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On the Origin and Purpose of Synagogues.

By J. Eckman.

“Now, thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not; for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”—Is. xliii. 1, 2.

“For lo, it is decreed, I will sift the house of Israel among the nations, as (corn) is sifted in a sieve, yet not a grain shall fall to ground.”—Amos, ix. 9.

The design and end of religion are to unite man with God and with his fellow-man. Religion, true religion, is the firmest and most sacred bond of union between man and his neighbour. Her <<135>> only end is the happiness and improvement of our hearts and our condition. The highest service by which we can render ourselves acceptable to God, is to serve and to benefit man. תורה תחלתה ג״ח וסופה ג״ח, “The beginning and the end of the law (religion) are acts of love;”* תחלית תורה תשובה ומעשים טובים, “The end and aim of religion are union with God (returning to God), and good works” (to man).† Man, we see, can reach his destiny only by living in union and harmony with man. But as we have individual wants, and our interests often clash against those of our fellow-men—as our reason is so often deficient in judging between right and wrong; as we are often biased by passion: the peace of society becomes disturbed and interrupted. Instead of pursuing the welfare of the race, we labour to gratify the longings of the individual. Hence religion and laws step in to check our passions, to bend our will to the will of a higher Power; religion, as the word imports, comes forward again to bind (ligare) what had torn itself loose, or again to unite (re-ligere) what was divided and separated. And this union is to be under God, and with an eye directed up to God. What a happy state should we not expect among mankind, when we everywhere meet with religious communities, religious societies, and religious meetings.

* Talmud Sota, vol. 18, b.
† Isa. i. 17; Jeremiah xxii. 16, vii. 4; Micah vi. 8; Hosea vi. 6, xii. 7;
‡ Jerusalem, p. 78.

Yet this is not the case; we seldom meet with religious harmony, religious unity, or religious unanimity, even among those narrower religious combinations. Loud complaints and stern facts show us sad disunions, where we should expect strict unity; we find sad differences where uninterrupted unanimity ought to reign; we expect peace, and we hear there is no peace. Or are we perhaps mistaken in the idea of peace? Do we fully know the causes and effects of peace? Or is peace, perhaps, a mis­taken name for stagnation and death? and harmony for listless­ness? We hear of the evils of divisions; yet not every division is an evil. Does not every union presuppose division and separation from some other body, or some other relation or connexion? Peace, harmony, union, are relative terms; sometimes they are for good, rising from good, and in themselves <<136>> good; but sometimes these terms imply just the contrary what they express. It, indeed, is distressing to hear a living being groan under the pressure of illness; it is painful to see a friend labour under the agitation of a fever; but it is more awful to find pain replaced by the silence of death, the quiet of the grave.

The Synagogue is the subject of my theme; it is thought to have enjoyed a long peace. We hear now of differences existing almost everywhere—we hear of “annoyances” which “long custom and habitual suffering alone have rendered supportable.” We are told that “honest teachers ought to speak energetically in behalf of abating the wrong;” we learn that “the whole system has struck” (some honest man or men), and that “we ought not to let abuses proceed to such an extent as to drive the young and inexperienced away” (from the Synagogues); and lastly, “daily the want is felt more and more that the Synagogue should be what it was in olden days, a place of devotion and instruction.” These honest and just complaints command our respect, and demand our attention. We therefore respectfully invite the candid reader to the perusal of an historical sketch on the origin and history of Synagogues, and the laws by which, according to our Codices, they are to be governed.

