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 Shul Rat

I am a regular reader of The Cricket Pages because I love Rachel’s writing as well as the photos of her two little dogs. I’m reposting this entry to Coffee Shop Rabbi because I think my readers would enjoy this particular post, “The Shul Rat.”

rachelmankowitz

 

I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

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Traditions of Judaism Starts Sunday!

Image: Israeli President Ezer Weizman greeting Ethiopian Jews celebrating the Sigd Festival at Jerusalem’s Haas Promenade. Photo: SAAR YAACOV, GPO. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

A new online Intro to the Jewish Experience class starts Sunday at 3:30pm Pacific Time. As always, I’m excited.

The Spring segment of the class is “Traditions of Judaism.” We look at all the different communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how we came to have those various communities. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism and why it is unique, the Prayer Book [Siddur] and the service, and finish up with Jewish food customs. Given that this is an election year, we may talk a little about American Jews and politics, too.

The class is also available by via recordings if you have a schedule that makes that time impossible. To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. If you are interested in the offline, Wednesday night class, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order. Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.)

I love teaching “Intro” – it’s my passion. If the subject above interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

The Poodle Paradigm

Image: Gabi and Jojo, two toy poodles who know how to welcome a guest. Photo by Linda Burnett.

When guests arrive at my house, my little toy poodles go berserk with welcome. Jojo and Gabi knock each other over trying to greet the newcomer. They are indiscriminate in their love: if I let the person in the house, Jojo and Gabi overflow with love, be the guest a student or even from the U.S. Post Office!

I’ve gone to putting them on a leash before guests arrive, because they love guests so much that they are a bit scary to some people. I’ve tried to train them out of it, but excitement overcomes them and they can’t seem to restrain themselves. (I know. I know. I should be a better trainer.)

Back when I had a cat, it was different. Ms. Elizabeth would watch the newcomer suspiciously from a safe spot on her favorite chair. She’d cuddle up with someone she already knew, or hide under the coffee table and glare at the person who had entered HER house. If they approached her too quickly, she’d hiss something impolite. She was indiscriminate in her dislike of anyone or anything new.

People are more complicated than dogs or cats when it comes to welcoming guests. Sometimes we are very friendly, sometimes we are not. But it is worth asking ourselves when it comes to synagogue, am I more of a poodle or cat when I see someone I don’t recognize? Do I greet them enthusiastically, or do I eye them from a safe distance?

Too often we are “cats” at synagogue. We curl up next to our friends, we see the newcomers from a distance and watch them for a while. Then, when and if we greet them at all, we do it with questions: Who are you? Are you new? What brings you here? The questions say to the newcomer, just as Ms. Elizabeth used to say to strangers: “This is MY house. Explain yourself.”

Then we wonder why our synagogue has so few new members. “We need to grow!” people will say to their rabbi. “We need to grow!” the board says, looking at the budget. But come Friday night, we turn into a bunch of cats.

Let me suggest a new paradigm for welcome: The Poodle Paradigm. See a person you don’t know and run to greet them (run to do the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger) – say hello and offer them a seat or a drink or whatever’s on offer. Resist the impulse to figure them out. Tell them about yourself, make them welcome. Don’t quiz them! Instead, use your small talk skills. (If that thought makes you nervous, read The Power of Small Talk. a little post I wrote a while back on the subject. Small talk skills can change your life.) Whether they are a newbie or a longtime member you’ve never met, greeting them like a poodle will enlarge your circle and strengthen your synagogue, too.

Just don’t jump on them or sit in their laps.

How to Make Friends at Synagogue

Some advice from the sages for making friends at synagogue:

Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance. – Pirkei Avot, 1:15

“Make your Torah study fixed” – As Woody Allen famously said, most of life is simply showing up. If you come every week to services, people will begin to recognize you. Opportunities for small talk will increase. If you only show up for High Holy Days or a yahrzeit,  don’t be surprised if you feel like a stranger!

“Say little and do much” – If you really want to make friends at synagogue, volunteer for something. My personal favorite is “clean up crew” after an event.  The people who always do it are anxious to have help, they will want to learn your name. Generally people chat while they are clearing away tables or folding chairs. By the end of 30 minutes, you are practically guaranteed to have the beginnings of at least one synagogue friend. Usually the work is not onerous, and the next week, there will be someone smiling in your direction.

“Receive everyone with a cheerful countenance” – When you make eye contact with someone at a synagogue event, what do you do? When you have a chance to exchange a few words, what do you talk about?

