Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World

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These terms include proseuche, meaning "prayer house" or "prayer hall"; synagoge, meaning "a gathering place"; hagios topos, meaning "holy place"; qahal, meaning "assembly"; and bet kneset or bet ha-kneset, meaning "the house of gathering".

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The oldest term, proseuche, originated in 3 rd century BCE Hellenistic Egypt and clearly identifies a key characteristic of the structure: prayer. Although Torah reading set the synagogue apart from other public buildings or places of worship, much like the Temple before it, the Torah was not the only defining feature of the synagogue. Other distinctive traits included the activities that took place within them as well as the art and architecture of the structures themselves.

Inscriptional and literary evidence suggests that judicial proceedings, archives, treasuries, prayers, public fasts, communal meals, and lodging for traveling Judeans were all associated with the ancient synagogue. The public reading and teaching of the Torah took precedence over all else by providing the liturgical activity that set the synagogue apart, but the synagogue was much more than a religious institution and must be considered as distinctly different from its predecessor, the Temple.

The Ancient Synagogue in Israel & the Diaspora

Following the destruction of the Second Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism, a more democratic form of worship began to take root, as well as concepts such as urbanization and institutionalization, which spread throughout the Roman, and later Byzantine, Empire. With the end of the Second Temple period came the end of the practice of sacrifice, and so the reading of the Torah filled the void.

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As a result, the Ark of Scrolls and the Torah shrine developed, eventually emerging as the focal point of the synagogue, representing a symbol of survival and preservation. Nearly every ancient synagogue in the land of Israel yields traces and fragments of a Torah shrine, either in the form of a raised platform as a base for the aedicula, a niche, or an apse.

This evidence demonstrates the significance of the Torah shrine as one of the few consistent features within the ancient synagogue.

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Yet the appearance of the Torah shrine was not the only emergent trait accompanying the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. Unlike the exclusivity of priestly-mediated ritual attributed to the Temple, the participants in the ancient synagogue were involved in the performance and conducting of ceremonies, reciting prayers, and reading from the Torah.

A new participatory nature of worship was developing during this period, and it is preserved through the architectural remains. As the rabbinic class rose in power, criteria that may be deemed "non-religious" began to fall under the control of the rabbis, and therefore, the "religious" domain.

follow url Despite the fact that other venues were available for resolving legal matters, the rabbinic judges served as an alternate, and seemingly popular, venue. Generally, rabbinic legal activity revolved around property and family issues, which occasionally intersected with ritual law such as in Deut.

Quite simply, aside from the reading and studying of the Torah, the separation of religious and non-religious functions is not as clear as one may assume in terms of the activities performed in the ancient synagogue. Beyond the Torah shrine, however, the ancient synagogue would come to develop additional features and characteristics that reflected communal needs and practices, all of which are evident in archaeological remains.

As synagogues were not restricted to a specific location, and as no uniform design or floor plan of the ancient synagogue exists, the community was at liberty to build the structures in accordance to their own local requirements. They may be located on the seashore, along riverbanks, in the center of town, or in dwelling quarters. The only common feature to be found in terms of location is convenience for the community for both commercial and communal activities. The synagogue should be understood as a physical mediator between the individual and the community at large.

As a public space, the synagogue became a focal point in Judaism, much like the Temple pre CE.


As a structure, the ancient synagogue may have consisted of a single public building or a complex including rooms and courtyards, and the layout of each building varied. The evidence of extra rooms, as well as fountains, cisterns, and basins, demonstrates several characteristics of the local Judean community in which the building was established. Once again, local demands influenced the design and function of the synagogue within each individual community, and it is through the examination of the remains that particular communal requirements may be discerned.

For instance, the presence of extra rooms suggests various possibilities. The first possibility indicates lodgings or hostel services in which the synagogue offered temporary accommodations for travellers, pilgrims, or synagogue officials. Without a universal floor plan, it is clear that each community valued and required different architectural or functional features, and the design of a synagogue was decided upon by the leaders of the community rather than according to an established synagogue standard.

That being said, however, as the Torah shrine was located along the Jerusalem-oriented wall within each synagogue in antiquity, it is reasonable to suggest that a Judean travelling from Ostia to Ein Gedi would feel comfortable within the foreign synagogue, so far as the fundamental characteristic, namely the Torah, was concerned. Much attention has been placed on the synagogues of ancient Israel thus far, however, many of the same conclusions may be made in terms of the Diaspora synagogue.

Individuals living within the Diaspora experienced a disconnection from the Temple in a period much earlier than 70 CE. As a result, accommodations and supplementary modes of worship developed for those who were unable to make the pilgrimage to the Temple. Unfortunately, the synagogues in Delos and Ostia are the only locations that can be archaeologically dated prior to the 2nd century CE; however, it is probable that synagogue architecture had not yet developed to a distinguishable level until that time.

Considering that several Diaspora synagogues began as domestic structures, only later acquiring monumental characteristics, this theory is especially persuasive. The function and style of the Diaspora synagogue were not unlike the synagogue of ancient Israel. Like their counterparts in Israel, Diaspora synagogues display some variation in terms of style and artistic content, yet a common and shared tradition appears to have influenced Judeans everywhere. Currency and addition of Tax VAT depend on your shipping address.

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Related Content. In honor of eminent archaeologist and historian of ancient Jewish art, Rachel Hachlili, friends and colleagues offer contributions in this festschrift which span the world of ancient Judaism both in Palestine and the Diaspora. Hachlili's distinctive research interests: synagogues, burial sites, and Jewish iconography receive particular attention in the volume.

Fresh analyses of ancient Jewish art, essays on architecture, historical geography, and research history complete the volume and make it an enticing kaleidoscope of the vibrant field of scholarship that owes so much to Rachel. Abegg on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. Editors: Kipp Davis , Kyung S. Baek , Peter W. Flint and Dorothy Peters.