People living outside Jerusalem had little opportunity to come to the Temple or to bring their cases before the Sanhedrin, so they depended on local councils made up of persons prominent in the community. Just as there were smaller sanhedrins, so also there were smaller synagogues which in no way competed with the great Temple at Jerusalem, but sought to extend its influence by acting as subsidiary chapels. These were places of prayer and religious instructions but not of ritual, for that could only be performed in the main Temple at Jerusalem, which was indeed their only Temple.
As the Jews spread out from Jerusalem, attendance there became impossible except at special feasts once or twice a year, so there were built in the main towns subsidiary chapels where the Sabbath could be observed. Such a chapel, or synagogue, called the "oratory" in Jesus time, usually consisted of one rectangular room so arranged that the faithful were facing the temple in Jerusalem (usually the entrance door also faced Jerusalem).
Ten persons were necessary for a regular gathering in the synagogue, whose principle meetings were held on the Sabbath and feast days. If a priest were present, he was honored, but he was not essential, for the functions of prayer and worship could be carried on by laymen. Jews were also obliged to perform certain religious functions at home, and to bring up their children in religious instruction, not relying on public institutions.
The education of a Jewish child began in the home and was essentially religious so as to ensure his growth to good citizen- ship. As soon as he attained the use of speech, he learned the Shema. At five years he started to learn the Law, certain prayers upon rising and retiring, table prayers and prayers at encountering thunder and lightning. These last were designed to keep him from superstitious fear of natural phenomena. He was taught the benedictions over the various foods. As he went in and out of the house he saw the Mezuzah, a parchment roll containing the name of God and the first verses of the Shema, attached to the door post, which called to mind the sovereign Providence of God. In the house, the Misrach was depicted with the word "sunrise" (Misrach), and some verses from the Old Testament, and was placed on the east wall to direct his thoughts to Jerusalem and the East. He was taught in manual work. At some uncertain age he began to attend one of the schools established by Alexander.
A boy reached manhood at the age of thirteen years and a day. He might be called upon to read the Scriptures on his first visit to the synagogue in his newly acquired man's estate, and could now become a participant in all the liturgy, which had been formerly limited to asking certain questions at the Pachal meal. Now he must "appear before the Lord" in the main Temple for the three pilgrimage feasts: Passover, the Feast of Weeks in spring, and the Feast of Tabernacles in the Fall.
With Mary's upbringing and Joseph's righteousness, they devoutly attended the synagogue every Sabbath. Jesus was taught to read, and later when he began the ministry it is recorded that he stood up to read when his turn came in this very synagogue where he had come as a boy. It is Luke who tells us this in chapter 4: 16-22:
"And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captive, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised. To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.'
"And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
"And he began to say unto them, 'This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.'
"And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, 'Is not this Joseph's son?' "
A synagogue ruler from among the ancients was chosen for each synagogue, with one assistant minister who took charge of the building and its contents, and presided at meetings. He blew the trumpet at the beginning and at the close of the Sabbath, scourged anyone condemned by the local sanhedrin, and sometimes also taught the children.
The room might be divided into narrow naves by rows of columns, which occasionally supported a kind of balcony, reserved perhaps for the women. Sometimes there was a court before the entrance with a large stone basin for the required ablutions, and rooms built along the sides of the edifice which were used as classrooms for children and hostels for pilgrims.
The principle object within the room was the sacred cabinet or ark, where the scrolls of Holy Scripture were kept. It was set in a kind of miniature chapel and was covered by a veil.
The Jews gathered in the morning and afternoon of every Sabbath and other feast days. The synagogue became an ever increasing center of religious activity because from this spiritual citadel the national-religious principles were kept alive, the Sacred Scriptures were read, traditions were recalled and those prayers were recited which remained the spiritual heritage of Judaism. The unity which the synagogue promoted became Judaism's greatest strength, especially after the disaster of 70 A.D. when they became scattered far and wide.
Services in the synagogue began with the recitation of the selection from the Scriptures called "Shema" ("Listen"), the word with which it begins. It was made up of three passages from the Pentateuch, the first of which (Deut. 6: 4-9) commands love of God:
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates."
Next they read Deut. 11:13-21 which also began:
"And if you will obey my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be full. Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and He shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit, . . ."
Then was read Numbers 15: 37 - 41:
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue; and it shall be to you a tassel to look upon and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; I am the Lord your God."
The recitation of these texts was a kind of first and fundamental religious act, an act of faith, in which the Jew solemnly confessed that he believed in and loved the one true God. Similarly when Jesus was asked what was the first commandment of the Law, he quoted to the scribe the beginning of the Shema (in Mark 12:29) thus: "The first is, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one . . . "
Next in the synagogue would be recited the series of short prayers of adoration to God, called the Shemone 'esre. This was followed by the reading of the Scriptures, beginning with the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) which was divided into 154 parts or more, so that the complete reading of it on consecutive Sabbaths took three years.
Then came the reading of the books of the Hebrew canon called "the Prophets" -- i.e. from Joshua to the Minor Prophets -- and here was permitted a certain liberty in the selection and length of the passages read.
After this came an instruction or sermon which explained and applied some passage in the day's reading and which anyone present could deliver. Usually the ruler of the synagogue invited those he thought most competent to preach it, but whoever wanted to could volunteer without being asked. The speakers were generally well versed in the Scriptures and sacred traditions.
The services ended with the benediction of Num. 6:22:
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Say to Aaron and his sons, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: You shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you: The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace. So shall they put My Name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.' "
If there were a priest present, he recited it and the congregation responded with "Amen." Otherwise it was recited as a prayer of entreaty by all those present.
The Jewish Sabbath began at sunset Friday and lasted until sunset of the following day. Friday afternoon was called the "vigil of the Sabbath," or preparation, due to the fact that everything necessary for the inactive Sabbath was prepared on that afternoon, including food, since lighting a fire was one of the thirty-nine prohibited actions on Sabbath day. These included a set limitation on the number of steps one could walk.
Apart from many stifling regulations, the Jewish Sabbath was a time of spirituality and joy. The Talmud itself prescribed that the best foods were to be reserved for this day, though prepared on the vigil afternoon, and it was also a day for festive garments and ornaments. A good part of it was spent at religious services in the synagogue or at home, or in devotional reading, which was all the more favored by the forced inactivity of the Sabbath rest.
In their observation of the Sabbath the Jews included all those under their jurisdiction, so neither did slaves nor servants work on those days. This was an almost unheard-of kindness in such times when slavery was an accepted practice, so Hebrew slaves felt favored to be so employed. Their masters were also obliged to release them after seven years, if they desired to go free.
Their daily life from hour to hour, night and day, was bound up in a set of complicated laws from which they were never free. The many acts of ritual cleanliness in their daily lives, both in person and utensils, were far more than a matter of hygiene, for these bore significance of a spiritual nature, implying a purifying action. The accumulated virtue of such actions must have been great, for it was preparing a nation that was to bring forth the Messiah. It appears John the Baptist enacted the culmination of ritual washing when he warned people to cleanse themselves of sin, and baptized them.
When the Messiah came, he meticulously followed all these things, as did his disciples, but with his coming the Law had been fulfilled, and part of the work was permitting his followers to discard the burdensome practices. The Pharisees and Scribes, however, rested all their laurels on laying down and interpreting these rules, and making sure no one had an easy time sidestepping them.