The Synagogue and the Study House

These two institutions reflect the dynamism and the tensions in late antique Jewish society.

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"Rabbi Jeremiah said in the name of Rabbi Abbahu, 'Seek out the Lord where He may be found' (Isaiah 55:6). And where may [the Lord] be found? In the synagogues and study houses" (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 5:1). 

Although the origins of both the synagogue and the study house predate the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., it is only after the Temple's destruction that these two entities became the central and defining institutions of ancient Judaism. Eventually, the rabbis saw these institutions as replacing the Temple as a location of access to the Divine.

Origin and Function of the Synagogue

The institution that became known as a synagogue has its roots in the Diaspora. Greek inscriptional evidence from the third century B.C.E. in Alexandria refers to proseuchai, prayer houses, equivalent to the Hebrew batei tefillah. The archaeological remains of a building on the Aegean island of Delos contains inscriptions to Theos Hypsistos (highest God, equivalent to Hebrew "El Elyon" cf. Genesis 14:20) and the word proseuche; the building dates to the first century B.C.E. and is apparently the earliest known synagogue in the world. It should not be surprising that the synagogue developed in the Diaspora; without easy access to the Temple in Jerusalem, Diaspora Jews developed an alternate form of worship.

In the land of Israel, no contemporary literary sources refer to synagogues until the first century C.E. The earliest evidence from the land of Israel is the following first century inscription found in Jerusalem that reveals not just the existence of the synagogue, but also mentions several of its functions:

"Theodotos, son of Vettenos, kohen and archisynagogos (synagogue leader), son of an archisynagogos, grandson of an archisynagogos, who built the synagogue for the reading of the law and the teaching of the commandments, and the guest house, chambers, and water supplies to serve as an inn for those who come from abroad, and whose fathers, with the elders and Simonidus, founded the synagogue."

While the Diaspora term proseuche implies that the synagogue was a place for prayer, the primary activity in the Theodotos synagogue was the recitation and study of the Torah.

Evidence from the New Testament also seems to indicate that synagogues could exist as clubs or associations which met in private residences; some archaeological remains of synagogues have been shown to be converted homes. Although any place in which the people assembled, like the town square, could be thought of as a synagogue, the word soon became associated with a particular building. Some synagogues, like the synagogue in Tiberias, were municipal buildings used for community meetings (cf. Josephus' Life, 54); rabbinic evidence confirms the use of synagogues as hostels for travelers.

The Sanctity of the Synagogue

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the synagogue gradually became a primary site for Jewish communal life and worship. Scholar Steven Fine has noted how the earliest rabbinic texts attribute a degree of sanctity to the synagogue due to the presence of Torah scrolls; in later texts, the synagogue's sanctity is expressed by association with the Temple.

This growth in the perceived sanctity of the synagogue is accompanied by the transfer of certain Temple rites to the standard liturgy, including blowing shofar, shaking lulav, and reciting the priestly blessing. The emerging sanctity of the synagogue is expressed clearly in the Mekhilta, a midrash on Exodus:

"Whenever ten people congregate in the synagogue, the divine presence is with them, for it is written, 'God stands in the congregation of God' (Psalms 82:1)" (Mekhilta Bahodesh 11).

By the fourth century, synagogue inscriptions at Hammat Tiberias refer to the synagogue as "a holy place."

Rabbis and the Synagogue

Through the centuries, different groups took leadership roles in the synagogue. The earliest and most consistent leaders were the wealthy benefactors (like Theodotos) who helped build and maintain the synagogues. Kohanim (priests) apparently served some functions in the synagogue. The early targum (Aramaic translations of the Torah reading) and piyyut (liturgical poetry) were apparently performed in the ancient synagogue by professional meturgemanim (translators) and payetanim (poets).

Tannaitic texts from the first two centuries C.E. contain very few references to rabbis functioning in synagogues. In the third and fourth centuries, rabbis appear with greater frequency and in a greater variety of contexts. Some rabbis showed marked hostility to the synagogue and to the diversion of communal funds away from the poor towards building synagogues:

"R. Hama bar Hanina and R. Hoshaiah were walking by the synagogue of Lud.  Said R. Hama bar Hanina to R. Hoshaiah, 'How much money did our ancestors sink [into this synagogue] here?'  He said to him, 'How many souls did your ancestors sink here?' [The money should have been used to support the poor!]" Yerushalmi Peah 8:9, 21b.

Other causes of rabbinic discomfort with the synagogue included non-rabbinic norms for the liturgy and for translating the Torah reading, as well as the presence of figurative mosaics on synagogue floors. The Palestinian Talmud in Avodah Zarah 4:1, 43d reports Rav and Rabbi Ami telling their households not to prostrate themselves on a fast day lest they appear to be worshipping idols.

Some rabbis encouraged their colleagues and students to pray in the synagogue. The mid-third century Rabbi Yohanan stated that one must pray in a place designated for prayer, and a second tradition even more specifically obligates a person to have a designated place in the synagogue. Exhortations like these, however, should be seen against the backdrop of rabbinic indifference or hostility to the synagogue.

For example, "Although they had thirteen synagogues in Tiberias, Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi only prayed between the pillars where they would study" (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8a). Texts concerning rabbis from the fourth century present them as having significant influence in the synagogue, but in general, it seems that rabbis were not the dominant leaders of ancient synagogues.

“Study Houses”: Batei Midrash

The study house or bet midrash was the primary rabbinic institution of higher learning. In early rabbinic literature, the bet midrash seems to refer to circle of disciples and not a permanent institution; when a sage died, his school ceased and his students studied elsewhere or began their own schools.

During the third century, however, the larger communities of Caesarea, Sepphoris, and most significantly, Tiberias, had permanent academies that survived the passing of any particular sage. Rabbinic literature refers many times to the "great study house" of Tiberias. In study houses like these, rabbis discussed the issues of law and theology that were eventually edited and incorporated into the Talmud and midrashic literature.

According to rabbinic evidence, some of these study houses were, like the ancient synagogues, monumental buildings. As with the synagogues, some rabbis complained about the expense.

"Rabbi Abun donated these gates for the great study house. Rabbi Mana came to him. [Rabbi Abun] said to him, 'Look what I've done!' [Rabbi Mana replied] '" For Israel has forgotten its Maker, and builds palaces" (Hosea 8:14). Were there not people studying Torah [who could have been supported with those funds]?'" (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 5:7, 49b).

The Nature of the Institutions

The rabbis were a fairly small group, so it is not surprising that archaeological evidence for study houses is slim. The discovery of a lintel with the inscription "This is the study house of Rabbi Elazar haKappar" is a fortunate find; as of now  this appears to be the only rabbi mentioned in rabbinic literature who is also mentioned in an archaeological inscription.

Rabbinic texts do mention sages studying at synagogues; some scholars have questioned whether study houses actually were separate institutions. Nevertheless, rabbinic evidence seems clear that study houses were not the same as synagogues:

"What is [the law about] selling a synagogue to buy a study house? Rabbi Joshua b. Levi said it was acceptable" (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 3:1, 73d; cf. Rav Pappi in Bavli Megillah 26b-27a).

This text only makes sense if the two institutions were distinct; it also reflects a rabbinic perception that the study house had greater sanctity than the synagogue.

These two institutions have existed in a dynamic tension for two thousand years. The synagogue ultimately became the dominant Jewish institution, and at some point in the Middle Ages, rabbinic influence on the synagogue increased. But at no point did rabbis become the exclusive authorities in the synagogue, and at no point did the study houses disappear.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.