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The BACKGROUND to the New Testament #16

Worship in the Synagogue

                    BACKGROUND TO THE NEW TESTAMENT #16

From the book "Sketches of Jewish Social Life" by Alfred


     ONE of the most difficult questions in Jewish history is
that connected with the existence of a synagogue within the
Temple. That such a "synagogue" existed, and that its
meeting-place was in "the hall of hewn stones," at the
south-eastern angle of the court of the priests, cannot be called
in question, in face of the clear testimony of contemporary
witnesses. Considering that "the hall of hewn stones" was also
the meeting-place for the great Sanhedrim, and that not only
legal decisions, but lectures and theological discussions formed
part of their occupation, we might be tempted to conjecture that
the term "synagogue" had been employed in its wider sense, since
such buildings were generally used throughout the country for
this two-fold purpose as well as for worship. Of theological
lectures and discussions in the Temple, we have an instance on
the occasion when our Lord was found by His parents "sitting in
the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them
questions" (Luke ii. 46). And it can scarcely be doubted, that
this also explains how the scribes and Pharisees could so
frequently "come upon Him," while He taught in the Temple, with
their difficult and entangling questions, up to that rejoinder
about the nature of the Messiah, with which He finally silenced
them "If David then call Him Lord, how is He his Son?" (Matt.
xxii.45). But in reference to the so-called "Temple-synagogue,"
there is this difficulty, that certain prayers and rites seem to
have been connected with it, which formed no part of the regular
Temple services, and yet were somehow engrafted upon them. We can
therefore only conclude that the growing change in the
theological views of Israel, before and about the time of Christ,
made the Temple services alone appear insufficient. The
symbolical and typical elements which constituted the life and
centre of Temple worship had lost their spiritual meaning and
attraction to the majority of that generation, and their place
was becoming occupied by so-called teaching and outward
performances. Thus the worship of the letter took the place of
that of the spirit, and Israel was preparing to reject Christ for
Pharisaism. The synagogue was substituted for the Temple, and
overshadowed it, even within its walls, by an incongruous mixture
of man-devised worship with the God-ordained typical rites of the
sanctuary. Thus, so far from the" Temple-synagogue" being the
model for those throughout the country, as some writers maintain,
it seems to us of later origin, and to have borrowed many rites
from the country synagogues, in which the people had become
accustomed to them 1

     The subject has a far deeper than merely historical
interest. For the presence of a synagogue within the Temple, or
rather, as we prefer to put it, the addition of synagogue-worship
to that of the Temple, is sadly symbolical. It is, so


1 This is substantially admitted by Herzfeld, "Gesch. d.    
Volkes Jirs." vol. iii. pp.131,132.


to speak, one of those terribly significant utterances (by deed),
in which Israel, all unconsciously, pronounced its own doom, just
as was this: "His blood be upon us and our children," or the cry
for the release of Barabbas (the son of the father), who had been
condemned "for sedition" and "murder" - no doubt in connection
with a pseudo-Messianic rising against the Roman power - instead
of the true Son of the Father, who would indeed have "restored
the kingdom to Israel." 



     And yet there was nothing in the worship itself of the
synagogue which could have prevented either the Lord, or His
apostles and early followers, from attending it till the time of
final separation had come. Readers of the New Testament know what
precious opportunities it offered for making known the Gospel.
     Its services were, indeed, singularly elastic. For the main
object of the synagogue was the teaching of the people. The very
idea of its institution, before and at the time of Ezra, explains
and conveys this, and it is confirmed by the testimony of
Josephus (Ag. Apion, ii. 17). But perhaps the ordinary reader of
the New Testament may have failed to notice, how prominently this
element in the synagogue is brought out in the gospel history.   
     Yet the word "teaching" is used so frequently in connection
with our Lord's appearance in the synagogue, that its lesson is
obvious (see Matt. iv. 23; Mark i. 21; vi. 2; Luke iv. 15;
vi. 6; xiii. 10; John vi. 59; xviii. 20). The "teaching" part of
the service consisted mainly in reading a section from the law,
with which the reading of a portion from the prophets, and a
sermon, or address, were conjoined. Of course, the liturgical
element could in such services never have been quite wanting, and
it soon acquired considerable importance. It consisted of prayer
and the pronouncing of the Aaronic blessing (Num. Vi. 24-26) by
priests - that is, of course, not by Rabbis, who were merely
teachers or doctors, but by lineal descendants of the house of
Aaron. There was no service of "praise" in the synagogues.


