The Bible in the Synagogue
During the period of the Second Temple (from the return to Zion [538 BCE] until the destruction of the Temple [70 CE]), and in particular after the conquest of the entire Near East by the armies of Alexander the Great (ca. 330 BCE), numerous upheavals occurred in the religious‐spiritual world of the Jewish people. Two of the fundamental changes caused by these upheavals are important for our discussion, having left their mark on Judaism, in all places, in every era, and upon the various forms of Jewish expression, up to the present day: the growth and establishment of the synagogue, and the central role played by the Bible in the religious and spiritual existence of the Jewish people. Since then, a Jewish community without a synagogue at its center is unimaginable, nor could one conceive of a synagogue in which a central place was not reserved, both physically and in terms of its activities, for the three sections of the Tanakh: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.
During the era of the First Temple (until its destruction in 586 BCE), and to some extent during the ensuing two or three centuries, the word of God was perceived to be revealed to humanity in numerous ways. First and foremost, it came through the prophet through whom God revealed His will or His plans. God also answered the people’s questions, both by way of the priests, using the Urim and Thummim, as well as through dreams (see 1 Sam. 28.6 : “But the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets”). Thus the prophet, the priest, and the interpreter of dreams served as intermediaries between God and human beings. In this respect, a major upheaval occurred when it was believed that prophecy had departed from Israel after the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (b. B. Bat. 14b), that the Urim and Thummim had disappeared (y. Mak. 5:2), and that dreams are not divine messages from heaven but a result of human self‐reflection (b. Ber. 55b). All of these methods of discovering the divine will were then replaced by texts, the Holy Scriptures. The nation of Israel became what was later termed the “People of the Book.” The intermediary between God and humanity was henceforth the Rabbi, the wise man who knew how to read Scriptures and to hear through them God’s voice. Instead of one‐time divine revelations through dreams or prophets or priests, the Jewish people were given a book which was understood to contain God’s revelation for all time. The era of revelation to individuals at appointed times came to a close, and was replaced by a new era with continuous revelation for all, by way of the Holy Scriptures. From this point on, the religion and culture of Israel developed around the twenty‐four books of the Tanakh: in Houses of Study and in schools, at particular events such as eulogies or festive religious celebrations, but first and foremost in the synagogues.
It would appear that, as the prestige of the Temple began to decline, the need to continue hearing the word of God was among the central factors leading to the ascent of the synagogue as an institution, or perhaps even to its creation. Parallel to the sacrificial service which was practiced in the Jersalem Temple only, it became necessary to create an institution in which Jews, wherever they might be, could gather on special occasions, to listen together to the word of God and to discover what it implies (as is described in the Bible itself, in Neh. ch 8 ). In the course of time these gatherings became formalized in fixed, obligatory forms, but the exact process through which they took shape is for the most part unknown, due to the dearth of extant sources from the Second Temple period. However, aided by the Jewish philosopher Philo (De Somnis 2:127), by the historian Josephus Flavius (Against Apion 2:175), and by early Christian literature (Acts 15.21 ), we can pinpoint some early stages of this process in the 1st century CE, though the origin of the synagogue may be several centuries earlier. We may reasonably assume that slowly and gradually, the idea of the synagogue began to crystallize. That which eventually coalesced during the period of the rabbinic Sages (from the first century CE until the Islamic conquest [ca. 640 CE]) attained its ultimate form in the geonic period (which ended just beyond 1000 CE). It was at that time that the first Jewish prayer books were compiled. Despite all the social and cultural metamorphoses that the Jewish people have undergone subsequently, the position of the Bible in the synagogue has remained basically unchanged. There are regular readings from the Torah, fixed readings from the Prophets, reading of the Five Scrolls on specific days, explication of Scriptures during or close to their public reading, including their translation into different languages, and extensive use of Scripture in the liturgy. Liturgical use includes the recitation of various psalms, reading of additional scriptural excerpts such as the Song of the Sea (Exod. ch 15 ) or the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen. ch 22 ) in the daily morning prayer, recitation of piyyutim (liturgical poetry) that draws on Scripture in various ways, as well as extensive use of biblical Hebrew and its expressions within the prayers (see “The Bible in the Liturgy,” pp. 1937–48).