I am an inveterate greeter of newcomers, and I’m always a little surprised at the number of people who begin a conversation by complaining about something. I’ll say, “Hello, I am Rabbi Adar” and they’ll counter with something like, “Why don’t you have gluten free food?” or “The music here is not very good.” (Honest to goodness, people have said those things to me.) Others walk around scowling, and it takes a bit of nerve to walk up and say hello.

If you volunteer for the clean up crew, don’t grouse about it. Just get on with it, and make cheerful conversation as you do. If you would rather do anything than clean up after other people, take a class or volunteer for a task where you can put on a “cheerful countenance.” Grumbling about what pigs people are will not make friends for you.

It’s not easy to be new. However, it is a curable condition, if we take Shammai’s advice. Show up, volunteer, and be friendly, and before you know it, you’ll have a friend or two at shul.

 

 

A Gift for the Rabbi?

One search string I’ve noticed more than once on the list of terms that brought people to this blog from a search engine: “What to give a rabbi for a gift?”

A donation to the rabbi’s discretionary fund is always a fine thing to do; it’s a gift that allows the rabbi to do something good for others. (Discretionary funds cannot be spent on personal purchases of any sort.)

Here are some other ideas:

  • Donation to their honor to a charity you know they support
  • Gift certificate to a bookstore
  • Gift certificate for the rabbi and spouse to attend a sports or cultural event (Tickets for a particular evening can be tricky – rabbis work many evenings.)
  • Gift certificate for restaurant
  • Gift certificate for something you know they enjoy
  • Gift certificate for something you think they would enjoy with their family
  • Homemade preserves or baked goods.
  • A bottle of good kosher wine.

The key to this, as with all gift-giving, is to think about what the person might enjoy. If you know of a particular interest or hobby that your rabbi enjoys, then that will make this an easy choice. Things that they can enjoy with their spouse or family are thoughtful gifts, as time with family is often particularly precious. Something that will provide a small comfort: a free cup of coffee, for example, can be very nice.

You might be surprised that Judaica is not on this list. Many rabbis have all the candlesticks, kippot, tallitot, seder plates, and so on that they can use. The same is true of Jewish-themed ties, earrings, and so on. The exceptions to this are things made by children: if your child colors something for the rabbi, it will be treasured.

Ask The Rabbi: Working at the Bar Mitzvah

I recently had a lovely email exchange with a young person who had been hired for his first job working as an artist for a bat mitzvah. He had a lot of questions, and I thought that the answers might be useful to others. Thank you, Benjamin, for asking good questions, and making me think of other things that might help!

What is a bar or bat mitzvah? A bar mitzvah (bat for girls) happens when a young person turns 13. It actually happens whether there is a celebration or not; a Jew over age 13 is bar or bat mitzvah regardless. The usual celebration in North America has two parts. First, a synagogue service at which the young person leads the service, or reads Torah, or both. This is serious business and requires years of study and preparation. Secondly, there may be a party, which can range from a very low-key affair at home or the synagogue to something quite fancy at a hotel or other venue.

How big a deal is it really? For the young person, the synagogue service requires a year or more of preparation. For a Jewish family, this is a life event on a par with a wedding. Relatives travel from far away to attend, and most families save for a long time to pay for the party.

What is proper dress for a bar or bat mitzvah? Dress professionally. Unless you have heard otherwise from the parents, a suit and tie for men, a professional dress outfit for women.

What terminology should I know? Bar mitzvah is for a boy. Bat mitzvah is for a girl. B’nei mitzvah is plural, unless there are only girls involved, in which case it is b’not mitvah.

Is there a customary greeting that I should know? As a non-Jew, you are not expected to know any Hebrew. “Hello” and “Congratulations” are fine. However, these are nice phrases to know:

  • Mazal tov!– (MAH-zel tov) – “Congratulations!” suitable either for the young person or for family members.
  • Shabbat Shalom! (Shah-BAHT shah-LOHM) – “Happy Sabbath!” – suitable from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday.

Who is actually in charge? In the synagogue, if the rabbi or cantor (clergy) tell you to do or not do something, you are wise to comply. During the service, ushers may remove someone who doesn’t follow the rules set by the congregation. (If they tell you no photos, or no flash, during the service, believe them.)  At the party afterwards, the hosts are in charge.

Good luck! And if you are reading this and have other questions, I hope you will ask them in the comments, so I can continue to improve this resource!