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Why have a synagogoue?
(from 'The Pictorial History of the Jewish People.
Nathan Ausubel, updated by David C. Gross pp82-86, Robson Books 1984

It was when the Jews were in Exile and in adversity that the synagogue first came into being. Far from the Temple, which lay in ruins in Jerusalem, the Jews in Babylonia wished to maintain their religious life to whatever extent possible. Since they could no longer offer sacrifices to the :Lord in their own sanctuary, "so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips."

Prayers Instead of Sacrifices
Thus the institution of formal prayer was established and given priority over worship by sacrifice. Even though the synagogue had not formally come into being, Jews who lived in scattered communities throughout the river country of Babylonia congregated on the Sabbath and during the festivals for prayer as well as for public discussion of communal problems. They intoned prayers and sang hymns and psalms in unison. They felt drawn together by the warmth and fervour of common beliefs and rites. In this group life they found an island of safety in a sea of hostility.

The institution of prayer took such a firm hold in time that after the Return and following Ezra’s innovations, the popularity of animal sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem sharply declined. Often enough, the offering of more agreeable incense was substituted. Implicit with ethical meaning, a more spiritualized conception of divine worship was evolving. No one in ancient Jewry described this substitute for altar sacrifice better than a contemporary of the last days of the Temple, Philo, the philosopher-rabbi of Alexandria. "Though the worshippers bring nothing else, in bringing themselves they offer the best sacrifices, the full and truly perfect oblation of noble living, as they honor with hymns and thanksgivings their Benefactor and Savior, God."

One of the profoundest changes effected by the synagogue was to bring communion with God directly and easily to the worshipper. Whereas before the Jew could only worship Him through the spectacular mediation of the priest and by means of the material sacrifice he could afford to offer, now he was enabled to commune with Him simply and unrestrainedly at all times. It was either with a prayer on his lips or a wordless prayer in his heart. The Jewish priest-caste thus began withering away, and a large class of rabbis and teachers took its place even before the Temple’s final fall. By means of common prayer and the study of sacred writings fraternal bonds of an indestructible kind were wrought. The religion of Israel had thus become both spiritual and democratic in the deepest sense of the words. Historically it was an event without parallel.

Many Sanctuaries Instead of One
Thereafter, wherever Jews lived in any community where a minyan, or a quorum, of ten male worshippers could be mustered for public prayer, it was obligatory for them to build a synagogue, and so the entire community life of Jews began to center around it. True enough, the pious were still expected to go on pilgrimages to the Holy City during the three great festivals of the year. The Temple, however, had been transformed from the sole sanctuary into a great national religious shrine where the most impressive sacrificial rites were still performed. But the hearts and the minds of the people turned increasingly to the local synagogue. It represented, even if not the most dramatic and spectacular, certainly their most intimate, daily religious experience.

The very word synagogue is derived from the Greek synagogé and means "assembly" or congregation. Henceforth, it was the "togetherness" of the Jews which marked their history and their activities. It welded and integrated them by means of a common way of life. The Torah and the synagogue thereafter constituted their religious, cultural and psychic center.

All in Israel Are Brothers
The functions of the synagogue after the Destruction were many, and they applied to almost every aspect of Jewish community life. The synagogue was simultaneously a House of Prayer, a House of Study and a House of Assembly. Moreover, it was also a House of Charity and a House of Judgement. It was there that the distribution of clothing to the poor and of matzohs and wine to the needy on the of Passover Eve took place. It was there that societies of the pious were formed and met to take care of every kind of benevolence and mutual aid required within the community. There were societies to visit the sick, to bury the dead, to comfort the sorrowing, to lend money without interest to the needy, to feed and clothe orphans and widows, to provide dowries for penniless girls, to help raise ransom for some afflicted fellow-Jew or Jewish community and to redeem Jewish slaves. This practice of mutual aid in the concrete works of compassion for the suffering and the needy, this identification of the individual Jew with all other Jews led to the coining of the famous saying, "All in Israel are brothers."

When the Jewish people were dispersed and fragmentized it was the institution of the synagogue which not only held the Jews together but gave them the identity and the moral strength to endure. The destruction of one, or even of a hundred, synagogues did not mean the end of everything as it had when the Temple was destroyed. Synagogues could always be replaced by other buildings on the original sites or elsewhere. The original concept of the Temple was deepened enlarged and universalized.

In the course of several centuries, synagogues sprang up every city, town and village of Judea. There the children were taught and their elders studied the Torah and heard expounded. In far-away Alexandria, in Persia and the Crimea. in Babylonia and Yemen, in Rome and Greece, in Syria Asia Minor and wherever else there were Jewish communities Jewish life became centered in the synagogue. Tradition has it that in Jerusalem alone there were 394 synagogues at time when the Temple was destroyed by Titus.

