Dura Europos AaronThe synagogue is among the most influential religious institutions in the history of Western civilization. In this place of “coming together” (Greek synagoge, Hebrew beit haknesset), Judaism created a communal religious experience that previously was almost unknown.

Within the ancient synagogue believers assembled to read the Sacred Scripture, to pray, and to form community with their God. This “democratic” notion of religious experience is in stark contrast with the great and small temples of the ancient world, including the Jerusalem Temple, where professional priests performed religious acts on behalf of a community that stood by piously. The synagogue was an important model for the early church. In fact, it was within synagogues that the message of Christianity was first preached. Centuries later the synagogue and the church were the models Mohammed and his followers used for their new “place of prayer” and scriptural reading, the mosque.

This chapter traces the ideological development of the synagogue from the earliest evidence of its existence through the rise of Islam. What are the origins of the synagogue, and how did it become a Sacred Realm?


No one knows when and where the synagogue first developed. Some trace its origins to the Babylonian captivity (58—16 B.C.E.), during which time Judeans distant from their homeland are said to have assembled to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” Others see its beginnings in a series of third-century Greek inscriptions from Egypt that describe Jewish “prayer places.” Some first-century Jews traced its origins to Moses himself. Yet the origins of the synagogue may never be known —it was not an institution that developed in a revolutionary way, breaking away from an established religious institution, as did Luther at Wittenberg Cathedral. Rather, the synagogue seems to have begun as a “still, small voice,” as a simple place where Jews came together to read Scripture. Joining in synagogue life in no way dampened Jewish allegiance and dedication to the great “house of God,” the Temple of Jerusalem. In fact, by the first century C.E. numerous synagogues existed in Jerusalem itself, including gatherings of Jews from lands as distant as Gyrene and Alexandria in North Africa and the provinces of Cilicia and Asia in Asia Minor. 2

An inscription found within the shadow of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem portrays the religious life of a first-century synagogue. Called the Theodotos inscription (see Fig. 1.6), it tells us that the synagogue was endowed by three generations of the family of an individual called Theodotos. There the Torah was read and the commandments were studied. Pilgrims stayed there when they visited Jerusalem and perhaps purified themselves in ritual baths for their ascent to the Temple. Philo, the philosopher and communal leader of Alexandrian Jewry during the first century C.E., describes synagogues, often elegantly decorated, as being common in Roman Alexandria. There, he wrote,

The Jews every seventh day occupy themselves with their ancestral philosophy, dedicating that time to acquiring knowledge and the study of the truths of nature. For what are our prayer places throughout the cities but schools of prudence and bravery and control and justice, as well as of piety and holiness and virtue as a whole, by which one comes to recognize and perform what is due to men and God? (The Life of Moses, 2. 216)

Missing from this description and from many others that we might cite is the one element of synagogue sendee that may be taken for granted: prayer. This is particularly odd, since the name recorded in literary and epigraphic sources for most Diaspora synagogues (and one Palestinian synagogue) is proseuche, which means “prayer place.” Possibly these sources stress that clement of Jewish liturgy which is uniquely Jewish, taking for granted the aspect that was shared with other religious groups, communal prayer. Yet the overwhelming impression gained from extant sources is that early synagogues were places of communal Scripture reading and instruction. Besides the Theodotos inscription, two synagogue buildings have been discovered in Israel: one on Masada, the other at Gamla in the Golan Heights. 1

The Masada synagogue (Fig. 2.1) was built at the time of the first Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-7 4 c.e.) during the rebels’ defiant and ill-fated occupation of this crag in the desert. The room that has been identified as a synagogue is 11.5 x 10.5 meters, with a small room measuring 3.6 x 5.5 meters at its northwestern corner. The hall was lined with benches. Fragments of the books of Ezekiel (Fig. 2.2) and Deuteronomy were uncovered. Other religious texts were found scattered on Masada, many within a short distance from the synagogue. The meeting hall on Masada seems to have been a place of public Scripture reading, by definition a synagogue. Philo uses the word “synagogue” to describe the religious gathering places of the Essenes earlier in the century:

“For that day has been set apart to be kept holy’ and on it they abstain from all other work and proceed to sacred places [hierous . . . topous] which they call synagogues [synagogi]. There, arranged in rows according to their ages, the younger below the elder, they sit decorously as befits the occasion with attentive ears. Then one takes the
books [biblous] and reads aloud and another of especial proficient’}’ tomes forward and expounds what is not understood. . . . “(Every Good Man Is Free, 81-82).

Particularly important for us is the term Philo used to describe these synagogues: “sacred places” (hierous . . . topous). His is the first text to explicitly call these places sacred. What is the source of this holiness? It is apparently the “Sacred Scripture” (a term used in contemporary literature) that was studied within the synagogue. Evidence of communal prayer in places of religious meeting before 70 C.E. is found in one source, the so called Damascus Document. First discovered in the Cairo Genizah and then among the Qumran scrolls, 4 the document states:

And all who enter the house of prostration, let him not come in a state of uncleanliness requiring washing. . . .

Prostration, most likely prayer in general, in a specific place seems to have been essential to the ritual life of this community. Just as purity was required for entry to the Temple of Jerusalem, it was required for participation in this sectarian “house of prostration.” This attitude was the result of the Qumran sect’s perception that the Temple had been profaned by the authorities in Jerusalem. The sect thus went into the desert and behaved as if the Temple had been destroyed, applying Temple imagery to themselves, praying together, and rejecting the “profaned” Temple. This response to the loss of the Temple foreshadows the program of the Rabbinic Sages after 70 C.E., a period when the Temple was, in fact, lost.


From these modest beginnings synagogues, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. , developed as the single most important institution in Jewish life, a position they have held ever since. As the institution grew, its importance was expressed through an ever-increasing attribution of sanctity. The earliest evidence for this appears in the writings of the Sages of the Mishnah, the Tannaim. After the destruction of the Temple the Tannaitic Sages took it upon themselves to reformulate Judaism for an age in which the Temple could no longer be the focal point of religious experience. While waiting for the messianic reconstruction of the Temple , the Sages reconstructed religious practice to emphasize the elements of Judaism that had survived the destruction. At the center of this development stood the Holy Scriptures. While the Temple was gone and the Jewish hold on the Land of Israel was increasingly tenuous, the Torah and its study were left intact by the great national tragedy. The place where Scripture had been studied and community wrought for generations before 70 C.E., the synagogue, became the institutional focal point for the Rabbinic reconstruction of Judaism.

