The Synagogue and the Study House

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.