     Public worship 1  commenced on ordinary occasions with the
so-called "Shema," which was preceded in the morning and evening
by two "benedictions," and succeeded in the morning by one, and
in the evening by two, benedictions; the second being, strictly
speaking, an evening prayer. The "Shema" was a kind of "belief,"
or "creed," composed of these three passages of Scripture: Deut.
vi. 4-9; xi. 13 -21; Num. xv. 37-41. It obtained its name from
the initial word "Shema ": "Hear, O Israel," in Deut. vi. 4.     
From the Mishnah (Ber. i. 3) we learn, that this part of the
service existed already before the time of our Lord; and we are
told (Ber. iii. 3), that all males were bound to repeat this
belief twice every day; children and slaves, as well as women,
being exempted from the obligation. There can be no reasonable
doubt on the subject, as the Mishnah expressly mentions the three
Scriptural sections of the "Shema," the number of benedictions
before and after it, and even the initial words of the closing
benediction (Ber. ii. 2; i. 4; Tamid, v. 1). We have, therefore,
here certain prayers which our Lord Himself had not only heard,
but in which He must have shared - to what extent will appear in
the sequel. These prayers still exist in the synagogue, although
with later additions, which, happily, it is not difficult to
eliminate. Before transcribing them, it may be quoted as a mark
of the


1 Our description here applies to the worship of the ancient, not
of the modern synagogue; and we have thought it best to confine
ourselves to the testimony of the Mishnah, so as to avoid the
danger of bringing in practices of a later date.


value attached to them, that it was lawful to say this and the
other daily prayers - to which we shall hereafter refer - and the
"grace at meat," not only in the Hebrew, but in any other
language, in order to secure a general understanding of the
service (Sotah, vii. I). At the same time, expressions are used
which lead us to suppose that, while the liturgical formulae
connected with the "Shema" were fixed, there were local
variations, in the way of lengthening or shortening (Ber. i. 4).
The following are the "benedictions" before the "Shema," in their
original form

I. "Blessed be Thou, O Lord, King of the world, Who formest the
light and createst the darkness, Who makest peace and createst
everything; Who, in mercy, givest light to the earth and to those
who dwell upon it, and in Thy goodness day by day and every day
renewest the works of creation. Blessed be the Lord our God for
the glory of His handiwork and for the light-giving lights which
He has made for His praise. Selah! Blessed be the Lord our God,
Who hath formed the lights."  1

II. "With great love hast Thou loved us, O Lord our God, and with
much overflowing pity hast Thou pitied us, our Father and our
King. For the sake of our fathers who trusted in Thee, and Thou
taughtest them the statutes of life, have mercy upon us and teach
us. Enlighten our eyes in Thy law; cause our hearts to cleave to
Thy commandments; unite our hearts to love and fear Thy name, and
we shall not be put to shame, world without end. For Thou art a
God Who preparest


1 This "benediction," while acknowledging the Creator, has such
frequent reference to God in connection with the "lights," that
it reads like a confession of Israel against the idolatries of
Babylon. This circumstance may help to fix the time of its


salvation, and us hast Thou chosen from among all nations and
tongues, and hast in truth brought us near to Thy great Name -
Selah - that we may lovingly praise Thee and Thy Oneness. Blessed
be the Lord Who in love chose His people Israel." 1

     After this followed the "Shema." The Mishnah gives the
following beautiful explanation of the order in which the
portions of Scripture of which it is composed are arranged (Ber.
ii. 2). The section Deut. vi. 4-9 is said to precede that in xi.
I3-21, so that we might "take upon ourselves the yoke of the
kingdom of heaven, and only after that the yoke of the 
commandments." Again: Deut. xi. 13-21 precedes Num. xv. 37-41,
because the former applies, as it were, both night and day; the
latter only by day. The reader cannot fail to observe the light
cast by the teaching of the Mishnah upon the gracious invitation
of our Lord: "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy
laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn
of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest
unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light"
(Matt. xi. 28-30). These words must indeed have had a special
significance to those who remembered the Rabbinic lesson as to
the relation between the kingdom of heaven and the commandments,
and they would now understand how by coming to the Saviour they
would first take upon them "the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,"
and then that of "the commandments," finding this "yoke easy" and
the "burden light."