As before 7 0 C.E., the importance of Scripture in synagogues was stressed by the Sages, who ascribed a certain amount of holiness to the synagogue because of this relationship. This is stated in terms of case law in the Mishnah, the most important corpus of early Rabbinic tradition. The text sets forth the conditions under which the people of a town might sell their communal religious properties:

“The people of a town who sold their town square: they must buy a synagogue with its proceeds;
If they sell a synagogue, they must acquire a [scroll] chest.
If they sell a [scroll] chest, they must acquire cloths [to wrap sacred scrolls].
If they sell cloths, they must acquire books [of the Prophets and Writings]
If they sell books, they must acquire a Torah [scroll].
But, if they sell a Torah [scroll], they may not acquire books.
And if they sell books, they may not acquire cloths.
And if they sell cloths, they may not acquire a chest,
And if they sell a chest, they may not acquire a synagogue.
And if they sell a synagogue, they may not acquire a town square.
So too, with the left-over [money].
They may not sell public property to an individual, because they are lowering its holiness, so Rabbi Meir.
They [the Sages] said to him: If so, then they cannot sell from a larger town to a smaller town.” (Mishnah Megillah 3:1)

The source of holiness in this text is the Torah scroll. Places or objects physically closest to or resembling the Torah scroll are considered to be more holy. Thus the town square, where Scripture was read publicly but infrequently, has a small amount of holiness. Scrolls of the Prophets and Writings that look like Torah scrolls are just one step less holy than the Torah scroll. In a world in which the Temple did not exist, the Torah came to be seen as the supreme source of holiness, the embodiment of the Divine Presence. Other sources suggest that the entire congregation was gathered before the Torah chest 5 and that various items, including lamps, bore dedicatory inscriptions. In some synagogues the Torah cabinet (teva) had an arched lid and stood upon a stand or was placed on a carpet. The scrolls were wrapped in fine, colored cloths (metzuyanot) adorned with bells and placed upon a specially designated table (Fig. 2.3). Communities taxed themselves in order to build synagogues and to procure Torah scrolls. 9 While most synagogues in second-century Palestine were probably not very impressive buildings and may even have been converted houses, 10 the Tannaitic Sages projected their vision of a grand synagogue on a synagogue in the rich Diaspora community of first-century Alexandria:

“Said Rabbi Judah: Whosoever never saw the (double stoa) of Alexandria of Egypt” never saw the great honor of Israel his entire life.

It was a kind of large basilica, a portico within a portico. Sometimes there were there twice as many people as those who went out of Egypt.

There were seventy-one thrones within it, equal (in number) to the seventy-one elders, each one made of twenty-five myriad. A wooden platform (bema) was in the center.

The hazan ha-kneset (leader| stood at the horn of the altar, with the flags in his hand. When one began to read, the other would wave the flags and all the people would answer “amen” to each and every blessing. Then the other waved the flags and all of the people answered “amen.”

They did not sit in a jumble, but the goldsmiths sat by themselves, the silversmiths by themselves, the blacksmiths by themselves, the common weavers by themselves, and the fine weavers by themselves.

So that when a traveler would come he would be taken care of by his [fellow] craftsmen, and from that [interchange] a living could be procured.” (Tosefta Sukkah 4:6).

In describing the synagogue in such intense and extravagant hues, this text illustrates the “great glory of Israel.” It is brighter than life. What is to be noted here, however, is the importance of reading the Torah to this synagogue. As in the Second Temple period literature, synagogue prayer is not to be seen. A second notable feature of this text is the terminology used to describe the architecture, furnishings, and liturgy of the synagogue. All are drawn from Tannaitic descriptions of the Temple: the Temple Mount is said to have been built as “a portico within a portico”;
the members of the Sanhedrin sit in seventy-one chairs; the daily sacrifice is orchestrated by a hazzan ha-knesset; and prayer is offered accompanied by the waving of flags. The Alexandria synagogue, in all its glory, was to be something like the Temple.

The attribution of Temple motifs to synagogues was an important way in which their sanctity was expressed. Thus we see in Mishnah Megillah 3:3:

“Additionally, Rabbi Judah said:
A synagogue that was destroyed:
eulogies are not said in it,
ropes are not twisted in it,
nets are not stretched in it,
fruit is not spread on its roof [to dry].
It is not used as a shortcut, for it is written:
“I will destroy your sanctuaries” (Lev. 26:31) —
they are sacred even when they are destroyed.
Grasses grow within them:
They must not be picked [so as to provoke] sadness.”

In this text the source of sanctity differs from that seen in Megillah 3:1. Synagogues are holy because they share in the sanctity of the Temple. This tradition suggests that a synagogue that has been destroyed through no fault of its community is still to be treated as holy—expressed graphically in prohibition against using a synagogue ruin as a shortcut. In Mishnah Berakhot 9:5 the use of the Temple Mount for this purpose is also forbidden. Both destroyed religious centers are to be treated, according to the Mishnah, with residual sanctity. Through creative exegesis of Leviticus 26:31 some of the sanctity of the Jerusalem Temple is ascribed to synagogues. 12

Other Tannaitic texts apply Temple motifs in more direct ways. Tosefta Megillah 3:23-2 5 focuses on the internal arrangement of the synagogue community toward the Holy City of Jerusalem, suggesting that synagogue doors should open toward the east, like those in the Temple. The text further asserts that the ideal synagogue should be built on the acropolis of a town like a (or, the) temple. Other texts hint that synagogues were furnished with seven-branched menorahs, reminiscent of the Temple. Such large lamp stands would have more than ideological significance. They provided lighting necessary for the public reading of Scripture.

The period after the destruction of the Temple saw an explosion in the types of religious activities carried out in synagogues. The most important were liturgical. For the first time, prayer became an important feature of synagogue life. The Mishnah ascribes the beginning of this development to the single most influential Sage of the years immediately after 70 C.E., Rabbi Johanan son of Zakkai (Fig. 2.4):

At first the lulav [palm frond, willow and myrtle] was taken up in the Temple seven [days] and in the countryside [medinah] one. When the Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Johanan son of Zakkai decreed that the lulav be taken up in the countryside seven [days] in memory of the Temple. (Mishnah Sukkah 3:12)

The taking up of a palm frond, tied together with twigs of willow and myrtle and held with a citron, in the “countryside,” that is, the synagogues, was intended to preserve the “memory of the Temple.”

Other examples of Temple rites the Sages introduced to synagogues are shofar blowing, 13 the priestly blessing, 14 prayer offered at the same times as it had been in the Temple, 15 and the recitation of blessings at the reading of the Torah. 16 All became synagogue functions under the influence of the Tannaitic Sages. Prayer modeled on Temple liturgy was an essential factor in the sanctification of the synagogue from the late first to the early third century C.E . This phenomenon is well expressed in a tradition that appears in a late Tannaitic collection, the Mekhilta of Rahhi Ishmael:

In every place [where I cause My name to be remembered I will come to you and I will bless you] (Exod. 20:21). Where I reveal Myself to you, in the Temple. From here they said: The Tetragrammaton may not be pronounced in the outlying areas [ba-gevulin].

Rabbi Eliezer son of Jacob says: If you will come to my house I will come to yours. To the place which my heart loves my feet will lead me.

From here they said: Whenever ten people congregate in the synagogue the divine presence is with them, for it is written, “God [Elohim] stands in the congregation of God [El]” (Ps. 82:1). . .

Just as the Temple is a place where the Divine can be found, God is present when a quorum assembles for prayer in the synagogue. The synagogue becomes a place where, through prayer, the believer can come into communion with the Divine. The Mekhilta is the first text to describe the synagogue as something more than a temple-like study hall. It has become a place of theophany through prayer.

