THE SYNAGOGUE AT NAZARETH
SYNAGOGUE, WORSHIP AND ARRANGEMENTS.
The stay in Cana, though we have no means of determining its length, was probably of only short duration. Perhaps the Sabbath of the same week already found Jesus in the Synagogue of Nazareth. We will not seek irreverently to lift the veil of sacred silence, which here, as elsewhere, the Gospel-narratives have laid over the Sanctuary of His inner Life. That silence is itself theopneustic, of Divine breathing and inspiration; it is more eloquent than any eloquence, a guarantee of the truthfulness of what is said. And against this silence, as the dark background, stands out as the Figure of Light the Person of the Christ. Yet, as we follow Jesus to the city of His Childhood and home of His humility, we can scarcely repress thoughts of what must have stirred His soul, as He once more entered the well-known valley, and beheld the scenes to each of which some early memory must have attached.
Only a few months since He had left Nazareth, but how much that was all-decisive to Him, to Israel, and to the world had passed! As the lengthening shadows of Friday’s sun closed around the quiet valley, He would hear the well-remembered double blast of the trumpet from the roof of the Synagogue-minister’s house, proclaiming the advent of the holy day. 1 Once more it sounded through the still summer-air, to tell all, that work must be laid aside. 2 Yet a third time it was heard, ere the ‘minister’ put it aside close by where he stood, not to profane the Sabbath by carrying it; for now the Sabbath had really commenced, and the festive Sabbath-lamp was lit.
Sabbath morn dawned, and early He repaired to that Synagogue where, as a Child, a Youth, a Man, He had so often worshipped in the humble retirement of His rank, sitting, not up there among the elders and the honoured, but far back. The old well-known faces were around Him, the old well-remembered words and services fell on His ear. How different they had always been to Him than to them, with whom He had thus mingled in common worship! And now He was again among them, truly a stranger among His own countrymen; this time, to be looked at, listened to, tested, tried, used or cast aside, as the case might be. It was the first time, 3 so far as we know, that He taught in a Synagogue, and this Synagogue that of His own Nazareth.
It was, surely, a wondrously linked chain of circumstances, which bound the Synagogue to the Church. Such a result could never have been foreseen, as that, what really was the consequence of Israel’s dispersion, and, therefore, indirectly the punishment of their sin, should become the means of fulfilling Israel’s world-mission. Another instance this, of how Divine judgment always bears in its bosom larger mercy; another illustration how the dying of Israel is ever life to the world; another manifestation of that supernatural Rule of God, in which all is rule, that is, law and order, and all the supernatural, bringing to pass, in the orderly succession of events, what at the outset would have seemed, and really is, miraculous. For the Synagogue became the cradle of the Church. Without it, as indeed without Israel’s dispersion, the Church Universal would, humanely speaking, have been impossible, and the conversation of the Gentiles have required a succession of millennial miracles.
That Synagogues originated during, or in consequence of the Babylonish captivity, is admitted by all. The Old Testament contains no allusion to their existence, 4 and the Rabbinic attempts to trace them even to patriarchal times 5 deserve, of course, no serious consideration. We can readily understand how during the long years of exile in Babylon, places and opportunities for common worship on Sabbaths and feast-days must have been felt almost a necessity. This would furnish, at least, the basis for the institution of the Synagogue. After the return to Palestine, and still more by ‘the dispersed abroad,’ such ‘meeting-houses’ (Battey Khenesiyoth, domus congregationum, Synagogues) would become absolutely requisite. Here those who were ignorant even of the language of the Old Testament would have the Scriptures read and ‘targumed’ to them. 6 It was but natural that prayers, and, lastly, addresses, should in course of time be added. Thus the regular Synagogue, service would gradually arise; first on Sabbaths and on feast, or fast-days, then on ordinary days, at the same hours as, and with a sort of internal correspondence to, the worship of the Temple. The services on Mondays and Thursdays were special, these being the ordinary market-days, when the country-people came into the towns, and would avail themselves of the opportunity for bringing any case that might require legal decision before the local Sanhedrin, which met in the Synagogue, and consisted of its authorities. Naturally, these two days would be utilised to afford the country-people, who lived far from the Synagogues, opportunities for worship; 7 and the services on those days were of a somewhat more elaborate character. Accordingly, Monday and Thursday were called ‘the days of congregation’ or ‘Synagogue’ (Yom ha-Kenisah).
