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On the Origin and Purpose of Synagogues

By J. Eckman

(Continued from p. 200)


These are some of the laws and duties of the Synagogue, and I again must repeat; Synagogue means assembly, congregation, and not “place of worship;” the ancients, indeed, besides בתי כנסיות, “Houses for assemblies, Synagogues,” had בתי תפילה Προσυχμ Oratories (houses) of prayer; but both the Hebrew and the Greek terms having fallen into disuse, and given way to the Hebrew term, בית כנסת, and the Greek, συναγωγη, Synagogue (assembly), this proves that the primary object was to assemble the people to unite them for some other purpose besides that of prayer. And what these ends were, we have stated, viz.: public instruction (reading and explaining the law, and public charities in all its different branches), but chiefly to give support to the poor and needy. A true congregation, in the religious sense, is an assembly and union of believers to inform themselves of, and to practise the most sacred duties to God and to their neighbours, and to prove, by their actions within the very Synagogues, that they are not mere formal spectators in the assembly, but active members of the religious body. This they show by doing acts of love, ren<<239>>dering assistance to their brethren who may stand in need of it. And what man does not want the aid of his fellow-man? the rich want the services of the poor, the poor the support and encouragement of the rich; the high have to assemble and to unite with the low, and who is low when in union with God? the low have to be raised and elevated by the high; hoary age has to give an example to giddy youth, and vigorous youth has to become a prop to stooping age; the whole have to attend to the sick, and the sick become a means of exercising the sublimer virtues of patience and sympathy of those in health; the living have to pay the last service and tribute to the dead, and the dead have to become the silent and awful admonitors of the living.

A Synagogue, assembly, congregation, is a union of men in the name of God, to do the will of God, which is love. One bond of brotherhood has to encompass all, one principle has to penetrate all, and one idea to concentrate all to a union with God. Children of one God above and the progeny of one common earthly parent,* and the posterity of one father† elect on earth, one feeling of religious fraternity ought to unite all the members of our faith into one body, and into one family. What member of our body can we allow to suffer without applying some remedy? what part is so low as not to require our highest attention? and what member of our family ought we to see suffering pain or want without endeavouring to alleviate the one, and to remove the other?

* Adam.          †Abraham.

The ancient Synagogue had ever before it the beautiful image of a union, whose soul was holiness, whose life was that of godliness. It was a body united by the bonds of faith and mutual obligation; they met to hear what they had to practise, and within the very precincts of the Synagogue (assembly) to practise the lessons that they there had learned. They embodied their religious ideas in religious actions; the living word of life was kept alive in bestowing the means of life to those who had to sustain a hard struggle against the difficulties of life. Under such impressions, under such ideas of the design and purpose of the assembly, we must not wonder at finding our wise men, indeed, recommend building Synagogues, and furnishing them decently; but they understood <<240>> the spirit of Judaism too well, to congratulate the people for just building a place to recite prayers in. They knew that the word and spirit of religion teach that it is man who has to consecrate himself as a living temple of the Lord; but that a lifeless material, joining rafter to rafter, and piling brick upon brick, makes no Synagogue. Reading the law may be far from understanding the law; and even understanding it, far apart from practising it;— it is the practice at which the Synagogue has to aim,—charity and love being the end of all religion. We read of two Rabbies who passed a Synagogue, one, admiring the magnificent building, exclaimed, כמה ממחן שקעו אבותיתנו בבנין זה, “How much money have our forefathers invested in this building. א״ל כמה נפשות שקעו כאן” To this the other replied, “How many lives have they immured in it.” This, says the commentator, means that those who had built that edifice were not men versed in the law; they ought, instead of expending so much in dead material, have supported men who studied the law; for what use is there to have such a splendid building for a Synagogue?—The question is not here, how far this view is applicable as a general rule; but it proves the correctness of our position in regard to the opinion which our ancient teachers entertained of the purpose of Synagogues. We beg, to adduce another instance. During a distressing famine the poor suffered great want, the treasury being exhausted by frequent applications, and even the rich having suffered in consequence of the high prices of provisions, the teacher advised the congregation to sell the silver belonging to the place of worship. Some scrupulous members hesitated; to remove their objections, the teacher very pertinently quoted, “It is love that I desired, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of the Lord more than burnt­offerings.”—Hosea vi. 6. The Psalmist says, “Sacrifice and offering thou desirest not, ears hast thou bored into me.”—Ps. xl. 7.