For the early Rabbinic Sages, synagogues were the institutional focal point for the reconstruction of Judaism. In their hands the meeting house in which Scripture was studied before 70 C.E. became an institution infused with Temple qualities. It became the sacred place of the time when the Temple did not exist. During the first centuries of the Common Era the basic contours of this institution were drawn. Synagogues became places in which the Divine could be encountered through communal acts of’ Torah study and prayer.


During the late Roman and Byzantine periods the synagogue blossomed. Archaeological evidence suggests that synagogues could be found throughout Jewish areas of the Land of Israel during late antiquity. In fact, an easy way to distinguish a Jewish district from a Christian area during the Byzantine period is to chart the locations of the more than one hundred synagogue ruins in Israel and to compare this map with known discoveries of churches. Jews were concentrated in the eastern Galilee (particularly the Upper Galilee), the Golan, and areas of Judea surrounding Jerusalem. Christians were most numerous in the western Galilee, the coastal plain, and Judea.

Palestinian Jews saw the synagogue as the essential institution of the Jewish community during late antiquity. Jewish communal self-identity was clearly invested in their synagogues, as expressed in the ever grander synagogues found throughout the Land of Israel. This new significance is expressed in the development of homiletical literature, the midrashim, much of which was based upon homilies delivered in synagogues and study houses. The liturgy of the synagogue became more complex during the Byzantine period. Intricate liturgical compositions, called piyyutim, were recited by celebrated authors. These piyyutim (Fig. 2.5) also followed the weekly and festival scriptural and liturgical cycles. Finally, building upon a tradition that can be traced to the Second Temple period, homiletical renditions of Scripture into Aramaic (targumim) were composed for the benefit of Aramaic-speaking Jews. Most
Jews in the Land of Israel spoke Aramaic and Greek in their daily lives. Hebrew, the language of Scripture and hence of most liturgy, came to be restricted to the synagogue context.

In targumim and in an Aramaic piyyut the synagogue was called the “language of the holy house,” the “holy house” being the synagogue. In archaeological remains as well we find synagogues called “holy places” in numerous inscriptions. Based upon models first seen in Tannaitic literature, synagogues became for the Sages the Jewish “holy places” of late antique Palestine. The sanctity of the synagogue became so great that the institution was projected into sacred time. It would continue to be important, they thought, even in messianic time when the Temple would be in full operation.

We will begin our survey with the successors of the Tannaim, the Amoraim in the Land of Israel and those generally anonymous scholars who followed them. By the third century the Sages were widely accepted as the intellectual and religious elite of Palestinian Jewry.

Under the able leadership of Rabbi Judah the Prince, the status of the Sages was accepted by both Jews and the Roman authorities. The developing Rabbinic elite attempted to exert broad influence within Jewish society while claiming special status for itself.

A text representative of Rabbinic attention to synagogues is preserved in the Jerusalem Talmud (Fig. 2.6). This tradition strongly advocates synagogue attendance, presenting this institution in the most vivid tones:

  1. Huna said: He who prays behind the synagogue is called evil, for it is said: “The evil will go around [when baseness is exalted among the children of men]” (Ps. 12:9).
    B. Rav Huna said: Anyone who does not enter a synagogue in this world will not enter a synagogue in the world to come.
    What is the [scriptural] basis?
    “The evil will go around [when baseness is exalted among the children of men]” (Ps. 12:9).
    C. Rabbi Johanan said: He who prays at home it is as if he is surrounded by a wall of iron. . . .
    D. Rabbi Phineas in the name of Rabbi Hoshaya: He who prays in the synagogue is like one who sacrifices a pure meal offering [minhah].
    What is the [scriptural] basis?
    “God [Elohim] stands in the congregation of God [El]” (Ps. 82:1).
    E. Rabbi Jeremiah in the name of Rabbi Abbahu: “Seek out the Lord where He may be found” (Isa. 55:6).
    Where may He be found?
    In the synagogues and study houses.
    “Call upon Him when He is near” (ibid.).
    Where is He near?
    [In the synagogues and study houses].
    F. Said Rabbi Isaac son of Rabbi Eleazar: Not only that, but their God stands behind them.
    What is the [scriptural] basis?
    “God [Elohim] stands in the congregation of God [El]” (Ps. 82:1). . ..
    G. It is a firm promise [berit kerutah] thathe who toils at his study in the synagogue will not quickly forget it [that is, his learning]. . . . (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 5:1, 8d-9a).

Each of these traditions is intended to strengthen the position of the synagogue within Jewish communal life. Taken together, this medley of Rabbinic sayings constitutes an extremely powerful statement. Let us analyze each section to see what is new in this document.

Section F is reminiscent of the text Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael and thus follows upon that Tannaitic precedent. Similar sentiments are often represented in Amoraic literature. We find it, for example, in a homiletical comment on Song of Songs 2:9 preserved in a sixth-seventh-century collection, the Pesiqte de Rav Kahane:

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart” (Song of Songs 2:9). Said Rabbi Isaac: As a gazelle leaps and skips from tree to tree, from thicket to thicket, and from grove to grove, so the Holy One leaps from synagogue to synagogue, from study house to study house.
In order to bless Israel. . . “18

The playful image of God as a “young hart” deals with the problem of how God can be in more than one holy place at a time. Similarly, we find in a tradition in the Jerusalem Talmud that synagogues were seen as places where individuals could commune with God.

Having described the vast distances separating the earth from each of the seven heavens and the vast size of the hoofs of the beasts of heaven, the mystery of Divine Immanence is asserted in this text:

See how high above His world He is! Yet a person can go into a synagogue and stand behind a column and pray in a whisper, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, listens to his prayer. For it is said: “Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was notheard” (1 Sam. 1:13). Yet the Holy One, Blessed be He, heard her prayer. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 9:1, 13a)

Here the synagogue is a place where the prayer of a single individual can traverse the expanses of the heavens, and Go d himself will receive it. The model of Hannah is important because “speaking in her heart” became the model for the recitation of Rabbinic prayer, and the synagogue is subtly equated with the Tabernacle at Shilo where she prayed to God for her son Samuel.

Sections A and C go so far as to decry those who avoid synagogue worship. They are “evil,” says Rav Huna, because they sneak around, avoiding the synagogue at prayer time. Even more threatening is Rabbi Johanan’s statement warning the person who does not pray in community that his prayers will not be heard by God. We know, for example, of two scholars of the generation following Rabbi Johanan—Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi—who chose not to attend any of the “thirteen” synagogues in Tiberias, “praying between the pillars [of the study house] where they were studying.” 1 9

A practical inducement is promised by this text for those who choose to study in synagogues. In section G Rabbi Johanan promises that their studies within synagogues will be retained longer. This appears to be a clear attempt to lure the Sages and their followers away from their study houses and into the synagogues for prayer.

Section D makes explicit a trend nascent in Tannaitic sources. While the Tannaim established the thrice daily prayer services at the times when sacrifices took place in the Jerusalem Temple, the Amoraim made this phenomenon explicit. While the Temple lay in ruin, synagogue prayer is a temporary replacement for the Temple service.