In another place 8 it has been shown, how rapidly and generally the institution of Synagogues spread among the Jews of the Dispersion in all lands, and what important purposes they served. In Palestine they were scattered over the whole country, though it is only reasonable to suppose, that their number greatly increased after the destruction of the Temple, and this without crediting the Jewish legend as to their extraordinary number in certain cities, such as 480, or 460, in Jerusalem. 9 In the capital, and probably in some other large cities, there were not only several Synagogues, but these arranged according to nationalities, and even crafts. 10 At the same time it deserves notice, that even in so important a place as Capernaum there seems either not to have been a Synagogue, or that it was utterly insignificant, till the want was supplied by the pious gentile centurion. 11 This would seem to dispose of the question whether, as is generally assumed, a Jewish community in a place, if numbering ten heads of families, was obliged to build a Synagogue, and could enforce local taxation for the purpose. Such was undoubtedly the later Rabbinic ordinance, 12 but there is no evidence that it obtained in Palestine, or in early times.
Generally, of course, a community would build its own Synagogue, or else depend on the charitable assistance of neighbours, or on private munificence. If this failed, they might meet for worship in a private dwelling, a sort of ‘Synagogue in the house.’ Philemon 2. 14. See the notes in Maimonides, Hilc. Tephill. xi. 2; p. 75 b. “>13 For, in early times the institution would be much more simple than at a later period. In this, as in other respects, we must remember that later Jewish arrangements afford no evidence of those which prevailed while the Temple stood, nor yet the ordinances of the chiefs of Babylonian Academies of the customs existing in Palestine, and, lastly, that the Rabbinic directions mark rather an ideal than the actual state of things. Thus – to mention an instance of some importance, because the error has been so often repeated as to be generally believed, and to have misled recent explorers in Palestine – there is no evidence that in Palestine Synagogues always required to be built in the highest situation in a town, or, at least, so as to overtop the other houses. To judge from a doubtful 14 passage in the Talmud, 15 this seems to have been the case in Persia, while a later notice 16 appeals in support of it to Prov. viii. 2. But even where the Jews were most powerful and influential, the rule could not have been universally enforced, although later Rabbis lay it down as a principle. 17 Hence, the inference, that the Galilean Synagogues lately excavated cannot date from an early period, because they are not in prominent positions, is erroneous. 18
But there were two rules observed, which seem to have been enforced from early times. One of these enjoined, that a Synagogue should not be erected in a place, unless it contained ten Batlanim, 19 or men of leisure, who could devote their time to the Synagogue worship and administration. 20 This was proved by the consideration, that common worship implied a congregation, which, according to Jewish Law, must consist of at least ten men. 21 Another, and perhaps more important rule was as to the direction in which Synagogues were to be built, and which worshippers should occupy during prayer. Here two points must be kept in view: 1st. Prayer towards the east was condemned, on the ground of the false worship towards the east mentioned in Ezek. viii. 16. 22 2ndly. The prevailing direction in Palestine was towards the west, as in the Temple. Thus, we read 23 that the entrance into the Synagogue was by the east, as the entrance through the Beautiful Gate into the Sanctuary. This, however, may refer, not to the door, but to the passage (aisle) into the interior of the building. In other places, 24 the advice is simply given to turn towards Jerusalem, in whatever direction it be. In general, however, it was considered that since the Shekhinah was everywhere in Palestine, direction was not of paramount importance.
If we combine these notices, and keep in view the general desire to conform to the Temple arrangements, the ruined Synagogues lately excavated in the north of Galilee seem, in a remarkable manner, to meet the Talmudic requirements. With the exception of one (at ‘Irbid, which has its door to the east), they all have their entrances on the south. We conjecture that the worshippers, imitating in this the practice in the Temple, made a circuit, either completely to the north, or else entered at the middle of the eastern aisle, where, in the ground-plan of the Synagogue at Capernaum, which seems the most fully preserved ruin, two pillars in the colonnade are wanting. 25 The so-called ‘Ark’ would be at the south end; the seats for the elders and honourable in front of it, facing the people, and with their back to the Ark. 26 Here two pillars are wanting in the Synagogue at Capernaum. The lectern of the reader would be in the centre, close to where the entrance was into the double colonnade which formed the Synagogue, where, at present, a single pillar is marked in the plan of the Capernaum Synagogue; while the women’s gallery was at the north end, where two columns and pillars of peculiar shape, which may have supported the gallery, are traceable. For it is a mistake to suppose that the men and women sat in opposite aisles, separated by a low wall. Philo notices, indeed, this arrangement in connection with the Therapeutæ; 27 but there is no indication that the practice prevailed in the Synagogues, or in Palestine.
