Where Was the First Synagogue?

Image: A gathering of Jews pray and read Torah. Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Rabbi Sarah Schechter leads Jewish services, at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq.  Public Domain.

Where was the first synagogue?

If you want the answer from archaeology, the answer is, we don’t know. We have some ruins and inscriptions from the 3rd century before the common era that are definitely from synagogues, but it’s entirely possible that synagogues existed for a long time before that.

However, that’s only one way of looking for the answer.

A traditional way to look for Jewish answers about history is to look in Jewish texts. Then the answer appears very early in our story, in the book of Leviticus:

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread, and assemble all the congregation at the door of the Tent of Meeting.” – Leviticus 8: 1-3

Various artists have pictured the camp of Israel in the wilderness following the descriptions in the Torah. This image by Johann Christoph Weigel (1654-1725) is fairly typical and consistent with the text:

Weigel

At the very center of the picture stands the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting. The Israelites are camped all around it, organized by tribes. The Levites are closest to the Tent of Meeting (orange squares on three sides of it) and the blue, green, yellow and pink squares are the camps of the other tribes. Look back to the center: the area in front of the Tent of Meeting is an open space. That is where God has commanded Moses to “assemble all the congregation” for the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel.

The words here are also significant: the words for “assemble” and “congregation” are words we still use in the names of congregations: “Kahal” (in a verb form here) and “Adat.”

The first synagogues were not buildings. They were assemblies of Jews, brought together by a common worshipful purpose.  This is different from the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting, and later, the Temple: those were places of sacrifice, and parts of them were only open to the Levites and the priests.

Another example of a gathering of Jews that certainly looks like a synagogue:

All the people gathered themselves together as one person in the open space before the Water Gate [in Jerusalem.] They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly [kahal], which was made up of men and women and those who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And the ears of the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. – Nehemiah 8: 1-3

This is an account of the first public Torah reading on record. Jews still gather to read Torah from the Scroll; we gather to read from the sefer Torah, the “book of the Law,” in either a permanent synagogue building or in a place that for that time is designated for the purpose.

The essential element is not the building – the essential element is the gathering of Jews. This has been true from the very earliest days.

 

As a practical matter, most congregations choose to build or purchase a synagogue building. That allows for safe storage of Torah scrolls and books and for learning space. It is also convenient to have these things in a dedicated space. But it is important that we remember that the congregation is not the building; the physical plant is not nearly as important as the people who gather there.

So where is the world’s oldest synagogue? The Mediterranean is dotted with ruins of ancient synagogues. However, the oldest synagogue isn’t a building. A synagogue happens whenever and wherever Jews gather to study and pray.

 

 

 

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

Image: A young man putting on a tallit. Photo by 777jew at pixabay.com.

I have been a big fan of the “Wrestling with God” blog for a long time. I discovered it when Adam left a comment on my website. I always check out other bloggers who leave comments and I’ve found some real treasures that way. (Yes – leave a comment and I’ll check out your blog. But leave a token comment, e.g. “Cool blog!” and I’ll just delete it. SAY something, please.)

What I love about Adam’s blog is the beautiful honesty of it. I always worry about conversion bloggers who abruptly stop writing after they step out of the mikveh. Maybe they got busy with their Jewish lives – or are they feeling bad about failing to be “super Jews”? Adam just keeps posting what’s on his mind – and what’s on his mind is often the sort of thing on the minds of many new Jews.

In this post, Adam talks about what it means to live Jewishly despite illness, or busy stretches at work, or family troubles. The only thing I would add is that with practice, some Jewish practices can become more routine, and can actually support us during the tough times. Other things just have to wait until we are more able. German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would reply “Not yet” when other Jews would quiz him about his performance of mitzvot. The fact that one is not YET doing thus-and-so does not say anything about what might happen tomorrow.

Wrestling With God

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning…

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Shabbat Shalom! – Emor

Like most of the Torah portions in Leviticus Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:3) is packed with information and mitzvot.

The first aliyah has to do with laws for the priests, and commandments that would come to shape Jewish tradition about the care for the dead.

The second aliyah includes a passage forbidding priests with deformities to serve in the Temple sacrifices. That passage has caused a lot of trouble for people with disabilities. I address that trouble – and a more accurate reading of the passage – in my d’var Torah below.

Most of the rest of the Torah portion teaches us about the yearly cycle of holidays, when and how to celebrate them. Then the maftir – the final section – reminds us that there is one law for all – Jew and visitor alike. Finally a man who had cursed the camp was stoned to death. It’s an unusually grim end to a Torah portion.

There is much to ponder in Parashat Emor. Thank goodness many darshanim post divrei Torah online to help us understand it!