The application of Temple motifs to synagogues and to synagogue prayer was expanded greatly by the Amoraim, without concern that synagogues could ever really take the place of the Temple. As we will see, they were actually read into the cosmic order, effectively neutralizing any possibility of supercession. Synagogues came to be called “small temples,” based upon an interpretation of Ezekiel 11:16:

Rabbi Samuel b. Isaac: “I will be unto them a small sanctuary [miqdash meat]” (Ez. 11:16): These are synagogues and study houses. 20 (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 29a)

In later literature this theme is developed further, where specific rituals derived from the Temple were transferred to synagogues. Synagogue poetry focuses on such Temple rites as the service of the high priest in the service on the Day of Atonement and the priestly courses described in 1 Chronicle s 24:7-18. A late midrash discovered in the Cairo
Genizah asserts this phenomenon explicitly:

As long as the Temple existed, perpetual sacrifices and offerings would atone for the sins of Israel.
Now synagogues are to Israel in the place of the Temple. As long as Israel prays in them, their prayers are in place of the perpetual sacrifices and offerings.

[By reciting] prayers at their proper time and directing their hearts, they merit and will see the rebuilding of the Temple and [the reestablishment of] the perpetual sacrifices and offerings, as it is said: “And I will bring them to my holy mountain and I will rejoice in my house of Prayer” (Isa. 56:7) their sacrifices and offerings will be received well on my altar, “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all of the nations.”21 (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 29a)

The “templization” of prayer was instrumental to the “templization” of synagogues. In section B Rav Huna suggests a status for synagogues that is unknown in Tannaitic literature. The synagogue is projected into “the world to come.” It is unclear whether the world to come refers to a postmortem reward or to the eschatological future. Wha t we can know, however, is that synagogues will be there to serve the needs of the pious. This notion is expressed in a select number of Rabbinic sources. It is stated explicitly in a later collection of midrashim, Deuteronomy Rabba:

Anyone who enters synagogues and study houses in this world merits to enter synagogues and study houses in the world to come.
Whence this?
For it is said: “Happy are those who dwell in your house, they will again praise you, selah” (PS . 84:6). 22

The promise of heavenly synagogue and study houses attendance is here based on the exegesis of Psalm 84:6: “Those who dwell in your house . . . will again praise you.” When will this “again” happen? In the world to come. Other sources project synagogues into the biblical past. King Solomon, for example, not only built the Temple, he built synagogues in Jerusalem! 23

The meeting house of earlier generations has become a part of Jewish sacred time. Another point worthy of attention is the mention of the study house. Rabbinic study houses came into their own during the third century, taking on many attributes of synagogues. Some Sages, in fact, considered the study house to be holier than the synagogue.

The Rabbinic Sages provide a detailed description of the interior of a third-century synagogue. As in Mishnah Megillah 3:1, closer proximity to the biblical scrolls occasions greater holiness:

All of the furnishings of the synagogue are like [in holiness to] the synagogue.
All of the furnishings of the synagogue are like [in holiness to] its bench [safsal] and its couch [qaltara].
The curtain [kilo] on the ark [arona] is like [in holiness] to the ark [which was seen as more sacred than the synagogue building because the biblical scrolls were stored in it]. Rabbi Abbahu put a cloak [golta] under the curtain [bilan] [of the ark].
Rav Judah in the name of Samuel: the bema and planks [levahin] do not have the sanctity of the ark, and do have the sanctity of the synagogue.
The reading table [ingalin] does not have the sanctity of the ark, and does have the sanctity of the synagogue. (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 3:1-3, 73d-74a) 24

Those synagogue fixtures that have the sanctity of the synagogue but not the greater sanctity of the ark are the benches, the sofa, the bema, the planks, and the reading table. Only those furnishings that are in constant, close proximity to the ark—the curtain and the cloak—have the sanctity of the ark. For the ancient reader of this text the identification of the various appurtenances of the synagogue was self-evident. A third-century Jew, we may assume, knew exactly what a qaltara looked like and just what a bilan was. For us, however, it is hard to know what each of the terms denotes. Scholars since the Middle Ages have struggled with them, and I have provided what appears to me to be reasonable identifications.

The identity of the ingalin as a reading table is clear from parallels in contemporaneous non-Jewish literature in Greek. It becomes even clearer when we know that the table upon which the Gospel book is placed in modern Greek Orthodox churches is called an analogein. Here we see that another of the surviving forms of late antique religion
preserves the denotation of this term in Talmudic literature.

The traditional term to describe the Torah Shrine, the arona, is particularly important for understanding the ideological development of the synagogue. In Amoraic literature this term generally replaces the Tannaitic teva (chest). Arona bears biblical resonances referring not just to a big cabinet but to the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This relationship is made clear in a tradition attributed to Rabbi Huna the Great of Sepphoris, a major city in the Lower Galilee recently excavated by American and Israeli archaeologists. Rabbi Huna the Great of Sepphoris is said to have lamented on the occasion of a public fast that

Our fathers covered it [the Ark of the Covenant] with gold, and we cover it [the Torah ark] with ashes. (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 2:1, 65a)

The Torah Shrine was covered with ashes as a sign of mourning. The ark is here cast as the Ark of the Covenant, which stood in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and the Solomonic Temple. The curtain before the ark is called the parokhta in another tradition, reminiscent of the Temple parokhet (curtain). 25

The ark and the parokhet thus join the menorah as synagogue vessels bearing the names of Temple appurtenances.

The relation between synagogues and the Temple became so basic to Jewish conceptions that sources go as far as to treat the biblical Tabernacle as a kind of big synagogue and the Ark of the Covenant as a Torah Shrine:

When Moses told Bezalel to make the Tabernacle Bezalel said: “What is the purpose of the Tabernacle?” He said to him: “To cause the Divine Presence to dwell there and to teach Israel Torah.” Said Bezalel: “Where is the Torah put?”

He said to him: “When we make the Tabernacle, we will make an ark.”26

The intimate relationship between the Torah scroll and its ark expressed in this text is transferred metaphorically in the Jerusalem Talmud to a Sage who has lost his knowledge of Torah: Rabbi Jacob son of Abaye in the name of Rabbi Aha: An elder [zaken] who forgets his learning through no fault of his own is treated with the sanctity of the ark. (Moed Qatan 3:1, 81d)

