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Who Invented the Synagogue?

Who Invented the Synagogue?



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.1

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 privately.

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 Assembly2, 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 services.

There arose both in Israel and the Diaspora3 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 service.

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.

The Torah (Deuteronomy 17:11; see Maimonides’ introduction to the Mishnah) mandates that we follow properly constituted rabbinic decrees accepted by the community at the time the decree was made; so, in the final analysis, the synagogue is a Torah-mandated institution.
The then high court and legislature of Judaism.
The Diaspora (the Jewish community residing outside of the Land of Israel) remained large even after the Second Temple was restored.
Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe is a frequent contributor of articles and media to, is Dean of the Institute of American and Talmudic Law in New York, N.Y., and Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Torah in Springfield. Mass. Rabbi Yaffe has lectured and led seminars throughout North America, as well as in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
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David S December 7, 2017

Synagogues were *not* authorized by Scripture Thank you very much for this analysis. However, with all due respect, I disagree with your first footnote, and here is why: if you put Deuteronomy 17:11 in context with the verses before and after it, it is pretty clear that this "rabbinical authority" that you refer to is *not* some kind of a "blank check" for the rabbis to just make up new laws as they see fit. Instead, the authority of their judgments was specifically oriented toward acting as "judges" for civil cases that *other people brought to the court system of that day*. This is similar to the way our courts operate today.

Therefore, the conclusion of the question, "Are synagogues mandated through Scripture", the answer is still *no*.

To make things even more difficult to swallow, the closest thing to "synagogues" which actually is spoken of in the Old Testament was: *the high places*. Yowza! And the "high places* were definitely *not* mandated by God; they were places of a mix of Yahweh-worship and pagan worship. Reply

Francois Guay Canada March 9, 2016

Tents of worship in Israël Wasn't other tents of worship in Israël before the construction of the Temple by Salomon? If so, they were places for sacrifices and gathering.
Please, let me know if I'm wrong!
Thanks. Reply

David S. December 7, 2017
in response to Francois Guay:

Tents of Worship were really "high places" There were many such places. They are called "high places" in Scripture. And they were not of God. What happened there was something like what happens today in so many churches: the founders basically "did their own thing", and that would boil down to incorporating some of the things that they "liked" from their religious upbringing, and then injecting new things that they thought should be "included" in their worship. As such, each "high place" was *corrupt* in comparison to the true, pure worship of God that was expected by God Almighty.

This was "probably" one of the reasons God only ordained that there would be *one centralized Temple* for all of Israel -- or in the days of Moses, one Tabernacle, because this would thereby enable the ministers of the day to supervise the goings-on and prevent a "run away religion" from taking hold. Reply

Michelle March 14, 2012

thankyou! Thank you! Reply

Rabbi Dr Moshe Dov Shualy baltimore, md March 16, 2011

ORIGIN OF SYNAGOGUE Rabban not Rabbi Yohanan b Zakkai.
Examine Halakhah for sources not speculation.
The REQUIRED daily gathering for ritual purposes is the Torah readings of Gen 1:1-2:3 as demanded in Mishnah Taanit ch 4.
No daily tefillah betzibbur during 2nd Temple era.
The canonization of Torah by Ezra is the reason for the Maamadot/Synagogue Reply

Anonymous Miami, Florida March 10, 2011

Who invented the synagogue Well written piece, but there is only detail that goes unmentioned in the list of priorities which Jews had when a new place was opened for Jews to live in before a synagogue was built.
As I have traveled throughout the oldest cities in the eastern coast of the US and in South America, whenever I try to find the first vestiges of Jewish life, I have come accross the fact that the first thing Jews secured in a new place was a place of burial for themselves, and after that all the other points mentioned in Rabbi Yaffe's article. You can see that in Charleston, Savannah and most of all the other old cities in the US. This fact is even more noticeable in some of the southamerican cities where Jews settled for the first times. Even in Recife and Manaos. (where the first Jews arrived to the "new" continent in the late fifteen hundreds) Reply

Anonymous March 9, 2011

wait a minute When Jacob was called to move into Egypt, the first thing he wanted built were schools, not a mikvah. This understanding is made apparent at any learning session i have attended.

Please correct me if i am wrong. Reply

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe (author) Cambridge, MA March 9, 2011

Comments Zeev:
The article dates the first synagogues to the period after 352 BCE -which certainly precedes the dates you give.

Rabbi Shualy:
I am using the Judaic traditional dates, as per the consensus of the Talmud and all later authorities.

Surely you know that the dates you quote reflect the 163 year discrepancy between traditional academic dating and classical Judaic dating Reply

Zeev Amit Oxnard, Ca March 8, 2011

More information... Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, one of the leaders at the end of the Second Temple era, promulgated the idea of creating individual houses of worship in whatever locale Jews found themselves. This contributed to the continuity of the Jewish people by maintaining a unique identity and a portable way of worship despite the destruction of the Temple, according to many historians.
Synagogues in the sense of purpose-built spaces for worship, or rooms originally constructed for some other purpose but reserved for formal, communal prayer, however, existed long before the destruction of the Second Temple. The earliest archaeological evidence for the existence of very early synagogues comes from Egypt, where stone synagogue dedication inscriptions dating from the 3rd century BCE prove that synagogues existed by that date. A synagogue dating from between 75 and 50 BCE has been uncovered at a Hasmonean-era winter palace near Jericho. More than a dozen Second Temple era synagogues have been discovered. Reply

Rabbi Dr Moshe Dov Shualy baltimore, md November 5, 2007

2nd Temple date The 2nd Temple was established long before 352bce. The Persiand defeated the Babylonians in 539 bce, The Babylonians destroyed the 1st Temple in 586bce. By 517 bcce the 2nd Temple was functioning. Reply

David Simmons london, uk October 3, 2007

the synagoge It is also known as Bet Tefilah Reply

A synagogue is a place of Jewish worship. In addition to housing a sanctuary for services, synagogues (most notably Chabad centers) serve as the centerpoint of Jewish life.
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