Is Time Ours or is it God’s? by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

The Imperfection of Perfection by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Virtue of Worry by Rabbi David Kasher (ParshaNut)

Lighten Up! by Hannah Perlberger (Positive Parshah)

Leading Off! by Rabbi Harry Rothenburg (VIDEO) A baseball d’var Torah!

An Eye for an Eye by Rabbi Jeremy Simons

Ableism in the Torah? Say It Ain’t So! by Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

 

Who Brings On the Evenings

Image: Starry sky. Photo by Unsplash on pixabay.com.

Jewish prayer has a rhythm that roots it in the natural world. Our “day” begins at sundown, and we greet the day with a traditional prayer:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe,
who speaks the evening into being,
skillfully opens the gates,
thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons,
and arranges the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan.
You are Creator of day and night,
rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light,
transforming day into night and distinguishing one from the other.
Adonai Tz’vaot is Your Name.
Ever-living God, may You reign continually over us into eternity.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who brings on evening.

– Ma’ariv Aravim, Evening Service, Mishkan Tefilah 

I love this prayer. I love the way it locates me in time and space. It invites me to watch the process of the arrival of nightfall. It mentions the sunset obliquely (“opens the gates”) and then holds my hand as I watch the stars come out.

It propels me from a contemplation of the marvels revealed by science into wonder that can only be expressed through poetry.

Whatever our understanding of God, it can speak to that understanding. It works as well if we believe in a personal Creator of all things, a Wisdom behind the scenes, or a Unifying Principle underlying all reality.

Here is my own translation, slightly different:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space,
who with Your word brings on the evenings.

With wisdom You open heaven’s gates,
And with understanding You change the times and cause the seasons to alternate.

You arrange the stars in their courses in the sky according to Your will.
You create day and night.
You roll away light before darkness, and darkness before light.

You cause the day to pass, and the night to come,
And you make the distinctions between day and night.
Lord of Hosts is Your name.
Eternal God, may You reign over us forever and ever.

Blessed are You, O God, who brings on the evenings.

Ma’ariv Aravim, my translation

 

 

 

News & The Book of Ruth

News: I got a new desktop computer and spent the last 24 hours setting it up so it would be ready for class Sunday afternoon. I missed posting my usual Friday message with online links, but I will get back into that routine this week, for sure.

The new computer is very exciting – faster, nicer camera, speakers, audio, etc. I just have to get used to it.

The Book of Ruth is a one-meeting class I’m offering both live and online this coming Thursday, May 19 from 7:30 – 9pm Pacific Time. My focus will be the following question: What insights does Ruth have to offer us today about Jewish community, conversion, and interfaith marriages?

Sorry, the class has been cancelled for lack of enrollment.

Shavua tov!

 

Now It’s My Fault Too

This is such a wonderful post that I would like to share it so my students and readers can read it, too.

Fendel Family in Israel

It’s Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s independence day!  Flags are flying, music is playing.  It’s not the first time I’ve celebrated this holiday, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to do so as an Israeli.

Many people have expressed surprise that we decided to become Israeli citizens as part of this one-year adventure.  There were many practical reasons for doing so, which I won’t get into with this post.  I’d rather talk about what it means to me to be an Israeli.

iao

Whenever I encounter one of these surprised individuals, my stock response is to show them my new Israeli ID card while saying,

“.עכשיו זה גם אשמתי

“Now it’s my fault too.”

It usually gets the laugh I’m looking for, because Israelis are perpetually unsatisfied with this incredibly miraculous project that has been undertaken here to rebuild an ancient country in a modern world.  Israel, they feel…

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Yom Ha-WHAT?

Image: The signing of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948. Public Domain.

This week we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.

First, here’s how to say it: yohm hah-ahtz-mah-OOT. 

Yes, it’s a mouthful. If you repeat it ten times, you’ll have it.

We celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut on the fifth of Iyar (ee-YAHR), so it’s another Jewish holiday that appears to move around on the Gregorian calendar. It falls sometime in April or May every year.

It marks the day in May 1948 when the Jewish leadership, led by David Ben-Gurion signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence, eight hours before the end of the British Mandate of Palestine. Four hours after the signing, Egypt bombed Tel Aviv and Israel’s War of Independence began. Within hours the armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq invaded.

The text of the Declaration of Independence is available on the website of the State of Israel. Every Jew should read it.

  • In 2016, Yom Ha’atzmaut begins at sundown on May 11.
  • In 2017, Yom Ha’atzmaut begins at sundown on May 2.
  • In 2018, Yom Ha’atzmaut begins at sundown on April 19.