The body of the Sage is to be treated as an ark for the knowledge of Jewish tradition, the “oral Torah,” which this scholar has stored in it. The Torah Shrine was considered by some to be a place of considerable power. This is expressed in an amulet discovered in the Genizah which instructs that it be buried “under the ark of the synagogue.”27 In fact, nineteen bronze amulets (Fig. 2.7), wrapped in cloth and inscribed in Aramaic and Hebrew, were discovered among remains of the Torah Shrine and other appurtenances in the apse of the sixth-century synagogue at Maon (Nirim), near Gaza. 28 Scholars hypothesize that “some of the amulets were suspended from the wall near or behind the Ark of the Law, or even from the ark itself.” 29 Why were the amulets kept near the Torah Shrine? Their contents provide part of the answer. The opened examples appeal for healing and divine protection 30 and contain formulae that are reminiscent of both liturgical texts and synagogue inscriptions. It is apparent that the power of these amulets derived both from their literary similarity to Scripture and liturgy and from their proximity to the Torah Shrine. Like synagogue inscriptions today, the terminology used in extant amulets often draws on biblical and liturgical formulations. For example, Amen, Amen Selah, a phrase similar to biblical formulae, appears both in amulets 31 and in synagogue inscriptions. 32 The formulae of these amulets (Fig. 2.8) closely parallel other amulets discovered in the Cairo Genizah. 33 Liturgically, the end of this period saw the development of complex rituals for the reading of Torah that clearly express that the scroll was the manifestation of godliness within its community. Thu s we find the lifting of the scroll by the leader with the proclamation:

“One is our God, Great is our Master, holy and awesome eternally.” He begins pleasantly and says: “The Lord is God” (1 Kings 18:39), the Lord is His name. The people respond after him as he says it twice, and they respond after him two times. Immediately he unrolls the Torah scroll a space of three columns, elevates it and shows the surface of its script to the people standing to his right and left. Then he turns it [the raised scroll] in front and behind him, for it is a precept for all men and women to see the script, to bow (or prostrate themselves) and exclaim: “This is the Torah which Moses set before the Children of Israel” (Deut. 4:4). He further exclaims: “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. . . .”

Literary sources from the third to the seventh century and beyond treat the synagogue as a place of Torah par excellence. It has become a place of prayer as well, one that is projected into both the messianic future and the biblical past. The synagogue has become so essential to Rabbinic conceptions of Judaism that it awaits the pious in the “world to come.” Contemporaneous archaeological sources parallel literary sources in many ways. Synagogues of various architectural forms developed throughout the Land of Israel, based on regional types. North of the Sea of Galilee the “Galilean type” was most popular, while in the Jordan Rift Valley the apsidal basilica became the norm.

The architecture of these buildings is discussed by R. Hachlili in Chapter 5. Synagogues throughout the Holy Land were called “holy places” in their Aramaic and Greek dedicatory inscriptions — in Kefar Hananyah in the Western Galilee; at Hammath Tiberias, Beth Shean, and Naaran in the Jordan Rift Valley; in Geresa in modern Jordan; and in Gaza and Ashkelon on the coastal plain. We will discuss just a few examples of the Jewish holy places that have been recovered by archaeologists. The idea of placing dedicatory inscriptions (Figs. 2.9 and 2.10) within public contexts was by no means unique to Jews. This form of public benefaction was central to Greek, Roman, and Byzantine social contexts, as it is within the churches and synagogues of the modern followers of eastern forms of Christianity and Judaism. Tannaitic and Amoraic 3 5 sources mention synagogue dedicatory inscriptions, though the earliest extant inscriptions from the post-destruction era date to the fourth century. As among Christians, each synagogue donor contributed a portion of the synagogue and its decoration, with no individual donating the entire building. Through this type of benefaction the donor received prestige within the community, and presumably in the eyes of God as well. While the phrase “holy place” is quite rare in Christian inscriptions, other attributions of sanctity — “holy monastery,” “holy church,” and the like —are common. The term “holy place” (atra qedisha in Aramaic, hagios topos in Greek) appears for the first time in two inscriptions from the fourth-century mosaic pavemen t of Hammath Tiberias B. 36 The inscriptions, in Aramaic and Greek, are quite similar. The Aramaic text reads: May peace be unto all those who gave charity in this holy place, and who in the future will give charity. May he have His blessing” Amen, Amen, Selah, it is fitting, 38 Amen. 39 And the Greek text (Fig. 2.11): Remembered for good and for blessing Profuturos the elder who made this stoa of the holy place. Blessing upon him, Amen, Shalom. 4 0 Fig. 2.11. Mosaic inscription in Greek from Hammath Tiberias B. This inscription marks the benefaction of Profutros to the “holy place.” 36

How did the congregation at Hammath Tiberias decorate its “holy place”? Located on a bluff overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the building was constructed as a basilica on a north-south axis with a broad side aisle in which the Aramaic inscription was laid. The ornate floor is reminiscent of high-quality mosaic pavements from Antioch on the Orontes, to the north in Syria. While only the floor and a few architectural features are extant, the excavator has suggested a plausible reconstruction of this basilica (see Fig. 5.3). The central nave was laid with a panel containing a dedicatory inscription flanked by rampant lions on its northern end. In the center of the room is a zodiac wheel. Opposite the platform upon which the Torah Shrine undoubtedly stood is the image of a shrine flanked by two menorahs and some smaller ritual objects. According to the excavator’s reconstruction, the Shrine stood on the southern, Jerusalem-facing, side of the building and looked much like that illustrated in the mosaic. Christians, too, made images of the sacred precinct of the church on church pavements (Plate IX). Excavation has shown that orientation of Torah Shrines on the Jerusalem wall of 37 synagogues was virtually the rule in the Land of Israel. This factor, together with the presence of the menorahs, clearly reflects an attempt to associate the synagogue with the Temple.
Images of Torah Shrines appear on mosaics and in other media at a number of sites. The upper part of a stone aedicula uncovered at Nabratein in the Upper Galilee bears a close resemblance to the image of a Torah Shrine (see Plate XXXII) in the Beth Alpha mosaic. Large seven branched menorahs (see Plate XXV) were uncovered in another synagogue in Hammath Tiberias, at Maon (Fig. 2.12) in Judea, and elsewhere. Flanking menorahs within the former were reminiscent of the Temple and served to illuminate the synagogue hall. Christian altars were also lighted with many lamps that, as in the synagogue, focused attention on the bema. In an image of a menorah from Naaran (sixth century, near Jericho) the desire to provide additional light is even clearer. An additional lamp is shown hanging from each side of each of the two menorahs. The zodiac wheel at Hammath Tiberias B is reminiscent of the months of the Jewish Reconstructed year, which begin witheach new moon. This relationship was made in a recently discovered synagogue mosaic from Sepphoris, where both the names of the months and the zodiac signs are listed in each segment of the wheel (Plate VIII). The image of the sun god Helios at the center of the composition is harder to explain. It appears, however, that Jews and Christians alike used this image to symbolize the sun.

