The Synagogue and the Study House

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

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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.