Synagogues: Ensuring a Nation’s Continuation

Marc Lee Raphael, in his book, The Synagogue in America: A Short History, makes the claim that, “the most significant institution in life of Jews” has been, and is, the synagogue.[i] In the English language, a synagogue is defined as, “The building where a Jewish assembly or congregation meets for religious worship and instruction.”[ii] However, when examining this institution, one must ask if the purpose of the synagogue was always to create a meeting place for organized religion, or if there were other motivations behind its institution as well.

The first mention in the Bible of a communal gathering place for religious worship is the Mishkan (Tabernacle).[iii] It is in the commandment for building the Mishkan that God declares “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”[iv]  This commandment seems to imply that God’s original intentions for the creation of His earthly home  were in order for there to be a place for Him amongst the people of Israel. Based on this explanation, universal Godly worship seems to have been a secondary purpose of the Mishkan.

The commandment to build the Temple in Jerusalem later on in history continued this theme. When David returns from his final battles and settles in Jerusalem, he tells Nathan the prophet that he wants to build God a permanent Temple, as he believes that it is unjust for himself, the king, to have a permanent dwelling, but for the King of Kings to not have one.[v] Nathan allows David to begin planning the Temple, until God appears to Nathan in a dream and exclaims that David’s son Solomon will build His Temple instead. During this dream, God uses the word “le-shivti,” ”for Me to dwell in,” to explain why the Temple should be built.[vi] This root word, “dwell,” is the same word used in the commandment to build the Mishkan[vii], and conveys the idea that the main purpose for building the Temple was so that it would be a physical dwelling for God, just as the Mishkan was when Israel was in the desert.

While the Temple was built as a space for God, it became a significant gathering place as well. According to R. Menachem Hacohen, the Temple was epicenter of communal religious worship.[viii] Since the Temple was supposed to be the closest source for connection to God, people were drawn there to pray to Him, as well as to perform His commandments. In particular, the mitsvah of  aliyyah le-regel (ascending [to the Temple Mount] for festivals) provided Jews with the opportunity to travel to the Temple three times a year, and as a result meet fellow constituents. This created a community of worshippers, who would travel to God’s Temple three times over the course of the year and join together to serve Him. The significance of this ritual is that it gave the Temple another purpose as well; it was not only a place to connect to God, but also a place to connect to other people.

During the Second Temple period, another institution, the synagogue, developed. It allowed Jews to connect to each other in somewhat of a more intimate setting than the Temple. While people continued to use the Temple regularly, the synagogue became “a well- developed institution” as well.[ix] The origin of this trend, of synagogues coming into existence and then being used more frequently, is unclear, but according to scholars, it is clear that Synagogues existed “at least a century before the Romans destroyed the Temple.”[x] Proof of their existence is found in archeology, as well as in rabbinic literature[xi] and the works of Philo of Alexandria and Josephus.[xii]

The synagogues that existed during the Second Temple period were different from those that exist today, as they were not places of prayer. According to Steven Fine, the ancient synagogues were mainly places where people gathered to learn scripture. It was because of this distinction that both the synagogue and the Second Temple could coexist without competition. Fine quotes an early rabbinic text which discusses Jews celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, who would travel from the Temple to the synagogue after offering the morning sacrifice, and then return to the Temple to offer the mussaf sacrifice. He claims that this indicates that Jews during the Second Temple period utilized the two institutions for different purposes. “The Temple was regarded as the center of the universe … [the connection] between the sacred and profane, [whereas] synagogues were local places where Jews came together to study … the revealed word of God. While the Temple stood, the synagogue was a complementary, not a competitive, institution.”[xiii]

After the destruction of the Second Temple, synagogues began to take on special importance. While the synagogue was never considered to be a Temple replacement, it was termed a mikdash me’at, a miniature temple, a name borrowed taken from Ezekiel 11:16. In this pasuk, God is telling the People of Israel that although He has scattered them amongst the nations after the destruction of the first Temple, he has “been to them a little sanctuary in the countries where they are.”[xiv] The Rabbis explain that “little sanctuaries” refers to the synagogues and learning centers that existed in the diaspora.[xv] This terminology emphasizes the significant stature that synagogues gained during exile. They not only retained their study hall status, but also became places where people connected to God through prayer as well.

