The Jewish Synagog
Paul E. Kretzmann
The synagogs, or meeting-houses, which are mentioned so frequently in the New Testament, especially in the gospels and in the Acts, originated during, or in consequence of, the Babylonian captivity, probably as the result of the great need of common worship felt by all when the Temple lay in ruins. At the time of Jesus they were scattered over the whole country of Palestine, even in small towns, since ten persons of respectability were sufficient to compose a synagog. Jerusalem was credited with 480, or at least 460, of these houses of worship. Generally, a community would build its own synagog, or else depend upon the charitable assistance of neighbors, or even on private munificence, Luke 7:5.
So far as the arrangement and the furnishing of the synagogs is concerned, the form was usually rectangular, with a central nave and aisles on either side, outside the columns supporting the roof. There was usually a women’s gallery, supported on these colonnades. At one end of the structure was the holy chest, or ark, containing the scrolls of the Law and the prophets, which were written on long sheets of parchment or papyrus and rolled up on either end on a round rod. The ark was sheltered by a curtain, and steps led up to it. The holy lamp was never wanting, with its eternal light. The pulpit, or desk, from which the Law was read, was in the middle of the building. Those who read the Law stood, while he that preached or expounded the text sat down. Right before the ark, and facing the people, were the places of honor, where the elders sat, the seats or pews for the men filling the remaining space.
Public worship in the synagog was opened with the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 9:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41. It was preceded in the morning and evening by two benedictions, and succeeded, in the morning by one and in the evening by two benedictions. These are prayers of singular beauty, in the general tone of the psalms. These prayers before and after the Shema are contained in the Mishnah, and have remained practically unchanged to the present day. Then followed the prayers before the ark. They consisted of eighteen eulogies or benedictions called Tephillah. The first three and the last three of the eulogies are very ancient, and may well be said to have been in use in the time of our Lord. The prayers were spoken aloud by one man selected for the occasion, and the congregation responded with Amen. The liturgical part of the service was concluded with the Aaronic benediction, spoken by the descendants of Aaron or by the leader of the devotions.
Reading of Scripture
After this followed the reading of the Law. Seven persons were called upon to read, and the lectionaries were arranged so that the Pentateuch (Books of Moses) would be read twice in seven years. On week-days only three persons were called upon to read the Law. After the Law came the reading of the prophets. At the time of Christ all the reading was accompanied by a translation into Aramaic by a “meturgeman,” or interpreter.
After the reading of the prophets came the sermon or address. When a very learned rabbi gave a theological discussion, it was not spoken to the people directly, but a speaker gave a popular transcription of the discussion transmitted to him. The more popular sermon of a local elder or rabbi was termed a “meamar,” a speech or talk, based, as a rule, upon a Scripture-passage, Luke 4:17. After the sermon the services were closed with a short prayer.
[Clarke, Commentary, 5, 62; Schaff, Commentary, Matthew, 95; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1, 430-450; In the Days of Christ, chap. XVII; Dembitz, Jewish Services in Synagog and Home, Book II, chap. I; Gwynne, Primitive Worship and the Prayer-Book, chap. I; Mercer, The Ethiopic Liturgy, 29]