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:
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.