Synagogue

The place of assemblage of the Jews. This article will treat of the name, origin, history, organization, liturgy and building of the synagogue.......

The place of assemblage of the Jews. This article will treat of the name, origin, history, organization, liturgy and building of the synagogue.

The Greek sunagoge, whence the Latin synagoga, French synagogue, and English synagogue, means a meeting, an assembly; and is used by the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew ערה. The Aramaic translation is כבשתא (cf.Arabic Kanisah, a church) to which is akin the New Hebrew כבסת. The place of assemblage was termed in New Hebrew, הכנסת ,בית, meeting house, i.e., oikos sunagoges. In the course of time, the single word synagogue came to mean not only the meeting but the meeting-house, the teaching thereof and, in the broadest sense, the body politic of the Jews. This broad sense of the word synagogue is seen in John's use of aposunagogos , "excommunicated" or "put out of the synagogue" (cf.9:22; 12:42; 16:2). Another Greek name for synagogue in use among Hellenistic Jews, is proseuke, shortened after the analogy of sunagoge, from oikos proseukos, house of prayer. This phrase is in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah.56:7: "My house shall be called the house of prayer (בית תפלח) for all nations." The Latinized proseucha of Juvenal means the Jewish house of prayer or synagogue. Josephus (Antiq.,XVI,vi,2) cites an edict of Augustus which calls the Synagogue sabbateion, the Sabbath-house.

Silver pointer

Jewish Holy scriptures: Torah scroll
and is read by useing a pointer.

Obscurity enshrouds the first beginnings of the synagogue. The Jerusalem Talmud (in Ex.,xviii,20) dates it from the time of Moses; so, too, the tradition of the Alexandrian Jews, according to the witness of Philo, "De Vita Mosis" (III,27) and Josephus, "Contra Apion." (II,17). This rabbinical tradition is not reliable. It was probably during the Babylonian captivity that the synagogue became a national feature of Hebrew worship. Afar from their Temple, the exiled Jews gathered into local meeting-houses for public worship. Sacrifice was denied them; prayer in common was not. The longer their exile from the national altar of sacrifice, the greater became their need of houses of prayer; this need was met by an ever-increasing number of synagogues, scattered throughout the land of exile. From Babylonia this national system of synagogue worship was brought to Jerusalem. That the synagogue dates many generations earlier than Apostolic times, is clear from the authority of St. James: "For Moses of old time [ek geneon archaion] hath in every city them that preach him in the synagogues, where he is read every sabbath" (Acts.15:21).

For Moses, for generations now, has had those who proclaim him in every town,
as he has been read in the synagogues every sabbath. (Acts.15:21).

From the outset of Christianity the synagogue was in full power of its various functions; the New Testament speaks thereof fifty-five times. The word is used to denote the body politic of the Jews twelve times: twice in Matthew (x,17; xxiii,34); once in Mark (13:9); three times in Luke's Gospel (viii,41; xii,11; xxi,12), and four times in his Acts (vi,9; ix,2; xxii,19; xxvi,11); and twice in the Johannine writings (Revelation.2:9; 3:9). The more restricted meaning of meeting-house occurs forty-three times in the New Testament-seven in Matthew (iv,23; vi,2,5; ix,35; xii,9; xiii,54; xxiii,6); seven times in Mark (1:21,23,29,39; 3:1; 6:2; 12:39); twelve times in Luke's Gospel (iv,15,16,20,28,33,38,44; vi,6; vii,5; xi,43; xiii,10; xx,46), and fourteen times in his Acts (ix,20; xiii,5,14,42; xiv,1; xv,21; xvii,1,10,17; xviii,4,7,19,26; xix,8); twice in John (vi,59; xviii,20); once in James (ii,2). Our Lord taught in the synagogues of Nazareth (Matthew.13:54; Mark.6:2; Luke.4:16), and Capharnaum (Mark.1:21; Luke.7:5; John.6:59). Saint Paul preached in the synagogues of Damascus (Acts.9:20), Salamina in Cyprus (Acts.13:5), Antioch in Pisidia (Acts.13:14), Iconium (xiv,1), Philippi (xvi,13), Thessalonica (xvii,1), Boraea (xvii,10), Athens (xvii,17), Corinth (xviii,4,7), and Ephesus (xviii,19).