We can now, with the help given by recent excavations, from a conception of these ancient Synagogues. The Synagogue is built of the stone of the country. On the lintels over the doors there are various ornamentations – a seven-branched candlestick, an open flower between two Paschal lambs, or vine-leaves with bunches of grapes, or, as at Capernaum, a pot of manna between representations of Aaron’s rod. Only glancing at the internal decorations of mouldings or cornice, we notice that the inside plan is generally that of two double colonnades, which seem to have formed the body of the Synagogue, the aisles east and west being probably used as passages. The intercolumnar distance is very small, never greater than 9½ feet. 28 The ‘two corner columns at the northern end invariably have their two exterior faces square like pillars, and the two interior ones formed by half-engaged pillars.’ Here we suppose the women’s gallery to have risen. The flooring is formed of slabs of white limestone; 29 the walls are solid (from 2 even to 7 feet in thickness), and well built of stones, rough in the exterior, but plastered in the interior. The Synagogue is furnished with sufficient windows to admit light. The roof is flat, the columns being sometimes connected by blocks of stone, on which massive rafters rest.
Entering by the door at the southern end, and making the circuit to the north, we take our position in front of the women’s gallery. These colonnades form the body of the Synagogue. 30 At the south end, facing north, is a movable ‘Ark,’ containing the sacred rolls of the Law and the Prophets. It is called the Holy Chest or Ark, Aron haqqodesh (to call it simply ‘aron’ was sinful), 31 but chiefly the Tebhah, Ark. 32 It was made movable, so that it might be carried out, as on public fasts. 33 Steps generally led up to it (the Darga or Saphsel). In front hangs (this probably from an early period) the Vilon or curtain. But the Holy Lamp is never wanting, in imitation of the undying light in the Temple. 34 Right before the Ark, and facing the people, are the seats of honour, for the rulers of the Synagogue and the honourable. 35 The place for him who leads the devotion of the people is also in front of the Ark, either elevated, or else, to mark humility, lowered. 36 In the middle of the Synagogue (so generally) is the Bima, 37 or elevation, on which there is the Luach, or desk, 38 from which the Law is read. This is also called the Kurseya, chair, or throne, 39 or Kissé, and Pergulah. Those who are to read the Law will stand, while he who is to preach or deliver an address will sit. Beside them will be the Methurgeman, either to interpret, or to repeat aloud, what is said.
As yet the Synagogue is empty, and we may therefore call to mind what we ought to think, and how to bear ourselves. To neglect attendance on its services would not only involve personal guilt, but bring punishment upon the whole district. Indeed, to be effectual, prayer must be offered in the Synagogue. 40 At the same time, the more strict ordinances in regard to the Temple, such as, that we must not enter it carrying a staff, nor with shoes, nor even dust on the feet, nor with scrip or purse, do not apply to the Synagogue, as of comparatively inferior sanctity. 41 However, the Synagogue must not be made a thoroughfare. We must not behave lightly in it. 42 We may not joke, laugh, eat, talk, dress, nor resort there for shelter from sun or rain. Only Rabbis and their disciples, to whom so many things are lawful, and who, indeed, must look upon the Synagogue as if it were their own dwelling, may eat, drink, perhaps even sleep there. Under certain circumstances, also, the poor and strangers may be fed there. 43 But in general, the Synagogue must be regarded as consecrated to God. Even if a new one be built, care must be taken not to leave the old edifice till the other is finished. Money collected for the building may, in cases of necessity, be used for other purposes, but things dedicated for it are inalienable by sale. A Synagogue may be converted into an Academy, because the latter is regarded as more sacred, but not vice versa. Village Synagogues may be disposed of, under the direction of the local Sanhedrin, provided the locale be not afterwards used for incongruous purposes, such as public baths, a wash-house, a tannery, &c. But town Synagogues are inalienable, because strangers may have contributed to them; and, even if otherwise, they have a right to look for some place of worship. At the same time, we must bear in mind that this rule had its exceptions; notably that, at one time, the guild of coppersmiths in Jerusalem sold their Synagogue. 44
All this, irrespective of any Rabbinic legends, shows with what reverence these ‘houses of congregation’ were regarded. And now the weekly Sabbath, the pledge between Israel and God, had once more come. To meet it as a bride or queen, each house was adorned on the Friday evening. The Sabbath lamp was lighted; the festive garments put on; the table provided with the best which the family could afford; and the Qiddush, or benediction, spoken over the cup of wine, which, as always, was mixed with water. 45 And as Sabbath morning broke, they hastened with quick steps to the Synagogue; for such was the Rabbinic rule in going, while it was prescribed to return with slow and lingering steps. Jewish punctiliousness defined every movement and attitude in prayer. If those rules were ever observed in their entirety, devotion must have been crushed under their weight. But we have evidence that, in the time of our Lord, and even later, there was much personal freedom left; 46 for, not only was much in the services determined by the usage of each place, but the leader of the devotions might preface the regular service by free prayer, or insert such between certain parts of the liturgy.
