There are many theories about the origin of a gathering place called “synagogue.” The Greek word for synagogue means “assembly” and is used in place of the Hebrew word meaning “congregation” or “community of Israel.” Originally, the word probably referred to the gathered people and over time it came to refer to the assembly place as well.
It’s important to note that the word synagogue was never used to refer to the Temple. Only Levites and priests could enter the Temple proper, which was God’s dwelling place. By contrast, the synagogue was primarily a place of assembly, and all members of a Jewish community could participate in synagogue life.
Some Jewish traditions indicate that there were assembly places for the study of Torah during the time of Solomon’s Temple. The Old Testament indicates that the practice of prayer, which would be so central to the synagogue, had already begun by that time (Ps. 116:17; Isa. 1:11,15; 1 Sam. 1:10ff).
Gathering together for study and prayer became particularly important during the Babylonian exile after the first Temple was destroyed. Jewish scholars believe Ezekiel’s reassuring promise that God would provide a “sanctuary” (11:16) for his people is a reference to the small groups that gathered in homes at this time.
These godly people, having learned a hard lesson about the importance of obeying God, did not want to repeat their ancestors’ sins. They assembled regularly to remember God’s covenant, law, and promises. Small groups of experts in the law and interpretation met at humble locations called “houses of study.” These houses of study, and the reflection on the need to be obedient, are the roots of the synagogue, a sanctuary to inspire obedience to God.
The early synagogue helped Jews maintain their identity while living in a foreign and pagan country. It became the center of Jewish social life, serving as school, meeting place, courtroom, and house of prayer. In some towns, synagogues may have even provided lodging for travelers.
Synagogues were a place where small groups of Jewish students could read and discuss the Torah and oral tradition. Worship and study, friendship and community celebration, meetings and governing of the community, all of these activities centered around the synagogue.
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