It is worthy of note that despite his frequent use of the Jewish meeting-house, St. Paul in his stern antagonism never once deigns to make mention of the synagogue. He designates Judaism by the term "circumcision", and not, as do the Evangelists, by the word "synagogue". And even in speaking of the Jews as "the circumcision", St. Paul avoids the received word peritome, "a cutting around", a word employed by the Alexandrian Philo for Judaism and reserved by the Apostle for Christianity. The sworn foe of the "false circumcision" takes a current word katatome, "a cutting down", and with the vigorous die of his fancy, stamps thereon an entirely new and exclusively Pauline meaning-the false circumcision of Judaism.

Capernaum was a fishing village in the time of
the Hasmoneans. Located on the northern shore of
the Sea of Galilee. Archaeological excavations
have revealed two ancient synagogues
built one over the other.

Then [Jesus and the First Call Disciples] they came to Capernaum, and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. (Mark.1:21)

At the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D.70) there were in the city itself 394 synagogues, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Kethuth,105a); 480, according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla,73d). Besides these synagogues for the Palestinian Jews, each group of Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem had its own synagogue-the Libertines, the Alexandrians, the Cyrenians, the Cilicians, etc. (Acts.6:9).

In Northern Galilee, are numerous ruins whose style of architecture and inscriptions are indications of synagogues of the second and, maybe, the first century A.D. The Franciscans are now engaged in the restoration of the ruined synagogue of Tel Hum, the site of ancient Capharnaum. This beautiful and colossal synagogue was probably the one in which Jesus taught (Luke.7:5). Of the ruined synagogues of Galilee, that of Kefr Bir'im is the most perfectly preserved. Various Greek inscriptions, recently discovered in Lower Egypt, tell of synagogues built there in the days of the Ptolemies. A marble slab, unearthed in 1902 some twelve miles from Alexandria, reads: "In honour of King Ptolemy and Queen Berenice, his sister and wife, and their children, the Jews (dedicate) this proseuche. Both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmud make mention of numerous Galilean synagogues which were centres of rabbinical literary, and religious and political influence at Sepphoris, Tiberias, Scythopolis, etc. Every Jewish settlement was obliged by Talmudic law to have its synagogue; the members of the community could oblige one another to the building and maintaining thereof; indeed the members of the Jewish community were designated "sons of the synagogue".

Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,
and went according to his custom into
the synagogue on the sabbath day.
He stood up to read and was handed
a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
(Luke.4:16-17)

"The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice." (Mt.23:1-3)

The Great Synagogue is worthy of special mention, as to it is assigned, by Jewish tradition, the important role of forming the Canon of the Old Testament. It is said to have been founded by Esdras in the middle of the fifth century B.C., and to have been a permanent and legislative assemblage for two and a half centuries. The Mishnah (Pirke Aboth,I,1) claims that the Prophets handed down the Torah to the men of the Great Synagogue. "Aboth Rabbi Nathan" (a post-Talmudic treatise) paraphrases this statement by including the last three Prophets in this assemblage: "Aggeus, Zacharias and Malachias received [the Torah] from the Prophets; and the men of the Great Synagogue received from Aggeus, Zacharias and Malachias". How long this supposedly authoritative body held control of the religion of Israel, it is impossible to tell.

Jewish chronology from the Exile to Alexander's conquest is far from clear. Rabbi Jeremiah (Jerus.Talmud, Berakot,4d) says that one hundred and twenty elders made dictions of Kiddush and habdalah. The Talmud, on the contrary (Peah,II,6), hands down Torah from the Prophets to the Zugoth (Pairs) without the intervention of the Great Synagogue. Be the Great Synagogue of Jewish tradition what it may, historical criticism has ruled it out of court. Kuenen, in his epoch-making monograph "Over die Mannen der groote synagoge" (Amsterdam,1876), shows that a single meeting came to be looked upon as a permanent institution. The Levites and people met once and only once, probably on the occasion of the covenant described by Nehemias (Nehemiah.8-10), and the important assemblage became the nucleus round which were wrapped the fables of later Jewish tradition.

The Ohel Leah Synagogue was built in 1901.
It located on No.70 Robinson Road, Mid-levels,
Hong Kong, and is the only surviving
Jewish prayer house still in active use in China.

The Synagogue is also the only one of this type of religious buildings so far to exist in Hong Kong.


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