The Synagogue and the Study House

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

Print this page Print this page

"Rabbi Jeremiah said in the name of Rabbi Abbahu, 'Seek out the Lord where He may be found' (Isaiah 55:6). And where may [the Lord] be found? In the synagogues and study houses" (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 5:1). 

Although the origins of both the synagogue and the study house predate the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., it is only after the Temple's destruction that these two entities became the central and defining institutions of ancient Judaism. Eventually, the rabbis saw these institutions as replacing the Temple as a location of access to the Divine.

Origin and Function of the Synagogue

The institution that became known as a synagogue has its roots in the Diaspora. Greek inscriptional evidence from the third century B.C.E. in Alexandria refers to proseuchai, prayer houses, equivalent to the Hebrew batei tefillah. The archaeological remains of a building on the Aegean island of Delos contains inscriptions to Theos Hypsistos (highest God, equivalent to Hebrew "El Elyon" cf. Genesis 14:20) and the word proseuche; the building dates to the first century B.C.E. and is apparently the earliest known synagogue in the world. It should not be surprising that the synagogue developed in the Diaspora; without easy access to the Temple in Jerusalem, Diaspora Jews developed an alternate form of worship.

In the land of Israel, no contemporary literary sources refer to synagogues until the first century C.E. The earliest evidence from the land of Israel is the following first century inscription found in Jerusalem that reveals not just the existence of the synagogue, but also mentions several of its functions:

"Theodotos, son of Vettenos, kohen and archisynagogos (synagogue leader), son of an archisynagogos, grandson of an archisynagogos, who built the synagogue for the reading of the law and the teaching of the commandments, and the guest house, chambers, and water supplies to serve as an inn for those who come from abroad, and whose fathers, with the elders and Simonidus, founded the synagogue."

While the Diaspora term proseuche implies that the synagogue was a place for prayer, the primary activity in the Theodotos synagogue was the recitation and study of the Torah.

Evidence from the New Testament also seems to indicate that synagogues could exist as clubs or associations which met in private residences; some archaeological remains of synagogues have been shown to be converted homes. Although any place in which the people assembled, like the town square, could be thought of as a synagogue, the word soon became associated with a particular building. Some synagogues, like the synagogue in Tiberias, were municipal buildings used for community meetings (cf. Josephus' Life, 54); rabbinic evidence confirms the use of synagogues as hostels for travelers.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.