When, in the days of old, our forefathers valued themselves much upon their temple; upon its pompous service and the display of but outward show, when it ought to have been the means of kindling in them sparks of vital religion: the prophet exclaimed, “Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; where is the house that you can build unto<<241>> me? and where is the place for me to rest therein? Has not my own hand made all these things? and thus they are, saith the Lord; but to him I will look who is humble and of a contrite spirit, and who revereth my word.”—Isaiah lxv. 1, 2.

To take a summary view of what has been advanced, I beg to state that the primary object of “the Synagogue” is not prayer, much less the mere soulless reading of prayer. We meet to learn, we learn in order to practise. Where religious instruction and religious practice go hand in hand, we have a third duty to perform, viz.: we have the privilege to adore and worship the Almighty; but it is the religious theory, instruction, a proper knowledge of our duty and religious practice, the embodiment of this, our religious knowledge, that must precede prayer. Law and love תורה וגמילות חסדים are the basis of worship, of עבודה law and love are the two portals that have to be flung wide open before we can or dare enter the temple for prayer. Mere chaunting, reading, and praying may be the proper, or improper exercises of idlers in a convent; but the Synagogue imposes more arduous, more expansive duties. Prayer, without instruction, is not pleasing in the sight of the Lord. “who closes his ear from listening to תורה (instruction), even his prayer is an abomination. (Prov. xxviii. 9), saith Solomon. Nor will prayer without inward purity prevail. “I wash my hands in innocence, then I may compass thy altars, O Lord. If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me.”—Ps. lxvii. 18.

Before we proceed to the third duty of the Synagogue, to prayer, we will adduce Sacred Writ in support of the views laid down above. We have stated before that Synagogues, or such buildings which we called Synagogues, were first raised during the latter period of the Jewish polity; their origin is even posterior to the Maccabees; and when Synagogues were already built all over Judea, and in other countries where Jews had settled, they had no set* prayers; but the worshipper addressed his <<242>> Creator, and implored his protection in the pure language flowing from the heart. again, we stated that in Synagogues prayers were offered; but Synagogues chiefly were intended, as the name imports, for assemblies, for a union of believers and practisers of the law; that mutual instruction, encouragement, consolation, assistance, and support were the essential duties performed and practised in and by “the assembly.”

*We think, our learned correspondent somewhat mistaken in this; our present forms did not exist to their full extent, but the Talmud contains too many allusions to forms, even such as we now have, not to force us to the conclusion that some formal prayers were in use very early.—Ed. Oc.

These views may not be so familiar to some of our people, who, from early age, are but introduced into the merely practical, and very often even into the impracticable portion of some of our observances, without ever learning the origin and rise of the existing institutions. The field of our history and antiquities is a terra incognita to even those among us who consider themselves, and are considered learned.

This want of knowledge makes certain men think, that the present state of things, the present disordered order of affairs, the actual disorganizing organization, is original, is ancient, is a stereotype edition of an ancient Synagogue, such perhaps in which Moses worshipped, or which Moses had organized. The Synagogue is, to a considerable extent, the only place in which the standard of our faith is yet, or ought to be unfurled. The Synagogue ought to be the pure image of pure Judaism. But is it so? What would Moses say if he could enter visibly in a Russian Synagogue, and see the contortion of the Hassidim? and if Elias should descend from the abodes of bliss, and come within hearing of the screech, and , thrilling quiver and loud noise of a Polish Hazen? would not he again say, as he did to the priests of Baal, when they made such a noise, and leaped upon the altar which was made, “ Cry* aloud! for he (your God) is either meditating, or hath a pursuit, or is on a journey, or, peradventure, he sleepeth, and must be awaked?”—But be assured, as soon as he would find, that meant for a Jewish service, in silent grief, and confusion, he would cover his face with his mantle, and pray forgiveness again, exclaiming: “ Hear me, O Lord, hear me, and may this people become aware that thou art the true God—and thou didst allow their hearts to fall off so considerably.†

*Heb. בקול רם with a loud voice         † 1 Kings, xviii.

