The Synagogue

The second great Jewish institution was the synagogue. Although it seems reasonable that the synagogue began during the exile as many of the older scholars have maintained, this assumption is by no means proven. All that we can say with certainty is that regardless of when synagogues began appearing—during the exile, after the exile, or in the Hasmonean period—they were widespread by the first century A.D., existing throughout Palestine and the Diaspora.

While the temple was run by priests, the synagogue was operated by the general populace. They selected a head of the synagogue (m. Sota 7:7; Luke 13:14) who administered its services. He would have been a fairly well-educated man who could judge the abilities of the Torah readers and preachers who might be on hand for Sabbath services. The head of the synagogue was usually a man of some financial means and thus was not paid for this service but enjoyed the honor of it.

1) The synagogue had two main functions: prayer and study. It was first and foremost a house of prayer. They would recite the Shema (Deut 6:4) as in the temple but in addition there gradually developed a rather fixed set of prayers called the Eighteen Benedictions. Though the final form of these prayers was not set until a century later, the prototypes of these Eighteen Benedictions were already present.

One of the prayers that probably was recited in the first century synagogue is as follows:

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.… Blessed are you, O Lord, Shield of Abraham.”

Another prayer emphasizes belief in the resurrection: “Blessed are you, O Lord, who makes the dead alive.”

Another prayer reflects language from Isaiah 6 to extol the greatness of God:

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts, all the earth is full of your glory.… There is no God beside you. Blessed are you, O Lord, the Holy God.”

The prayers were recited while standing with someone appointed to lead the congregation, perhaps the head of the synagogue or an assistant.

2) The second main function of the synagogue was study both for children and adults. Younger children were taught to read Hebrew and older children the content and exposition of the Old Testament. The teacher in this would have been a sage or scribe employed by the village or perhaps paid by tuition fees. Most scholars agree that Jewish children generally were taught to read, but one must not assume that there were not many exceptions.

Adults continued their study of the Torah during Sabbath worship. In addition to the prayers said on Sabbath, someone would read a selection of Scripture from the Torah scroll which was kept in a chest and unrolled with great ceremony.

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