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Synagogue in Greek means “a place of assembly”. The exact origin of ‘synagogue’ is unknown. According to some Jewish traditions, there were assemblies of Jews for prayer (1 Sam 1:9-19) and for the study of the Torah even during the time of Solomon’s Temple. Some claim the Jewish communities outside Jerusalem started the synagogues to pray together when the priests were each busy for two weeks at a stretch in the Temple of Jerusalem during major feasts with sacrifices. Others believe the synagogues had their origin in Babylonia after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC. Since sacrifices were halted for a long time with the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians, people used private homes and later started synagogues for public worship and religious studies. The synagogues served also as community centers with provisions for gatherings, education, courtroom, charitable works, and prayer halls.

Even after the construction of the second Temple, the synagogues continued in Jewish settlements all over the world, including Rome, Greece, Egypt, Babylonia, and Asia Minor. The synagogues helped to keep the Jews together in the locality. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the role of the synagogues became more relevant to keeping the Jews in each locality together. Morning, afternoon, and evening Services were held daily in the synagogues. Special liturgies were held on the Sabbath and on religious festivals. Since sacrifices were not allowed in the synagogues, there was no need for priestly service. Each synagogue was autonomous and managed by the local community.

The essential components of the synagogue are an ark where Torah Scrolls are kept, an “eternal light” burning in front of the ark as a symbol of God’s presence, two candlesticks, pews, and a biemah (a raised platform for reading the Scriptures and for services). The “eternal light” also represents the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites during their journey from Egypt to Canaan. An honorable seat called “Moses’ Seat” was placed for Torah readers because they were reading Moses’ words (Mt 23:2). A ritual bath (mikvah) was available on the outside premises of the synagogue, where the believers symbolically cleansed their hearts before they entered the synagogue.

Besides scripture reading and public worship, a rabbi or a scholar exhorted the people on the basis of the scripture text for the day. Jesus also preached in the synagogues throughout Galilee (Mt 4:23; Mk 1:9).

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