And Joshua, if he heard the humming and buzzing confusion, and the noise and vociferation, and the shout for mastery of a Polish Kahal, mistaking it for a camp, he again would say: There is a noise of war in the camp!* And what shall we say to the insipid monotony, and want of knowledge of other congregations, and the dark ignorance of their would-be interpreters, who do not even know what they utter, or what they ask for themselves? how much less are they proper messengers for others! And in such a state of affairs—not to mention other abuses, they have the face to sing, to chaunt, when they ought to weep and lament! We, in former ages, were a model to all those nations, who now are civilized by our law! We taught them how to pray, how to preach, how to sing, and how to assemble and appear in the presence of the Divine Majesty; and now, a well-educated man must blush, when he sees a stranger enter in many of our Synagogues. And why do even our fellow-believers, men of higher standing, of better education, appear so seldom among us?—But let us turn away from this dismal sight, from such lifeless petrifaction, from mummies and mummery, and direct our view to a proper Synagogue. I respectfully invite my patient reader to allow himself to be introduced into an ancient, very ancient Jewish Synagogue (assembly); among those who attend, are some men of the first rank, officers, generals, scribes, and even prophets. It is the first and only Synagogue in the whole Bible, where the service is so circumstantially described. It is on a holiday; and that (in our days) one of the most solemn ones, it is on no less solemn a day than that of ראש השנה, New Year’s Day. Under such circumstances we must not wonder at the numerous attendance. The antiquity of the event, the high rank of the principal men present, the first Synagogue brought to Our view, the solemnity of the day, and the great number of attendants—all, I little doubt, rivet the attention of my inquisitive reader to the spot, to the vast edifice, to the splendour displayed in it. Some who are fond of singing request to hear a splendid חזן Hazen, with at least four or five helpmates (as they have seen in the great regular old Synagogues of Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, and Russia, etc.)

* Exod. xxxii. 17.

Others, of a more refined taste, expect to hear a choir like that of Vienna, or at least like those of Berlin and London. Others, of a superfine taste, expect no less than a congregation—quite mute, or at least listless and speechless; and instead of a beautiful full-sounding chorus of the whole congregation, on whose solemn swell of voice the soul becomes enlarged, and rises with the sound heavenwards,—instead of this, they perhaps expect to hear some slender voices of young boys, or perhaps girls. There may be even some who, of a rather inquisitive mind, may be curious to know what great men will be called up, as מפטיר כהן לוי , etc. Others, who are anxious for the revenue of the Synagogue, are desirous to know when the מי שברך will be made for the governor of Judea, for the cup-bearer of the mighty king of Persia, and Media, how much these great men will offer; and the Prophets, they surely will have some prayer made for the dead, some sort of a mass read for some relative, or being Prophets, they at least will have a השכבה* made for the greatest of the Prophets, Moses—I must honestly confess, all such high expectations will meet with disappointment—man looks to appearances, but God looks to the heart.† Honesty of purpose, sincerity of intention,‡ singleness of heart, an open ear,§ a soft heart,|| an open hand,¶ and a careful, not over-hasty foot; an almost silent tongue, and pure lips,** the artless unaffected simplicity of Nature—this is what is desired; and of such a Synagogue, and such worshippers, we read in the eighth chapter of the Prophet Nehemiah, to which we beg to refer our reader, and I hope he will find that the view laid down of Synagogues in this and the last numbers of this periodical, which views have already been supported by quotations from our ancients (and, as we yet have but commenced, we shall very often have to quote more from their views), he will find exemplified in the above-cited passage of Scripture.

* It is not the use, but the abuse that we refer to.
† 1 Sam. xvi. 7.           ‡ Ps. xv. xxiv. 4, lxxiii. 1.
§ Ib. xl. 7. Prov. xv. 81, xviii. 15, v. 18. Is. Iv. 3.
|| Ps. xxxiv. 19, li. 19.  ¶ Deut. xv. 7, 8. Lev. xxv. 35.
** Ps. lxv. 2, lxii. 2. Ecclesiastes, iv. 17, v. 1, 2.