Architecture of the Synagogue
It may be accepted as a truism that, no matter how segregated Jews were from the rest of the population in whose midst they lived, they, nonetheless, were exposed at all times to local cultural influences. The architecture of the synagogue and its interior decoration always reflected local and contemporary styles. In Hellenistic-Roman times Jewish houses of worship bore all the well-known features of Greek and Roman architecture. Later, in medieval Spain under the dominant influence of Islamic architecture, the synagogue was built in classic Moorish style. Subsequently, in other parts of western and southern Europe, the synagogue was designed according to prevailing architectural fashions, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Barogue, and still later styles in turn. In Russia and Poland, where in later times most of the Jews of the world came to live, the ancient synagogues outwardly resembled the various styles of church architecture current there. This held somewhat less true of the Polish wooden synagogues (seventeenth to eighteenth centuries), which reveal a striking Mongolian pagoda" style. This may have been due partly to the lingering influence of the refugee Khazar Jews from the East.

Nonetheless, however polyglot and different the styles of synagogue architecture were, they succeeded in preserving certain classic features which were fixed by tradition. The interior, for instance, had to consist of a vestibule, the hall of the synagogue itself and the Aron ha-Kodesh, the holy Ark or chest containing the Scrolls of the Law, which was built into a niche in the wall. In these features the synagogue perpetuated the principal architectural elements of the Temple in Jerusalem. Naturally, like the Ark that stood in the Holy of Holies, the Ark in the synagogue also constituted its holiest spot. In memory of the Temple it was mandatory that it face east, toward Jerusalem. No effort or expense was considered too great to make it beautiful. It was usually flanked by pillars with sculptured lions standing guard before them, and an eight-branched menorah in the center. A perpetual lamp glowed like an all-seeing eye before it, and the Tables of the Law, modeled in relief with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew upon them, stood crowned above it. Over the Ark hung a curtain of red silk, brocade or velvet embroidered with decorative religious symbols in gold and silver thread. The Ark was usually carved with flowers, leaves, birds, lions, deer and fanciful arabesques, hut no specimen has ever been found bearing any representation of the human face or figure.

Although the Talmud attempted to lay down directions for the construction of the synagogue, these proved so vague and even contradictory that they could not he followed except as a general guide. Since nothing created by man remains static, synagogue architecture, too, underwent a gradual development in which non-Jewish national and local influences by no means played an unimportant part. For example, an innovation during the Graeco-Roman period was the erection of the Bimab, meaning "stage" in Greek, or as it was later called, Almemor, a word derived from the Arabic "alminbar," pulpit.

Until very recent times it was generally assumed that the art of the synagogue rigidly forbade any representation of the human face or figure in sculpture. relief or painting. It was based on the assumption that the Mosaic commandment against the making of images, which \vas to discourage idol worship, was strictly observed by Jews. however, excavations of ancient synagogues during the last few decades have demonstrated how wrong that belief was. In Beth Alpha, a sixth century c.e. synagogue in Palestine, a remarkable floor mosaic was found. It was of Hellenistic design and workmanship and, startlingly enough, showed human faces! Far from this being considered heretical by the Jews of those days when the Talmud was being created, the synagogue carries this enthusiastic memorial in Greek: "Blessed are the creators of this work, Marianus and his son Chanina."

The discovery in 1932 of the synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria proved even more astonishing. The entire wall surface of this house of worship, built in 245 c.e., was covered with frescoes Graeco-Roman in style and strikingly similar to those found in the Greek temple of Zeus Theos. Each fresco was painted by a different artist, an indication that there were a considerable number of accomplished Jewish painters in that period. The wall-paintings are on such Jewish religious and historic themes as the Temple in Jerusalem; Ezra the Scribe reading from the Scrolls of the Torah; the finding of the infant Moses in the bulrushes; David being anointed king and the apocalyptic vision of Ezekiel. To show to what extent Greek culture had infiltrated into Jewish thinking in those days there is even a fresco showing David the harpist in the role of Orpheus, holding animals and beasts in thrall with his music.

During the Renaissance, representations of the human face, although not of the entire body, were sometimes permitted by the more advanced rabbis of Italy and Provence. This we have on the authority of the religious leaders Rabbi Leona da Modena of Venice and Rabbi Profiat Duran of Perpignan.

In the ruins of the most ancient synagogues, even in those of Kfar Nahum, or Capernaum, which existed in the days of the Second Temple, recognizable Jewish religious symbols have been found. Perhaps the most surprising was the Magen David, the star of David, found in Kfar Nahum. It was used as a decoration on one of the capitals. This is of special interest because, according to the Christian gospels, Jesus of Nazareth preached there. It is undoubtedly the earliest star of David ever found. It was not until modern times, though, that the Magen David became accepted as the universal symbol of the Jewish faith and people. Actually, for more than two thousand years and until modern times, the menorah or seven-branched candlestick and the Tables of the Ten Commandments were the principal symbols. They have figured inevitably in the decoration of synagogues and Jewish tombstones since the nineteenth century.

Of course there are a number of other Jewish religious symbols, although of lesser significance. These are the shofar (ram’s horn), the lulav (palm branch), the ethrog (citron), the lion of Judah, layers, shovels, oil jars and other vessels and utensils used in the Temple service, the royal crown of the Torah, and the hands of the cohen or priest outspread in benediction. Not the least popular of these symbols has been the circular Zodiac with its signs for each lunar month in the Jewish calendar. Since Hellenic times it has graced many a ceiling, and sometimes floor, of the synagogue structure