But before we proceed, we beg to say a few words more on peace and quiet. Whoever imagines that the Synagogue (in its more extensive sense) enjoyed, even within itself, quiet and peace till of late, is mistaken. The history of every age testifies the contrary. In every age we find differences agitating the Synagogue. But in former ages, when our forefathers lived under hierarchical and absolute governments, the Church and Synagogues were governed on the same principles. We chiefly see the heads of the Synagogues on the scene, the people seldom are heard. They, the people, followed religiously what was commanded. But in our age, when the individual and his rights are acknowledged, when the human mind has emancipated itself from the tutelage of spiritual dictators, which subjected it to the imperative dictum of others: then, as is natural, thinking men will no more mechanically perform what ought to be attended with a pure mental operation. The spirit of emancipation and investigation opposes itself to blind obedience and tacit submis<<137>>sion. This general uneasiness, this universal desire to know, not only what we have to do, but why we have to do so, is characteristic of our system of faith.* We are commanded to inquire, to search, and not to follow ignorantly. The result of such inquiries must, in our age, as in former ages, in Mishnah, Talmud, &c., prove a different one in different constitutions, in different capacities, hence differences of opinions. But difference of opinion manifests itself in difference of action; but not every action is to be condemned, because it differs from the practice of the generality; nay, it often speaks quite the contrary, and is always to be expected in the learned.† In many respects, difference has the preference over indifference—difference is indicative of vitality; indifference, of mortality. These two, nay, these three thousand years, we see two different principles struggling among us for superiority. We see the prophets, the representatives of spirituality, nobly raising their voices against the abuse of religion—Isaiah i., lviii. 3, lxvi.; Amos, v. 21; Jerem. vii.; Zechariah vii. 9, and in many other passages. Whenever a state of stagnation threatened to stifle our vitals, we see men rise to stir us up from our lethargy. When the air is most sultry, storms rise, the air is purified, and all revives again. State and church are subject to the same laws—both are often cured by revolutions. Quiet in the state is not always a sign of internal prosperity. “There is a terrible species of repose,” says Mendelssohn‡ “which prevails in a fortress before (and we may add after) it is surrendered to the enemy. Unity and peace are what we all aim at, but it must be the true peace and the true unity.” “There be also two false peaces or unities,” says the famous Lord Bacon, “the one, when the peace is grounded upon an implicit ignorance, for all colours will agree in the dark; the other, when it is based upon a direct admission of contraries in fundamental points; for truth and falsehood in such things are like the iron and clay in the toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image;§ they may cleave, but they will not incorporate.”||

* Moreh Neb. iii. 51, 55; Ikkarim, 27-30; Jerusalem, pp. 71-72.
רמב״ם הלכות דעות פרק ה׳ עקרים מ״ג פ כ״ג מורה ח״א פ׳ י״ז,
‡ Jerusalem, p. 2.
§ Daniel ii. || Bacon’s Essays “Of Unity in Religion.”

Men may, by ignorance, compulsion, or policy, be compelled to a uniformity of action—to an agreement in deed, when there exists a diversity of opinion, a disagreement of principle; or, what is worse, where there exists neither opinion nor principle. And harmony produced at the expense of knowledge, opinion, and principle, is no harmony, and such action and performances are not acknowledged by religion. “Religion knows no action without sentiment and conviction, no work without spirit, no agreement in deed without an agreement in thought. Religious observances, without religious thoughts, is idle puppet-play, and no worship.”*

* Jerusalem, pp. 9, 12, 13, 54; the learned reader will find this doctrine fully stated and ably treated by the Rabbins. Albo, Ikkarim, par. iii. chap. 2, 8, 27-29. עקדה portae 41, 44. Maimonides, Mor. Neb. iii., § 51, etc. א״ח 101. יד חזקה On Prayer, cap. iv. זוהר ויקהל p. 201 a.

Having thus, in some measure, endeavoured to encourage the hope of our people, that the present state of affairs is no proof of a decay in religion—that we are sure to issue forth from the struggle gloriously: I beg to quote one more passage from that valuable book, for the translation of which, the public is under deep obligation to the editor of this magazine, viz., Jerusalem. In relation to exclusion and condemnation, it says:†—“O reader, to whatever outward Church, Synagogue, or Mosque thou mayest belong, examine carefully, if thou do not find among the mass of those that are condemned more true religion, than among the disproportionately greater mass of those who pronounced their condemnation.”