We are now in the Nazareth Synagogue. The officials are all assembled. The lowest of these is the Chazzan, or minister, 47 who often acts also as schoolmaster. For this reason, and because the conduct of the services may frequently devolve upon him, great care is taken in his selection. He must be not only irreproachable, but, if possible, his family also. Humility, modesty, knowledge of the Scriptures, distinctness and correctness in pronunciation, simplicity and neatness in dress, and an absence of self-assertion, are qualities sought for, and which, in some measure, remind us of the higher qualifications insisted on by St. Paul in the choice of ecclesiastical officers. Then there are the elders (Zeqenim), or rulers (arconteV), whose chief is the Archisynagogos, or Rosh ha-Keneseth. These are the rulers (Parnasim) or shepherds (poimeneV). There can be no question (from the inscriptions on the Jewish tombstones in Rome), 48 that the Archisynagogos 49 was chief among the rulers, and that, whether or not there was, as in the community at Rome, and probably also among the dispersed in the West, besides him, a sort of political chief of the elders, or Gerousiarch. 50 All the rulers of the Synagogue were duly examined as to their knowledge, and ordained to the office. They formed the local Sanhedrin or tribunal. But their election depended on the choice of the congregation; and absence of pride, as also gentleness and humility, are mentioned as special qualifications. 51 Sometimes the office was held by regular teachers. 52
If, as in Rome, there was an apparently unordained eldership (Gerousia), it had probably only the charge of outward affairs, and acted rather as a committee of management. Indeed, in foreign Synagogues, the rulers seem to have been chosen, sometimes for a specified period, at others for life. But, although it may be admitted that the Archisynagogos, or chief ruler of the Synagogue, was only the first among his equals, there can be no doubt that the virtual rule of the Synagogue devolved upon him. He would have the superintendence of Divine service, and, as this was not conducted by regular officials, he would in each case determine who were to be called up to read from the Law and the Prophets, who was to conduct the prayers, and act as Sheliach Tsibbur, or messenger of the congregation, and who, if any, was to deliver an address. He would also see to it that nothing improper took place in the Synagogue, 53 and that the prayers were properly conducted. In short, the supreme care, both of the services and of the building, would devolve upon him. To these regular officials we have to add those who officiated during the service, the Sheliach Tsibbur, or delegate of the congregation – who, as its mouthpiece, conducted the devotions – the Interpreter or Methurgeman, and those who were called on to read in the Law and the Prophets, or else to preach.
We are now in some measure prepared to follow the worship on that Sabbath in Nazareth. On His entrance into the Synagogue, or perhaps before that, the chief ruler would request Jesus to act for that Sabbath as the Sheliach Tsibbur. For according to the Mishnah, 54 the person who read in the Synagogue the portion from the Prophets, was also expected to conduct the devotions, at least in greater part. 55 If this rule was enforced at that time, then Jesus would ascend the Bima, and standing at the lectern, begin the service by two prayers, which in their most ancient form, as they probably obtained in the time of our Lord, were as follows: –
I. ‘Blessed be Thou, O Lord, King of the world, Who formest the light and createst the darkness, Who makest peace, and createst everything; Who, in mercy, givest light to the earth, and to those who dwell upon it, and in Thy goodness, day by day, and every day, renewest the works of creation. Blessed be the Lord our God for the glory of His handiworks, and for the light-giving lights which He has made for His praise. Selah. Blessed be the Lord our God, Who has formed the lights.’
II. ‘With great love hast Thou loved us, O Lord our God, and with much overflowing pity hast Thou pitied us, our Father and our King. For the sake of our fathers who trusted in Thee, and Thou taughtest them the statutes of life, have mercy upon us, and teach us. Enlighten our eyes in Thy Law; cause our hearts to cleave to Thy commandments; unite our hearts to love and fear Thy Name, and we shall not be put to shame, world without end. For Thou art a God Who preparest salvation, and us hast Thou chosen from among all nations and tongues, and hast in truth brought us near to Thy great Name – Selah – that we may lovingly praise Thee and Thy Unity. Blessed be the Lord, Who in love chose His people Israel.’
