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  • SKETCHES IN JEWISH SOCIAL LIFE - CH. 17 - A
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    The Worship of the Synagogue

    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 priest, cannot be called in question, in face of the clear testimony of contemporary witnesses. Considering that "the hall of hew 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 2:46). 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 22:45). 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 center 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.

    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 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, 157-172). 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 4:23; Mark 1:21, 6:2; Luke 4:15, 6:6, 13:10; John 6:59, 18:20). 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 6:24-26) 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 * 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.

    * 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.

    The "Shema" was a kind of "belief," or "creed," composed of these three passages of Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41. It obtained its name from the initial word "shema": "Hear, O Israel," in Deuteronomy 6:4. From the Mishnah (Ber. 1. 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 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. 1). 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:

    1. "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." *

    * 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 origination.

    2. "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 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."

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