Jerusalem, p. 44.

The celebrated Rabbi Akabia, son of Mahalleel, died under the ban from those who belonged to the just mentioned “disproportionally greater mass;” a stone was put on his coffin (indicative of stoning).‡ It is thus that Maimonides and his followers were persecuted as heretics, by the greater mass of French Rabbis. The celebrated Kimchi, Ramban, etc., belong to the <<189>> number who took part for Maimonides. And in the last cen­tury, ר׳ יהונתן, the famous Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschutz, of Prague and Altona, was persecuted as a heretic. The pious and learned Herz Wessely, the restorer of the purity of the Hebrew style, had to call the Rabbis of Trieste, Venice, Ferrara, and Reggio to his aid, against the blind fury and fanaticism of the then “disproportionally greater mass” of Rabbis. Other great men and better ideas shared the same fate.

עדיות 11a. ברכות p. 19a. This Rabbi was a man of such eminence that posterity would scarcely credit this to have happened to him. R. Jehuda thinks it was Eliezer, son of Hazor, שפקפק בנטילת ידים who slighted the observance of washing the hands before meals, etc.

We are far from wishing to establish the former opinion of Mr. M. as a general rule, but merely hold them out as an inducement to forbearance and toleration toward all good men, however different their opinion in matter of form and custom. The whole Talmud is a work of differences of opinion between contending parties and schools. The laws and regulations of our sages, which we now adopt, are quite in opposition to other laws and opinions entertained by other Rabbins and teachers equally pious and religious. Though these opinions are perfectly oppo­site and contrary to each other, as they were on minor points, and if, on important ones, as they were the result of different views tending to the same end: it is a maxim *אלא ואלא דברי אלהים חיים,—one party or school (of teachers) pronounces some object unclean, others pronounce it clean; some prohibit, others pronounce it permitted; all issue from one source: “They are all the words of the living God,” say the ancients (Tal., Haggigah, 3a; Mor Nebuth, i. 59). They agreed in essentials and in principles,—so do we; and no minor differences should ever allow us to preach dissension and foment discord, to embitter and arm brother against brother, and to pass the sentence of condemnation in respect to what does not exactly square with that which we have learned from men מצות אנשים מלמדה (Isa. xxix. 13) in our childhood.

* These sentences from the ancients are ably explained by Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, p. 78.

About the Word of God, we all agree; about laws, we all agree: the disagreement in customs, brought from different countries and different ages, ought not to be allowed to kindle the flame of discord among us. Let us, before we judge of others, first judge ourselves; before we wish to teach others, apply ourselves to <<140>> learning. We shall then be more able to judge of matters, and, most likely, be less inclined to condemn. We shall see verified the saying of our ancient men, “If all thy children be versed in divine lore, great will be the peace amidst thee.”

On The Origin of Synagogues.

It is a deplorable fact, that there exist great defects in our Synagogual service and regulations; the establishment falls considerably short of the purpose for which it was anciently instituted. We have to bring it back, at least, to what it was in olden days; we, therefore, proceed to state, first, what Synagogues anciently were, and how they were governed.

The whole Mosaic institution is calculated to establish a continual relation between man and his Maker; to remove man from earth, and raise his thoughts heavenward. The seventh day of every week reminds us of a Creator and Liberator; the festivals, in their different seasons, again direct the heart of the Israelite towards the Ruler of the spheres above; every bounty that we receive imposes on us a duty to be performed, whereby we are reminded of the Dispenser of all bounties.