This trend is proven by rabbinic statements and decrees in the post-Temple period. R. Yohanan explains that Bil’am intended to curse Israel that it should not possess synagogues or study halls.[xvi] Instead, however, God turned this curse into a blessing, and decreed that they will forever exist as institutions within Israel.  According to R. Aba bar Kahana, this blessing is the only blessing that did not revert to a curse for Israel later, and remained a blessing for them.[xvii]  This statement seemingly shows that although the literal interpretation of the pesukim does not refer to synagogues outright, the sages felt that it was important to make a statement that “synagogues will remain forever.” R. Yehuda explains that since the synagogues were once holy, “one is not allowed to use their remains (if they are destroyed) as shortcuts to walk through,”[xviii] indicating that synagogues have a level of innate holiness.[xix] R. Abahu adds deeper significance to synagogue rituals by drawing a parallel between synagogue and Temple service, when he exclaims, “He that prays in a synagogue, it is as if he offered a pure offering.”[xx]

Interestingly, the Rabbis stressed the importance of the synagogue when they decreed, in a beraita, that one of the ten things a righteous person should make sure exists in his community is a synagogue.[xxi] While there may be multiple explanations as to why the Rabbis felt that having a synagogue in a community was so crucial, perhaps their reasoning is reflected in the noble title of “mikdash me’at.” After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis felt that the Jews needed an institution to help maintain an aspect of what had existed in the Temple. The goal was not to replace what the Temple had been, but rather to use the synagogue, which was already established as an institution, as something that could help ensure the future of the Jewish people. By introducing prayer to the already established Torah study emphasis, the synagogue became a place where people could connect to God in any form they liked. However, because it was also a communal place, Hazal ensured that the practice of Judaism would maintain a communal nature. The synagogue provided a supportive religious structure for Jews who may have been feeling lost and distant from God after the destruction of the Temple. Fine points out that the parallel that is frequently drawn between prayer and Temple offerings further enlightens this thesis. In the post-Temple period, prayer became the focal point for Israel’s hope of redemption, a result of motifs in the daily prayers as well as structure.  A text in the Cairo Genizah which explains:“[By reciting] prayers at their proper time and directing their hearts, they [will] merit and will see the rebuilding of the Temple and [the reestablishment of] the perpetual sacrifices and offerings, as it is said: ‘And I will bring them to my holy mountain and I will rejoice in my house of prayer.’”[xxii] Fine explains that “the synagogue became the bridge between the loss of their cosmic center and the hope for the rebuilding of the Temple.”[xxiii] By having prayers which focused on rebuilding the Temple, as well as performing practices symbolic of the korbanot, Jews were able to focus their attention on the hopes of redemption . By attaching a higher significance to an already established structure, the Rabbis created a place people could gather to connect to God as a community while being actively furthering the redemptive process. This creation thus helped to ensure that the Jewish people would remain together as a nation, as well as retain the desire to return to Israel and the Temple.

When examining our synagogues today, one can see that they have truly developed into the center of our religious worship. Typically, Synagogues are not only places where people just to pray, but rather have become much more. On any given week, a synagogue might have numerous shi’urim, youth activities, and cultural events. Attending Shabbat morning services has become a weekly occurrence for most Orthodox families serving as a time to pray communally, see family and friends, and listen to words of Torah. The goal that the Rabbis had to ensure the continuation of the Jewish spirit through the synagogue structure has been fulfilled.

Penina Wein is a junior at Stern College majoring in Jewish Education and Elementary Education. She is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.



[i]            Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America, A Short History (New York: NYU Press, 2011), vii – 247.

[ii]           “Synagogue” in New Oxford American Dictionary, 2011.

[iii]           See Exodus 29:43.

[iv]           Exodus 25:8. A bible translations from the JPS 1971 edition.

[v]           II Samuel 7:2.

[vi]           II Samuel 7:5.

[vii]             Exodus 25:8

[viii]          R. Menachem Hacohen, “Mikdash Me’at: Beit ha-Kenesset ve-Keilav,” Da’at database, available at: http://www.daat.ac.il./daat/art/yahadut/mikdash.htm

[ix]           Steven Fine, “Did the Synagogue Replace the Temple?,” Bible Review 12,2 (1996),18.

[x]           Ibid.

[xi]           See Ketubot 105a, which discusses the hundreds of synagogues that existed in Israel during the Second Temple period.

[xii]          Fine, Ibid.

[xiii]          Ibid.

[xiv]          Ezekiel 11:16

[xv]          Megillah 29a.

[xvi]          See Numbers 23:5

[xvii]            Sanhedrin 105b.

[xviii]         Megillah3:3

[xix]          Fine, 20.

[xx]          Yerushalmi Brachot 5:1. Translation from Fine.

[xxi]          Sanhedrin 17a.

[xxii]         Louis Ginzberg, Genizah Studies in Memory of Doctor Solomon Schechter, vol. 1 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1928; in Hebrew), 152–153.

[xxiii]         Fine, 26.