While the synagogue building functioned as a community center, school, and court during the week, it became the meeting place for prayer on the Sabbath. When the first three stars could be seen on Friday evening, the hazzan blew the shofar to announce that the Sabbath had begun. The people gathered at twilight to eat the Sabbath meal in their homes. In most traditions, Sabbath food was prepared in advance because no work was permitted during this time.
The following morning, the community gathered in the synagogue building. Their service began with several blessings offered to God, followed by a recitation of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4). The Torah scrolls were brought out by the hazzan and read in several portions, sometimes as many as seven. Readers could not choose passages themselves, as readings were assigned according to a predetermined schedule.
Following the Torah reading, a section from the prophets (called the Haphtarah) was read. Then a sermon, or derashah, would be offered, often by the same person who read the Torah or Haphtarah. These sermons were usually quite short: As Luke 4:21 shows, Jesus spoke only a few words when he gave the derashah.
The service ended with a benediction. And if a priest was present to offer it, the Aaronic blessing from the Torah (Num. 6:24-26) would be used.
Even though the hazzan was in charge of organizing worship services, the prayer leader, readers, and even those who delivered the short sermon could be any adult member of the community. All were recognized as being able to share the meaning of the Word as revealed to them in their daily walk with God. In this way, the community encouraged even its youngest members to be active participants in religious life.
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