The image of this pagan god (no matter how neutered or “reinterpreted”) would certainly have been disliked by the Rabbis. This dislike might account for the pillar, rather than Helios, that sits in the chariot in the synagogue mosaic from Sepphoris. Hammath Tiberias seems not to have been controlled by the Sages. Twice in the dedicatory inscriptions we hear of “Severos, student of the illustrious patriarch,” who apparently had considerable power. The relationship between Severos and the patriarch is particularly illuminating. During the first two centuries after the destruction of the Temple a Rabbinic family that traced its lineage to the first-century Sage Hillel became the leaders of the Tannaitic community. By the late second century the leader of this dynasty, Rabbi Judah the Prince (c. 140-225), combined religious authority with political prestige acquired from the Roman authorities that was unmatched among late antique Jews. One well-known adage has it that “from the days of Moses until Rabbi [Judah] we have not found Torah and [worldly] prominence in one place (that is, in one person).” 41

By the fourth century the Rabbis differed greatly with the patriarchate, upon whom they were dependent both economically and for their social position. The patriarchate aligned itself increasingly with the wealthy urban aristocracy rather than with the Rabbinic community. Hammath Tiberias was a synagogue of this urban aristocracy. 42 While not “Rabbinic” in the sense that the Rabbis might have preferred, the community there articulated its “holy place” as a ritual space where Torah and Torah reading were central, where prayer was recited, and where Temple motifs were used in the decoration. Within its walls one could strive and hope, as the inscription says, for “His blessing, amen, amen selah. . . .” Prayer in synagogue inscriptions appears to have been extremely important in Palestinian synagogues. Such biblical phrases as “Amen, Selah” and “Peace unto Israel” appear in Aramaic and in Greek inscriptions at numerous sites and in extant liturgy.

The importance of the Torah within synagogues is reflected in a number of ways. Apses containing the Shrine, often enclosed by chancel screens, developed during the fifth and sixth centuries. The function of these screens is .unclear, although they clearly served to demarcate the bema and the ark as a realm of Torah. At Naaran (Fig. 2.13), near Jericho, the sixth-century synagogue is called “holy place” in four inscriptions. The most expansive of these reads: Remembered for good everyone who donates and contributes, or will [in the future] 43 give in this holy place, whether gold, silver or anything else. Amen. Their portion is in this holy place. Amen.

Three of the inscriptions at Naaran were laid near the Torah Shrine and the fourth inside the main entrance, in line with the Shrine. Located as they were, these inscriptions were most likely to be seen by the community. The cramped accumulation of inscriptions in the ark panel of the mosaic may suggest a pious desire to be near the ark, and possibly near the image of Daniel, who appears in a prayer position before the ark. Daniel’s position in prayer, with hands lifted up to heaven, was common in the ancient world. He appears in this “orans” position in an image from En Samsam in the Golan, and perhaps in the Susiya synagogue mosaic in Judea. The fact that the biblical ancestor is illustrated praying in the synagogue before the ark on the Jerusalem side of the building is significant, emphasizing the importance of prayer there. This position is also important, since we have no images of late antique Jews per se praying. It is quite likely that the image of Daniel parallels a prayer stance that was taken up by Jews in late antique Palestine within their synagogues.

The image of Daniel is but one biblical scene that appears in synagogue art from the Land of Israel. The Binding of Isaac appears at Beth Alpha, Noah’s Ark at Gerasa, and David Playing His Harp at Gaza. Each of these images parallels themes common to Jewish liturgical poetry from late antiquity. These scenes are also well known in contemporary Christian art. Most of the archaeological sources for synagogues in the Land of Israel are either floor pavements or large architectural members. Few liturgical appurtenances are extant. One of the most important of these is a lamp found near Kefar Mahcr, a village 5 kilometers cast of Acre. (It is now in the Musee de Maricmont in Belgium. This is the first time the piece has been exhibited outside Belgium.) This fiffh-sixth-century bronze polycandelon (Fig. 2.14) bears a long dedicatory inscription in Aramaic to the “holy place” of Kefar Hananyah:

This polycandelon [kelilah] … to the holy place of Kefar Hananyah. May they be remembered for good. Amen selah, shalom, ptp t. 44

Kefar Hananyah is a village on the border of the Upper and Lower Galilee. Dedicatory inscriptions on church lamps such as this were common. 45 “Amen, selah, shalom” is reminiscent of floor inscriptions, liturgical texts, and amulet formulae. The two menorahs that appear on the lamp, each flanked by a lulav and a shofar, are also common in ancient Jewish art. Jews used the menorah as a symbol for their minority group, much as Christians used the sign of the cross during this period. It was a reminder of the Temple and of actual synagogue furnishings. An unusual feature of the inscription is the formula “ptp t.” 46 Joseph Naveh suggests that it has a parallel in an amulet from the Cairo Genizah that also says “ptp t.” If he is right, the lamp (or perhaps the synagogue) seems to be imbued with magic, or perhaps to need protection from it.

Archaeological and literary sources, read together, present a clear portrait of synagogues in the Land of Israel during the late Roman and Byzantine periods. These community centers were ascribed by Jewish communities throughout the Land of Israel with sanctity. The Torah scroll and Temple imagery are ultimately the sources of this sanctity. The sanctity of the synagogue, the Sacred Realm, is an expression of the centrality of this institution in Jewish life during this period.

DIASPORA SYNAGOGUES, c. 200-700 c.e.

A Palestinian traveler arriving at one of the Diaspora communities of the Mediterranean basin or perhaps of Babylonia was likely to find numerous powerful and often wealthy communities. Synagogues speckled the landscape, each building reflecting both the uniqueness of the community and those elements that bound all Jews together. Archaeological and literary sources suggest that synagogues served local communities from Spain in the west to North Africa, Bulgaria, and the lands of the Fertile Crescent to the east. Synagogues took various architectural forms during this period, ranging from large basilicas to remodeled houses. The evidence is amazingly uniform in its portrayal of synagogues as places of scriptural study. Temple motifs were very important in the articulation of these ritual spaces, which served as the focal points for often wealthy and acculturated Diaspora communities.

Synagogues often reflected the power of a local community. The synagogues of Philo’s synagogue at Sardis. Alexandria during the first century are one example. The massive fourth-sixth-century synagogue of Sardis (Fig. 2.15) in Turkey (Asia Minor) is another. This was no doubt the case in Antioch on the Orontes as well, where Jews had been a powerful minority since Seleucid times. In fact, the synagogue was so powerful in fourth-century Antioch that it drew the vitriolic attention of a major leader of the Christia n community, Joh n Chrysostom, who apparently perceived the Jews as a danger to the spiritual well-being of his flock. In a series of eight sermons, this Church Father attempted to dissuade his followers from attending the synagogue during the Jewish New Year (Rosh ha-Shanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot) and from participating in other Jewish religious rituals.