For national and public bounties, our ancestors had, in olden times, to appear at the centre of our nation,—Jerusalem, where the common sanctuary united the different independent tribes under one head—God. But not every Israelite could often go up to Jerusalem, nor could those who resorted thither stay there long: their agricultural and domestic duties attached them to their soil and their houses; the whole dispensation would have proved a failure, if the people were solely depending on what they saw and heard at Jerusalem. We, therefore, may suppose, that itinerant teachers made, from time to time, a progress through the country, in order to instruct the people; we read of Samuel, that he, from his seat at Ramah, made an annual tour around Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, to provide for the spiritual wants of Israel; we hear that the prophet taught the people in the halls of the temple; we read of assemblies at Mizpah;* we hear of resorting to the house of the prophet, on new moons and sab<<141>>bath days;† similar meetings, seem also to be referred to in Ezekiel;† we also read of the schools of the prophets. It, therefore, is an undeniable fact, that instruction was imparted to Israel from the most ancient days,—that they assembled on stated days; but whether they had Synagogues, places for public worship (private worship was surely not neglected, as will be shown,—families, friends, and even villages may have united for that purpose at certain places or houses) besides the Temple at Jerusalem, is very much to be doubted. We never read of a meeting for the purpose of prayer, nor do the names of either בית הכנסת בית ועד ביץ תפילה &c., ever occur. We never hear the prophets rebuke the people for not building any such places, nor for non-attendance. Had there been places for public worship during the idolatrous times, would not the prophets have men­tioned their having been defiled by idol worship, or preserved to the worship of the true God?

* 1 Samuel, 1, vii. 6.
† 2 Kings, iv. 2.

The Temple was profaned by Antiochus; an idol was set up there; the scrolls of the law were ordered to be burnt; the obe­dience of these laws was prohibited: this is circumstantially re­lated in the Book of Maccabees. Is it likely, that Antiochus would have spared the Synagogues, or, had there any existed, if destroyed or preserved, would not some mention of them have been made? Those pious restorers, or reformers, Ezra and Nehe­miah, enjoined the practice and the study of the law, but never do they commend building of Synagogues (for mere worship).

The only mention of assembly is found in Psalm lxxiv. 8, שרפו כל מועדי אל בארץ “they have burned all the assemblies of God in the land;” whatever the meaning of מועד in this passage may be,‡ so much is certain, that the psalm was composed after the Babylonian captivity, and not before, “We see not our signs, there is no more any prophet, there is none among us who knows how long.” (verse 9).

Jeremiah lived during the captivity,—Daniel and Ezekiel lived among the captivity. This verse, therefore, is neither applicable to Israel before nor during the captivity, but it is ap­plicable for a posterior period.

† Ezekiel, xxxiii. 30.
‡ See Briel’s Commentary, in loco.

Secondly, to allow places of worship, as long as idolatry had yet any charms for Israel, would be against the spirit of the Mosaic institution; as it might have caused a lapse into idola­try; it would have tended to render the visit to the Temple less frequent, and less attractive. The apprehension of falling into idolatry, rendered it even necessary to bring the animals used for daily food up to the Tabernacle, as long as Israel sojourned in the wilderness.* Is it then to be supposed, that, if Synagogues had existed, there would have been no regulation, no mention, and no prayer composed† before the captivity?

In all probability, the destruction of the Temple, and the sub­sequent dispersion, made the proper organization of congrega­tions with proper houses of, or for, assemblies בתי כנסיות, Synagogues, necessary. In the time of the Romans, they were to be found in almost every place in Judea, and in the Jewish settlements in Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome.‡ In larger cities there existed many. We read of 480 in Jerusalem;§ in Bethar, 400 are said to have existed.|| The pilgrims, from different countries, went up to the Temple to pre­sent themselves before the Lord; but, as the edifice could not contain the immense conflux of people, we hear of the Synagogue of the Libertines, &c., existing in the metropolis. They were generally built on eminences (if such a position could be pro­cured), mostly near some water,¶ as, by law, washings were required.

* Levit. xvii.; Deut. xii.

רמב״ם הל׳ תפלה פ״א, Talmud Megilla, 17, b; Berachoth, 33, etc.; where we learn that the עמידה and the rest of our prayers were composed after the return from Babylon. And had there even been copies of the law and prayers extant (which, in those ages, there could not have been), how could there be found a suf­ficient number of men to read them?