We there read of the whole people assembling and what was this Synagogue? The canopy of Heaven. The Synagogue, the assembly, was in the street;* this gathering of the people was a true Synagogue; there was union; “gathered themselves together as one man.† The assemblage consisted of men, women, and all that could hear with understanding .‡ This may serve as a prospective rule for future ages; only by understanding we properly can be said to be present, or to join a community or society; otherwise our assembling is but mechanical, lifeless, and useless. Having cast a glance at the Synagogue and the Congregation, let us look what furniture we find there, and what is the first piece of synagogal furniture mentioned in the Bible; strange, we read of nothing but a מגדל, an eminence, elevation, a pulpit made for that purpose, says the text; no ornament, no other preparation, and no other furniture we find. And how long did the service last? From daybreak to midday.§ Were they so long at prayers? No! no prayers, nor prayer-books are mentioned, no singing. The service opens with a request to the Prophet Ezra!! and they (the people) said unto Ezra the Scribe,|| to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.¶ The law was brought; Ezra ascended the eminence (pulpit); thirteen teachers or interpreters, ascended with him;** may be to render the ceremony more impressive, or to honour these men by allowing them to take some part, in order to endear the service to them. The law was opened in sight of all the people;†† and all the people stood up;‡‡ they rose in reverence to the law.

* Nehemiah, viii. v. 8.             † Ib.
‡ Or that understood in hearing (v. 2, 8).       § At least six hours.
|| סופר Teacher.            ¶ v. 1.  ** v. 4.            †† v. 5.
‡‡ Or kept silence.      v. 5.

Prayer, among all civilized nations, preceded all transactions of life, if of any importance at all; prayer is the soul of devotion; and so we find here a short prayer or blessing, preceding the ceremony. “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God,§§ and all the people answered, amen! lifting up their hands, and bowing down their heads, and worshipping the Lord with their faces towards the ground.” This needs no comment, but it may <<246>> call forth some to reflection, and may show them what ought to be—reverence, awe, composedness of mind—no vulgar familiarity, no trifling at, and with prayer.

§§ v. 6

The short prayer finished, the reading commenced. Thirteen interpreters and Levites expounded what was read, caused the people to understand the law; so they read in the book of the law distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused (the people) to understand the reading.*

* v. 7, 8

And the people on hearing the law, and the preaching, and finding they had not come up to the requisitions, feel affected, are moved to tears. The teachers, finding their word to have such a beneficent effect, mingle their consolation with the tears of their people—“and Nehemiah called also Tirshatha, and Ezra, the priest, the scribe; and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people: This day is holy unto the Lord,† your God. Mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept when they heard the word of the law.”

† It being ראש השנה New Year’s Day as was mentioned already

The end of תורה of the Law is תשובה, returning to our true selves, returning to our duties and to God—by מעשים טובים, by upright and honest pursuits, by beneficence, by good works. This is the crown of all. And to do this, the people are admonished; with this admonition, they are dismissed; and with this dismissal from divine service, the true service begins, viz.: with practical duties to ourselves, to our neighbours, in the name of God. “Go your way,” said the prophets, “partake of choice food, and of spiced drink; but send portions unto them, who had nothing to prepare;‡ for this day is holy unto the Lord, neither be ye sorry,§ for the joy in the Lord is your (fortress) protec<<247>>tion.* And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions,† and to mike great mirth; because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.

‡ The poor.
§ For the day is holy; neither be ye sorry. There are some, even among us, who think holiness, surliness, and moroseness to be twin sisters. They think the Sabbath and Holydays must particularly be, if not quite, yet pretty much approaching days of mourning. Such notions are unjewish, unscriptural. They originate from the time of the pious Oliver Cromwell and his pure followers. Religious Joy is one of the characteristics of Judaism. Deut, xii. 18, vi. 17, xxvi. 11, xxvii. 1, xvi. 16. Levit. xxiii. 40. Ps. cvii. 12, o. 2, cv. 3. 1 Chron. xxviii. 9. Vayikra Rabba. Cap. xxxiv. Maimonid, הל׳ לולב .  Deut. xxviii. 46.
* v. 10, 12       † Deut. xxvi. 11. Esther ix, 19, 22.

This gives us some idea of an ancient assembly (Synagogue); we read of a few similar conventions,‡ all of about the same spirit; in these assemblies we see the origin and purpose of the Synagogue. We see it is not the building, not the heads; but the spirits and the souls that constitute the Synagogue.
‡ Nehemiah, viii. 13, ix. 1; Chron. xxx. 22; xxxv., 7.

(To be continued.)