John polemicized against those who considered synagogues “holy places” (topon hagiori).*7 His diatribe is particularly enlightening since it reflects accurately what we know of synagogues both from the Rabbinic Sages and from archaeological evidence from the Diaspora. His congregation thought the synagogue to be holy for two reasons: because the sacred scrolls that were kept and stored there and because synagogues bore the sanctity of the Jerusalem Temple. So we read: But since there are some of you who consider the synagogue to be a holy place, we must say a few things to them as well. Why do you revere this place when you should disdain it, despise it and avoid it? “The Law and the books of the Prophets can be found there,” you say. What of it? You say, “Is it not the case that the books make the place holy?” Certainly not! This is the reason I especially hate the synagogue and avoid it, that they have the prophets but do not believe in them, that they read these books but do not accept their testimonies…. 48 In fact, synagogue inscriptions from throughout the Mediterranean basin call the synagogue a “holy place.” The earliest, in Greek, which dates to 280-8 1 C.E., was erected in Stobi in Macedonia. Others have been discovered in Philadelphia and Side in Asia Minor. In Philadelphia in Lydia we hear of the “most holy synagogue of the Hebrews,” and in Pamphylia the synagogue is called “the most holy first synagogue.” A synagogue at Naro (Hamman Lif) in Tunisia is called a “holy synagogue” in a Latin inscription. The presence of biblical scrolls within the Jewish holy place was, as John knew, an important feature of the synagogue. Torah Shrines were important elements of Diaspora synagogue architecture from at least the third century. The Torah Shrine of the synagogue at Dura Europos, dated 244-4 5 C.E., is the keystone of this synagogue, with its beautifully preserved wall paintings that retell Jewish sacred history visually. No doubt similar programmatic painting existed in other synagogues elsewhere in the ancient world. Images of Torah Shrines often appear in Jewish funerary art in ancient Rome, where the doors of the Shrine are often open to reveal the sacred scrolls. A Torah Shrine that originally must have looked much like these images has been excavated in the synagogue of Ostia, the port of Rome. Particularly important for interpreting John’s remarks is the ancient synagogue of Sardis, northwest of Antioch (Asia Minor). During the second half of the third century a monumental building in the gymnasium complex at Sardis had been handed over to the Jewish community to serve as a synagogue —the largest synagogue to be preserved from antiquity. A model of the structure as it might have looked during the fourth century was made especially for this exhibition by the Sardis Expedition team (see Fig. 3.15). The present interior plan of the building dates to the fourth century, 4 9 when Jewish renovators installed two shrines on the eastern (Jerusalem) end of the building. An inscription found within the hall refers to the nomophylakion, “the place that protects the Torah.” A second inscription demands pious behavior toward the Scriptures: “Find, open, read, observe.” 50 One scholar argues that this inscription was originally attached to the Torah Shrine. In fact, the image of a Torah Shrine with its doors open, showing scrolls within, was also uncovered at Sardis. A reproduction of this piece is exhibited in “Sacred Realm” (Cat. 23). A mosaic inscription laid next to a large bema in the center of the hall’ 1 mentions “a priest [heuron] and sophodidaskalos” (teacher of wisdom, or wise teacher). 52 This synagogue was a place where the teaching of wisdom, undoubtedly Scripture, took place.

Surprisingly, only one biblical verse appears in an inscription stemming from a Diaspora synagogue. Psalm 136:25 is inscribed on a large ashlar discovered in Iznik in ancient Nicaea in Asia Minor (Fig. 2.16). The verse “He who gives bread to all flesh, for his mercy endures forever” was an important element of the liturgy among the Rabbis in Palestine and Babylonia. It is possible that its appearance here is also liturgical. If so, it is the only archaeological confirmation of John’s claim that Jews pronounced a liturgy in Diaspora synagogues at this time. 53 The associations his parishioners made between synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple were particularly upsetting to John. New Testament texts reflect great respect for and interaction with the Jerusalem Temple by Jesus and his early followers. Christians, beginning with the third-century father Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine, had expressed the sanctity of church buildings through resort to Jerusalem Temple imagery. 54 Unlike pagan temples, which were easily disdained, the Jerusalem Temple was an integral part of Christian tradition. Some within John’s congregation transferred this attachment to the Temple to synagogues, and John polemicized against their error, asking: What sort of ark [kibotos] is it that the Jews now have, where we find no propitiatory, no tablets of the law, no Holy of Holies, no veil, no high priests, no incense, no holocaust, no sacrifice, none of the things that made the ark of old holy and august?

The relationship that John attacks between the synagogue Torah Shrine and the Ark of the Covenant might have been readily understood by Palestinian Jews, who themselves used Temple imagery without fully equating the Torah ark and the Temple ark. Diaspora Jews might have “pleaded guilty” to this notion as well. A third-century Torah Shrine (Fig. 2.17) in the synagogue of Ostia was called a kiebotos in its dedicatory inscription (Fig. 2.18)—the same term John used. At Dura the Torah Shrine is called a beit arona (literally, house of the ark) in one of its dedicatory inscriptions. As in the Land of Israel, arona (ark) here hearkens to the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This relationship is reinforced through the image of the Temple on the upper facade of the shrine and through images of the Ark of the Covenant throughout the wall paintings that look like Torah Shrines. Further substantiating John’s testimony is the title of “the priest [heuron] and teacher of wisdom” from Sardis. A priest named Samuel was instrumental in refurbishing the Dura synagogue in 244-4 5 C.E. While there were, as John suggests, “no high priests” in ancient synagogues, Jews who traced their lineage back to the Temple priesthood did frequent synagogues. A relationship between synagogues and the Temple that John does not mention is the presence of seven-branched lamps, reminiscent of the Temple menorah. Inscriptions mark the donation of a seven-branched menorah (heptamyxion in Greek) at both Side and Sardis. In fact, a large fragment of a menorah (Plate X) that was once a meter in breadth was discovered in the Sardis synagogue. Other images of menorahs (Fig. 2.19 ) from throughout the empire suggest that synagogues were often illuminated and decorated with seven-branched lamp stands. John considered synagogues to be places of magic. He noted with disdain how sick Christians turned to Jews to be healed by “charms, incantations and amulets.”

In truth, the accusation of magic is a kind of name calling, part of John’s “rhetoric of abuse.” 56 Nevertheless, Jews during late antiquity were known for their magica l prowess. Terminology drawn from Jewish contexts even became part of the repetoire of international magical lore. We have seen that amulets were known within Palestinian synagogues during late antiquity. This was true in the Diaspora as well, at least in one synagogue. Two plaques (Fig. 2.20) showing magical eyes decorated the synagogue’s ceiling. F.R. Goodenough describes the iconography of one of these tiles: |The eye is| being attacked by snakes and three daggers, above which du Mesnil was certain that lie could make out the letters IAO. A beetle or scorpion advances to attack the eye from below, while lines down from the eye apparently indicate two streams of tears. 1 Goodenough suggests that “labeled Iao, it certainly is not itself the ‘evil eye,’ but a good eye, suffering and hence potent against the evil eye.” The synagogue at Dura Europos seems to have been a place of magical power.

More startling are remains of human “finger” bones that were deposited under the door sill of the synagogue’s main door and its right door—its only entrances. 58 Such foundation deposits were also discovered in pagan structures at the site. The synagogue was treated by its community as a kind of Jewish temple. This discovery, which has generally been ignored or downplayed by scholars, is striking in light of biblical purity prohibitions against contact with the dead. According to these laws, which were scrupulously observed by the ancient Rabbis in Palestine and Babylonia, barred priests like Samuel the synagogue leader would have been forbidden from entering the building! Clearly, a notion of sanctity that would have been foreign to the ancient Rabbis is at play here. Though there is a great similarity between the Dura synagogue’s wall paintings and Rabbinic tradition, the Jews of Dura lived a religious lifestyle that was not synonymous with that of the Rabbis. To conclude, the image of synagogues portrayed in the polemics of John Chrysostom accurately reflects the nature of the institution during his time. Synagogues in the Greek- and Latin-speaking Diaspora were often “holy places” where Scripture was read and Temple imagery employed. At least some were places of prayer where magic was carried out. The bones discovered at Dura remind us, however, how little is known about these synagogues and their communities. Whil e the remains and the polemics bear striking similarities, the particulars of each community, and its distinctive religious approach, are virtually unknown to us.