1 This reads peculiarly like the thanksgiving of Israel as God's
covenant people.


     The prayer after the "Shema" was as follows: 1

"True it is, that Thou art Jehovah our God and the God of our
fathers, our King and the King of our fathers, our Saviour and
the Saviour of our fathers, our Creator, the Rock of our
salvation, our Help and our Deliverer. Thy Name is from
everlasting, and there is no God beside Thee. A new song did they
that were delivered sing to Thy Name by the seashore; together
did all praise and own Thee King, and say, Jehovah shall reign
world without end! Blessed be the Lord Who saveth Israel!"

     The anti-Sadducean views expressed in this prayer will
strike the student of that period, while he will also be much
impressed with its suitableness and beauty. The special prayer
for the evening is of not quite so old a date as the three just
quoted. But as it is referred to in the Mishnah, and is so apt
and simple, we reproduce it, as follows:

"O Lord our God! cause us to lie down in peace, and raise us up
again to life, O our King! Spread over us the tabernacle of Thy
peace; strengthen us before Thee in Thy good counsel, and deliver
us for Thy Name's sake. Be Thou for protection round about us;
keep far from us the enemy, the pestilence, the sword, famine,
and affliction. Keep Satan from before and from behind us, and
hide us in the shadow of Thy wings, for Thou art a God Who
helpest and deliverest us; and Thou, O God, art a gracious and
merciful King. Keep Thou our going out and our coming in, for
life and for peace, from henceforth and for ever!" 2


1 In the form here given it is older than even the prayer
referred to in the Mishnah (Ber. ii. 2).
2 To this prayer a further addition was made at a later period.  
On the whole, compare Zunz, "Gottesd. Vortr." p.367, etc.



     The "Shema" and its accompanying "benedictions" seem to have
been said in the synagogue at the lectern; whereas for the next
series of prayers the leader of the devotions went forward and
stood before "the ark." Hence the expression, "to go up before
the ark," for leading in prayer. This difference in position
seems implied in many passages of the Mishnah (specially
Megillah, iv.), which makes a distinction between saying the
"Shema" and "going up before the ark." The prayers offered before
the ark consisted of the so-called eighteen eulogies, or
benedictions, and formed the "tephillah," or supplication, in the
strictest sense of the term. These eighteen, or rather, as they
are now, nineteen, eulogies are of various dates - the earliest
being the first three and the last three. There can be no
reasonable doubt that these were said at worship in the
synagogues, when our Lord was present. 


     Next in date are eulogies iv., v., vi., viii., ix., and xvi.
Eulogy vii., which in its present position seems somewhat
incongruous, dates from a period of great national calamity
perhaps the time of Pompey. The other eulogies, and some
insertions in the older benedictions, were added after the fall
of the Jewish commonwealth - eulogy xii. especially being
intended against the early Jewish converts to Christianity. In
all likelihood it had been the practice originally to insert
prayers of private composition between the (present) first three
and last three eulogies; and out of these the later eulogies were
gradually formulated. At any rate, we know that on Sabbaths and
on other festive occasions only the first three and the last
three eulogies were repeated, other petitions being inserted
between them. There was thus room for the endless repetitions and
"long prayers" which the Saviour condemned (Mark xii. 40; Luke
xx. 47).

     Besides, it must be borne in mind that, both on entering and
leaving the synagogue, it was customary to offer prayer, and that
it was a current Rabbinical saying, "Prolix prayer prolongeth
life." But as we are sure that, on the Sabbaths when our Lord
attended the synagogues at Nazareth and Capernaum, the first
three and the last three of the eulogies were repeated, we
produce them here, as follows:

I. "Blessed be the Lord our God and the God of our fathers, the
God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; the
great, the mighty, and the terrible God; the Most High God, Who
showeth mercy and kindness, Who createth all things, Who
remembereth the gracious promises to the fathers, and bringeth a
Saviour to their children's children, for His own Name's sake, in
love. O King, Helper, Saviour, and Shield! Blessed art Thou, O
Jehovah, the Shield of Abraham."

