics which had already developed in Christian circles. One important point concerning the synagogue service is that it was led by the members of the congregation. The sacerdotalism so often associated with later liturgical forms in Christian tradition were unknown in the synagogue. Undoubtedly this factor was obvious to the Reformers of the 16th cent. when they came into more frequent contact with the Jews as a result of the Renaissance. The high place accorded the Psalms in the Reformed congregations of France, Switzerland and Holland may be traced to the synagogue service.

C. Fasts and festivals. The OT festivals of the Jewish religion follow the agricultural year. Since it was impossible after the diaspora for all the Jews of the Mediterranean world to return to the Temple in Jerusalem, many of the congregational feasts were held in the synagogues. These were held on the same date and at the same time as the Temple ceremonies. Most of the feasts celebrated in the Jewish calendar are of later origin and appeared during the time of the synagogue. Only the faintest remnant of the great sacrifices of the atonement are still observed and these are wholly limited to the household observance of Pesaḥ, “passover,” which occurs in March-April. In the social gatherings of the synagogue it is more frequently the holidays of the State of Israel which are observed, e.g. Israeli Independence Day, fifth of Iyar (May 14th) and the celebrations are derived from the Jewish cultures of central Europe.

D. Administration. The addition of Heb. schools has expanded the traditional role of the synagogues to seven days a week. The result has been a development of a professional corps of educators, teachers and administrators to operate the system. Many synagogues in various parts of the world are large community centers and thus provide a wide array of social services as well as the formal religious services. The traditional oversight of the synagogue in the hands of a board of “elders” has not materially changed during the long history of the institution, although for efficiency’s sake many synagogues also have a separate board of financial trustees. Unlike the variety of religious and structural variations in Christian church denominations, the rabbi is the executive of the synagogue in all cases.

Bibliography There are a large number of Jewish encyclopedias and special reference volumes on all aspects of the synagogue. The reader is directed to these under the special headings listed above, also to E. Goodenough, et al., Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (1953 on); C. V. Vitringa, De synagoga vetere libri tres (1696); A. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, I (1883); L. Löw, “Der synagogale Ritus,” Gesammelte Schriften (1898); W. O. E. Oesterley and G. H. Box, Synagogue (1907); M. Rosemann, Der Ursprung der Synagoge (1907); M. Friedländer, Synagoge und Kirche in ihren Anfängen (1908); I. Elbogen, Der jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (1913); H. Kohl and C. Watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galilaea (1916); ed. E. R. Bevan and C. Singer, The Legacy of Israel (1927); R. Krantheimer, Mittelalterliche Synagogen (1927); L. Finkelstein, “The Origin of the Synagogue,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research (1930), 49-59; S. Zeitlin, “The Origin of the Synagogue,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research (1931), 69-81; E. L. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogues of Beth-Alpha (1932); Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934); The Ancient Synagogue of El-Hammeh (1935); G. Girmunski, “L’architettura delle sinagoghe in Europa” (in Italian), Israel X (1936), 397-408; L. Rost, Die Vorstufen von Kirche und Synagoge im Alten Testament (1938); H. Graetz, History of the Jews I-III, 2nd ed. (1940); S. W. Baron, The Jewish Community (1942); L. Ginzberg, “Synagogues in Palestine,” BA VII, Feb. (1944); G. K. Lukomski, Jewish Art in European Synagogues (1947); Rabbinowitz Fund for the Synagogues, Bulletin (1949 on); L. Rabbinowitz, “Synagogues,” in A Companion to the Bible (1950), 453-461; J. Morgenstern, “The Origin of the Synagogue,” Studi orintalistici in onore di G. d. Vida, II (1955), 192-221; C. H. Kraeling, The Excavations of Dura-Europos, Final Report VIII, Pt. 1, “The Synagogue” (1956); S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Vols I-III, 2nd. ed. (1958): B. Kanael, Die Kunst der antiken Synagoge (1961); I. Sonne, “Synagogue,” IDB, Vol. 4 (1962), 476-491; I. Levy, The Synagogue (1963); R. Wischnitzer, The Architecture of the European Synagogue (1964); S. Krauss, Syngagogale Altertümer (1966); A. Schlatter, Kleinere Schriften von A. Schlatter, Bd. III (1966); B. Porten, Archives From Elephantine (1968), 105-122.