The largest and most powerful Diaspora community during late antiquity resided between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in a land Jews called Babylonia and we today call Iraq. The origins of this community are traceable to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezer in 586 B.C.E., when Judeans were taken into the Babylonian Captivity. With the ending of this forced exile by Cyrus in 538 B.C.E., a small number of stalwarts returned to their homeland and rebuilt the Temple. Most, however, remained to build a Jewry that continued to thrive until the 1950s. No archaeological evidence for the history of the synagogue has yet been unearthed in Iraq, and our knowledge of synagogues in Babylonia, which begins during the third century C.E., is dependent almost entirely upon sources preserved in the Babylonia Talmud. Late antique Babylonian synagogues are represented in this exhibition by early manuscript and printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud and are our only link to this ancient and important Jewish community. During the third to fifth century most Babylonian synagogues seem to have been very much like those that existed in the Land of Israel. They were places where Jews came together to study Scripture and to pray. Some synagogues, for example, Hutsal and Shaf ve-Yativ in Nehardea, seem to have had a more central position in the religious lives of Babylonian Jews than did any of their Palestinian counterparts. 59 It was said that the Divine Presence could be encountered in these synagogues with greater intensity than anywhere else in the world. Thes e synagogues are presented in the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 28a-29a , a text with a polemical intention. It is part of a continuing rivalry between the Palestinian and Babylonian Rabbis for hegemony within the Jewish world during late antiquity. The first shot in this discussion is made by a Palestinian Sage, Rabbi Assi, who claims that the sanctity of “synagogues in Babylonia is contingent” upon their continued use. 60 This is in contradistinction to Palestinian synagogues that are destroyed against the will of their community, whose “sanctity stands” even when destroyed (Mishnah Megillah 3:3). The Babylonian retort opens with a claim that the divine presence is no longer in the Land of Israel at all. It has gone to Babylonia:

It has been taught: Rabbi Simeon son of Yohai said: “Come and see how beloved are Israel in the sight of God; in that in every place to which they were exiled the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) went with them. They were exiled to Egypt, the Shekhinah went with them, as it says: Did I reveal myself to the house of your father in Egypt (1 Sam. 2:27). They were exiled to Babylonia, the Shekhinah went with them, as it says: For your sake I was sent to Babylon (Isa. 43:14).” It does not say “He will cause to return,” but “He will return.” This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will return from the exile. The anonymous voice of the Talmud then asks: In Babylonia, where is the Divine Presence? In Babylon where is it? Rav said: In the synagogue of Hutsal. Samuel said: In the synagogue of Shaf ve-Yativ in Nehardea…. Having some difficulty with the idea of a movable Divine Presence, the anonymous voice explains “[Both] here and there? Rather, it is sometimes in one, and sometimes in the other.” 61

The text continues with stories of Rabbinic holy men and their experiences within the Divine at Shaf ve-Yativ: The father of Samuel and Levi were sitting in the synagogue of Shaf ve-Yativ in Nehardea. The Shekhinah came, they heard the tumult and they rose and left. Rav Sheshet [who was blind] was once sitting in the synagogue of Shaf ve-Yativ and the Shekhinah came. He did not leave, and the ministering angels came and threatened him. He turned to Him and said: Sovereign of the Universe, if one is afflicted and one is not afflicted, who gives way to whom? God thereupon said to them: leave him. 62 The pericope continues with a medley of traditions on the significance of synagogues in Babylonia: “I have been to them a small sanctuary” (Ez. 11:16). Rabbi Samuel son of Isaac said: This refers to the synagogues and study houses [which are in Babylonia]…. Rava expounded: “Why is it written: ‘Lord you were a habitation [ma’on] for us’ (Ps. 90:1)? Rava said: At first I would study at home and pray in the synagogue. Once I heard this which David said: “Lord, I love the habitation [maon] of your house” (Ps. 26:8). I have studied only in the synagogue. Rabbi Eleazar son of Qappar said: In the [messianic] future the synagogues in Babylonia will be set in place in the Land of Israel.. ..

With this, the Babylonian Talmud has trounced to its own satisfaction Rabbi Assi’s claim of Palestinian superiority. Synagogues in Babylonia are not less holy than their Palestinian counterparts, and two synagogues are places of special contact with the Divine. In fact, one who wants to come close to God must come to Babylonia. He is no longer “housed” in Palestine. This special status of Shaf ve-Yativ within Babylonian Jewry during the eighth and ninth centuries is expressed in a tradition preserved in the Epistle of Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 998) that reflects upon the origins of Babylonian Jewry during the Babylonian Captivity: Know that at first, when Israel was exiled in the exile of Jehoiakim and the “craftsmen and the smiths (2 Kings 24:16) ” and a few prophets among them, they came to Nehardea. Jehoiakim the king of Judea and his company built the synagogue and built its foundations with stones and dust that they brought with them from the Temple to fulfill that which is said (in Psalms 102:15): “For your servants hold her stones dear, and cherish her very dust.” They called that synagogue “Shaf ve-Yativ in Nehardea.” That is to say that the Temple traveled [from Jerusalem] and rested here. Babylonian Jews came to see this synagogue as the connecting thread between their lives in Babylonia and the ancient Temple. A different sort of synagogue than any we have seen in this study, it is literally built of materials brought from the Temple and in some symbolic way has become the Temple. This mythological depiction reflects a very nonmythological reality. The synagogue of Shaf ve-Yativ is an incarnation of the power and confidence of the Babylonian Diaspora as it left antiquity behind and entered the Middle Ages.


With the close of antiquity the synagogue was the undisputed Sacred Realm for Jews throughout the Greco-Roman world. Its democratic focus upon community as the locus of holiness had helped Judaism not only to weather the destruction of the Temple but to flourish. The focus within the synagogue was the sacred scroll, and the application of Temple metaphors to synagogues was of central importance in their sacralization. Through the recitation of elaborate prayers the worshipper could transcend this world and, for a moment, stand in communion with the Divine. We have interwoven the various threads representing geographically and chronologically distant Jewish communities during antiquity to create a picture of the development of this institution.

These threads came together in a fine tapestry of numerous colors and textures as antiquity came to a close. S.D. Goitein, the great scholar of the Cairo Genizah, describes popular attitudes toward the synagogue and Scripture in early medieval (Fatamid) Egypt. In his description we can sense the success of the ancient synagogue and its legacy to later generations:

For the popular religion . . . the synagogue was a house of meeting both with God and with one’s fellowmen. When the holy ark was opened and the Torah scrolls were exposed to the eyes of the worshipper, he felt himself transported to the presence of God… 63