II. "Thou, O Lord, art mighty for ever; Thou, Who quickenest the
dead, art mighty to save. In Thy mercy Thou preservest the
living; Thou quickenest the dead; in Thine abundant pity Thou
bearest up those who fall, and healest those who are diseased,
and loosest those who are bound, and fulfillest Thy faithful word
to those who sleep in the dust. Who is like unto Thee, Lord of
strength, and who can be compared to Thee, Who killest and makest
alive, and causest salvation to spring forth? And faithful art
Thou to give life unto the dead. Blessed be Thou, Jehovah, Who
quickenest the dead!"

111. "Thou art holy, and Thy Name is holy; and the holy ones
praise Thee every day. Selah! Blessed art Thou, Jehovah God, the
Holy One!"

     It is impossible not to feel the solemnity of these prayers.
They breathe the deepest hopes of Israel in simple, Scriptural
language. But who can fully realise their sacred import as
uttered not only in the Presence, but by the very lips of the
Lord Jesus Christ, Who Himself was their answer?

     The three concluding eulogies were as follows:

XVII. "Take gracious pleasure, O Jehovah our God, in Thy people
Israel, and in their prayers. Accept the burnt offerings of
Israel, and their prayers, with Thy good pleasure; and may the
services of Thy people Israel be ever acceptable unto Thee. And
oh that our eyes may see it, as Thou turnest in mercy to Zion!   
Blessed be Thou, O Jehovah, Who restoreth His Shechinah to Zion!"

XVIII. "We praise Thee, because Thou art Jehovah our God, and the
God of our fathers, for ever and ever. Thou art the Rock of our
life, the Shield of our salvation, from generation to generation.
We laud Thee, and declare Thy praise for our lives which are kept
within Thine hand, and for our souls which are committed unto
Thee, and for Thy wonders which are with us every day, and Thy
wondrous deeds and Thy goodnesses, which are at all seasons -
evening, morning, and mid-day. Thou gracious One, Whose
compassions never end; Thou pitying One, Whose grace never
ceaseth--for ever do we put our trust in Thee! And for all this
Thy Name, O our King, be blessed and extolled always, for ever
and ever! And all living bless Thee - Selah - and praise Thy Name
in truth, O God, our Salvation and our Help. Blessed art Thou,
Jehovah; Thy Name is the gracious One, to Whom praise is due."

XIX. 1  "Oh bestow on Thy people Israel great peace, for


1 We give this eulogy in its shorter form, as it is at present
used in evening prayer.


ever; for Thou art King and Lord of all peace, and it is good in
Thine eyes to bless Thy people Israel with praise at all times
and in every hour. Blessed art Thou, Jehovah, Who blesseth His
people Israel with peace."


     Another fact, hitherto, so far as we know, unnoticed,
requires here to be mentioned. It invests the prayers just quoted
with a new and almost unparalleled interest. According to the
Mishnah (Megillah, iv. 5), the person who read in the synagogue
the portion from the prophets was also expected to say the 
"Shema," and to offer the prayers which have just been quoted.   
It follows that, in all likelihood, our Lord Himself had led the
devotions in the synagogue of Capernaum on that Sabbath when He
read the portion from the prophecies of Isaiah which was that day
"fulfilled in their hearing" (Luke iv. 16-21). Nor is it possible
to withstand the impression, how specially suitable to the
occasion would have been the words of these prayers, particularly
those of eulogies ii. and xvii.