‡ Joseph. Antiq. xix. 6, 3; Bell. Jud. vii. 8, 8.
§ Megillah, 73; Kethuboth, 106.         || Gittin, 68.P
¶ Joseph. Antiq. xiv. 10, 28; Tertullian de Pudicitia, chap. xvi.

The building was either covered, or open, without a roof, of plain structure.** The arrangement was something similar to that <<143>> of the Temple. The entry was opposite to the Hechal (תבה or תיק). In the centre stood the pulpit* (בימה מגדל). The people took their seats round the building, with their faces toward the Ark. The Elders sat in a contrary direction, with their faces towards the people. There was in the Synagogue (as in the Temple) a separate place assigned for the other sex.† With every Synagogue was connected aבית המדרש (a study, a school, a college, or academy), in which the Law and the Tradi­tion were expounded to adults; and, often, one locality served for study and worship, which combination the Rabbins desired the more, as, by this means, the common people, when they came to Synagogue for prayer, would, at the same time, profit by hearing the Law read and expounded. ‡This Hall for instruction, as the Law is the primary object of the institution, stood higher and was considered more necessary and more sacred than the Synagogue, בית המדרש גדול מבית הכנסת§ “The Beth-Hammidrash stands higher than the Synagogue. Some famous teachers preferred, therefore, to pray privately in a college|| rather than to join public worship in a Synagogue. We may turn a Synagogue into Beth-Hammidrash, but we dare not transform the latter into the former, as the general rule teaches ‘Sacred objects may be ad­vanced to a higher degree, but must not be reduced’ (in degree <<144>> of holiness).” These laws, and many more that could be quoted, --shim that instruction or study formed an essential portion of duties to be performed at Synagogues. The great Synagogue or Assembly (for Synagogue, in its proper acceptation, means Assembly) in Nehemiah viii., is opened with a short prayer, which is followed by about six hours’ teaching.

** We shall see hereafter that, though public worship was performed at the Synagogue, the primary object was not for prayer, but to concentrate the mass, to unite them by the sacred ties of religion; to give proper instruction to those who were assembled, and to administer to the wants of the poor and needy. We shall see hereafter that of the three pillars of our religious structure תורה עבודה וגמילות חסדים Instruction, Worship, and Beneficence, the first and the last were chiefly insisted upon; and though the ancients recom­mend the structure to look decent, they disapprove of splendour, if the poor are to suffer, or to be less attended to, in consequence of outward appearance.

* ומעמידין בימה באמצה הבית כדי שיעלה הקירא בתורה או מי אשר אומר לעם דברי כיבושין Maimonid. Hilchoth Thephillah, Cap.  3. “And we place a Bimah in the centre of the House (of prayer) that there may ascend he who reads the Law (anciently those who were called up read themselves), or he who speaks to people softening (consoling, moving, or abstruse) words.” The Bimah was in ancient days, not set for the Cantor or Hazan, but for him who teaches or preaches the Law.

† Philo de vita contempl.; Talm. סוכה 51.

‡ Philo, Vit. Mos. ירושלמי כתובות ל״ג

§ Maimonid. ה״ת Cap. viii.  3.

|| Ib. כסף משנה א״ח קנ״ג סי׳ א׳.

We have spoken of the Synagogue as a place for religious in­struction; but the ancients teach, in Aboth, לא המדרש הוא העיקר אלא המעשה—“It is not study (not theory) that is the end, but it is the practice.” We shall continue to show, that in the Synagogue mutual love and peace were maintained; differences between the members were amicably settled by officers called זקנים Elders, chosen from among the people or members of each Assembly. (Besides this, it was the duty of the Synagogue to provide for the poor) orphan and widow. And as practical charity is the end of the Law, we shall learn that the ancients teach us, in case of need, to sell Synagogues to support students, and to give dowries to orphans. (Orach Chayim, ch. 153.)

(To be continued.)