I’ve heard it said that there’s no mention of the synagogue in the Torah. So where and when did
it originate? It’s hard to imagine “Judaism” (at least as we know it today) without synagogues!
Indeed, there is no mention of the Synagogue in the “Written Torah” (i.e., the Five Books of Moses). The institution of the synagogue is of later, Rabbinic origin.
The purpose of the synagogue is to provide a venue to facilitate and enhance
the Biblical obligation of prayer by adding a communal element.
From Moses’ times until the restoration of the Second Temple, we fulfilled
the obligation to pray daily by composing our own prayers, and praying
We also made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to experience the public services
that were conducted in the Holy Temple.
After the restoration of the Second Temple (352 BCE), the Great Assembly, led
by Ezra, instituted the Kaddish, Kedushah, Barechu, and the rest of the
standardized communal service (requiring the participation of a minyan or
quorum of ten) as well as the obligation for individuals to participate in these
There arose both in Israel and the Diaspora places set aside to pray
communally. Thus was born the “Place of Gathering”—Beit Kenesset
in Hebrew, and synagogos in Greek.
The primary public worship experience remained the journey
to Jerusalem to participate in and be inspired by the Temple
When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 69 CE, the only place for
public worship remained the synagogue, which then acquired increased importance
as the center of Jewish communal life.
The primary focus of Judaism, however, has always been the life of each
individual and their home and family, lived in a strong and mutually responsible
community. In fact, when a Jewish community starts from scratch, building a
synagogue is not the first item on its “to do” list. As set by Jewish
law, the priorities as far as setting up communal institutions should be:
1) A mikvah
2) Jewish schooling for children
3) A charity fund
4) A synagogue
Of course, people can—and do—get together anywhere to pray communally.