     The prayers were conducted or repeated aloud by one
individual, specially deputed for the occasion, the congregation
responding by an "Amen." The liturgical service concluded with
the priestly benediction (Num. Vi. 23,24), spoken by the
descendants of Aaron. In case none such were present; "the legate
of the Church," as the leader of the devotions was called,
repeated the words from the Scriptures in their connection. In
giving the benediction, the priests elevated their hands up to
the shoulders (Sotah, vii. 6); in the Temple, up to the forehead.
Hence this rite is designated by the expression, "the lifting up
of the hands." 1 According to the 


1 The apostle may have had this in his mind when, in directing
the order of public ministration, he spoke of "the men . . .
lifting up holy hands, without wrath or doubting" (i Tim. ii. 8).
At any rate, the expression is precisely the same as that used by
the Rabbis.


present practice, the fingers of the two hands are so joined
together and separated as to form five interstices; and a mystic
meaning attaches to this. It was a later superstition to forbid
looking at the priests' hands, as involving physical danger.     
But the Mishnah already directs that priests having blemishes on
their hands, or their fingers dyed, were not to pronounce the
benediction, lest the attention of the people should be
attracted. Of the attitude to be observed in prayer, this is
perhaps scarcely the place to speak in detail. Suffice it, that
the body was to be fully bent, yet so, that care was taken never
to make it appear as if the service had been burdensome. One of
the Rabbis tells us, that, with this object in view, he bent down
as does a branch; while, in lifting himself up again, he did it
like a serpent-beginning with the head! Any one deputed by the
rulers of a congregation might say prayers, except a minor. This,
however, applies only to the "Shema." The eulogies or "tephillah"
proper, as well as the priestly benediction, could not be
pronounced by those who were not properly clothed, nor by those
who were so blind as not to be able to discern daylight. If any
one introduced into the prayers heretical views, or what were
regarded as such, he was immediately stopped; and, if any
impropriety had been committed, was put under the ban for a week.


     One of the most interesting and difficult questions relates
to certain modes of dress and appearance, and certain expressions
used in prayer, which the Mishnah (He, illah, iv. 8,9) declares
either to mark heresy or to indicate that a man was not to be
allowed to lead prayers in the synagogue. It may be, that some of
these statements refer not only to certain Jewish "heretics," but
also to the early Jewish Christians. If so, they may indicate
certain peculiarities with which they were popularly credited. 1


     Of the services hitherto noticed, the most important were
the repetition of the eulogies and the priestly benediction. What
now followed was regarded as quite as solemn, if, indeed, not
more so. It has already been pointed out, that the main objet of
the synagogue was the teaching of the people. This was specially
accomplished; by the reading of the law. At present the
Pentateuch is for this purpose arranged into fifty-four sections,
of which one is read on each successive Sabbath of the year,
beginning immediately after the feast of Tabernacles. But
anciently the lectionary, at least in Palestine, seems to have
been differently arranged, and the Pentateuch so divided that its
reading occupied three, or, according to some, three and a-half
years (half a jubilee-period). 2   
     The section for the day was subdivided, so that every
Sabbath at least seven persons were called up to read, each a
portion, which was to consist of not less than three verses. The
first reader began, and the last closed, with a benediction.     
As the Hebrew had given place to the Aramaic, a "meturgeman," or
interpreter, stood by the side of the reader, and translated
verse by verse into the verna cular. 


It was customary to have service in the synagogues, not only on
Sabbaths and feast-days, but also on the second and fifth days of
the week (Monday and Thursday), when the country-people came to
market, and when the local


1 The Gemara (Ber. 33 b, 34 a) adds little to our understanding
of this important question.
2 For these reasons I cannot adopt the views and inferences so
ably stated by Mr.Basil Cooper in his papers on "The Synagogue,"
in the "Sunday at Home" for 1876, however interesting.


Sanhedrim also sat for the adjudication of minor causes. At such
week-day services only three persons were called up to read in
the law; on new moon's day and on the intermediate days of a
festive week, four; on festive days--when a section from the
prophets was also read - five; and on the day of atonement, six. 
Even a minor was allowed to read, and, if qualified, to act as 
"meturgeman." The section describing the sin of Reuben, and that
giving a second account of the sin of the golden calf, were read,
but not interpreted; those recounting the priestly blessing, and,
again, the sin of David and of Amnon, were neither read nor

     The reading of the law was followed by a lesson from the
prophets. At present there is a regular lectionary, in which
these lessons are so selected as to suit the sections from the
law appointed for the day. This arrangement has been traced to
the time of the Syrian persecutions, when all copies of the law
were sought for and destroyed; and the Jewish authorities are
supposed to have selected portions from the prophets to replace
those from the law which might not be produced in public. But it
is evident that, if these persecuting measures had been rigidly
enforced, the sacred rolls of the prophets would not have escaped
destruction any more than those of the law. Besides, it is quite
certain that such a lectionary of the prophets as that presently
in use did not exist at the time of our Lord, nor even when the
Mishnah was collated. Considerable liberty seems to have been
left to individuals; and the expression used by St.Luke in
reference to our Lord in the synagogue at Capernaum (Luke iv.
17), "And when He had opened the book, He found the place where
it was written," most accurately describes the state of matters.
     For, from Megillali iv. 4, we gather that, in reading from
the prophets, it was lawful to pass over one or more verses,
provided there were no pause between the reading and the
translation of the "meturgeman." For here also the services of a
"meturgeman" were employed; only that he did not, as in reading
the law, translate verse by verse, but after every three verses.
     It is a remarkable fact that the Rabbis exclude from public
reading the section in the prophecies of Ezekiel which describes
"the chariot and wheels." Rabbi Elieser would also have excluded
that in Ezek. xvi. 2. 


     The reading of the prophets was often followed by a sermon
or address, with which the service concluded. The preacher was
called "darshan," and his address a "derashah" (homily, sermon,
from "darash," to ask, inquire, or discuss). When the address was
a learned theological discussion - especially in academies - it
was not delivered to the people directly, but whispered into the
ear of an "amora," or speaker, who explained to the multitude in
popular language the weighty sayings which the Rabbi had briefly
communicated to him. A more popular sermon, on the other hand,
was called a "meamar," literally, a "speech, or talk." These
addresses would be either Rabbinical expositions of Scripture, or
else doctrinal discussions; in which appeal would be made to
tradition and to the authority of certain great teachers. For it
was laid down as a principle (Eduj. i. 3), that "every one is
bound to teach in the very language of his teacher." In view of
this two-fold fact, we can in some measure understand the deep
impression which the words of our Lord produced, even on those
who remained permanently uninfluenced by them. The substance of
His addresses was far other than they had ever heard of, or
conceived possible. It seemed as if they opened quite a new world
of thought, hope, duty, and comfort. No wonder that even in
contemptuous Capernaum "all bare Him witness, and wondered at the
gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth;" and that the
very Temple-guard sent to make Him prisoner were overawed, and
before the council could only give this account of their strange
negligence: "Never man spake like this man" (John vii.46).  

     Similarly, the form also of His teaching was so different
from the constant appeal of the Rabbis to mere tradition; it
seemed all to come so quite fresh and direct from heaven, like
the living waters of the Holy Spirit, that "the people were
astonished at His doctrine: for He taught them as one having
authority, and not as the scribes"  (Matt. Vii. 28,29).



When we look at the New Testament as the Church of God formed
itself in its worship services, especially through the writings
of the apostle Paul, we find they DID NOT follow any "synagogue"
service outline at all, except that "teaching" in one form or
another was still maintained. We get a basic outline of services,
at least in the Corinthian church from 1 Corinthians 14. The
important thing to remember is that there was NO SET pattern or
outline to follow, other than what Paul admonished in 1
Corinthians 14. Jewish traditions of "synangogue services" were
mainly discarded.
Those who sometimes get involved with "Messianic" groups or
"Hebrew Roots" assemblies, will fall into many ruts of falsehood
and deceptions, if they do not keep in mind that MUCH of their
services are conducted on the old Jewish synagogue services. Many
of them so traditionalized that it clouds the Spirit of truth
from working and leading into all truth. While the early church
may have been looked upon as a sect of Judaism, the church itself
moved beyond "Jewish traditions and doctrines" as Christ
admonished them to do in passages like Mark 7:7 and as He told
His disciples to "be ware of the leaven of the Pharisees and
Saducces" - the doctrines they taught (Matt.16:6-12)

Keith Hunt

(Entered on this Website March 2009)

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