After this followed what may be designated as the Jewish Creed, called the Shema, from the word ‘shema,’ or ‘hear,’ with which it begins. It consisted of three passages from the Pentateuch, 56 so arranged, as the Mishnah notes, 57 that the worshipper took upon himself first the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and only after it the yoke of the commandments; and in the latter, again, first those that applied to night and day, and then those that applied to the day only. They were probably but later determinations, conceived in a spirit of hostility to what was regarded as the heresy of Christianity, which insisted that, as the first sentence in the Shema, asserting the Unity of God, was the most important, special emphasis should be laid on certain words in it. The recitation of the Shema was followed by this prayer: –
‘True it is that Thou art Jehovah, our God, and the God of our fathers, our King, and the King of our fathers, our Saviour, and the Saviour of our fathers, our Creator, the Rock of our Salvation, our Help and our Deliverer. Thy Name is from everlasting, and there is no God beside Thee. A new song did they that were delivered sing to Thy Name by the sea-shore; together did all praise and own Thee King, and say, Jehovah shall reign, world without end! Blessed be the God Who saveth Israel.’
This prayer finished, he who officiated took his place before the Ark, and there repeated what formed the prayer in the strictest sense, or certain ‘Eulogies’ or Benedictions. These are eighteen, or rather nineteen, in number, and date from different periods. But as on Sabbaths only the three first and the three last of them, which are also those undoubtedly of greatest age, were repeated, and between them certain other prayers inserted, only these six, with which the series respectively began and ended, need here find a place. The first Benediction was said with bent body. It was as follows:
I. ‘Blessed be the Lord our God, and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; the Great, the Mighty, and the Terrible God, the Most High God, Who showeth mercy and kindness. Who createth all things, Who remembereth the gracious promises to the fathers, and bringeth a Saviour to their children’s children, for His own Name’s sake, in love. O King, Helper, Saviour, and Shield! Blessed art Thou, O Jehovah, the Shield of Abraham.’
II. ‘Thou O Lord, art mighty for ever; Thou. Who quickenest the dead, art mighty to save. In Thy mercy Thou preservest the living, Thou quickenest the dead; in Thine abundant pity Thou bearest up those who fall, and healest those who are diseased, and loosest those who are bound, and fulfillest Thy faithful word to those who sleep in the dust. Who is like unto Thee, Lord of strength, and who can be compared to Thee, Who killest and makest alive, and causest salvation to spring forth? And faithful art Thou to give life to the dead. Blessed art Thou, Jehovah, Who quickenest the dead!’
III. ‘Thou art Holy, and Thy name is Holy. Selah. Blessed art Thou Jehovah God, the Holy One.’
After this, such prayers were inserted as were suited to the day. And here it may be noticed that considerable latitude was allowed. For, although 58 it was not lawful to insert any petition in the three first or the three last Eulogies, but only in the intermediate Benedictions, in practice this was certainly not observed. Thus, although, by the rubric, prayer for rain and dew was to be inserted up to the season of the Passover in the ninth Benediction, yet occasionally reference to this seems also to have been made in the second Benediction, as connected with the quickening of that which is dead. 59 Nay, some Rabbis went so far as to recommend a brief summary of the eighteen Eulogies, while yet another (R. Eliezer) repudiated all fixed forms of prayer. 60 But gradually, and especially after the insertion of the well-known prayer against the heretics or rather Christian converts (Eulogy XI. 61), the present order of the eighteen Eulogies (Amidah) seems to have been established. Both the Jerusalem 62 and the Babylon Talmud 63 contain much on this subject which is of very great interest. 64
Following the order of the service, we now come to the concluding Eulogies, which were as follows:
XVII. (XVI.) ‘Take gracious pleasure, O Jehovah our God, in Thy people Israel and in their prayers, and in love accept the burnt-offerings of Israel, and their prayers with Thy good pleasure, and may the services of Thy people be ever acceptable unto Thee. And O that our eyes may see it, as Thou turnest in mercy to Zion. Blessed be Thou, O Jehovah, Who restoreth His Shekhinah to Zion.’
XVIII. (XVII.) In saying this Eulogy, which was simply one of thanks, it was ordered that all should bend down. It was as follows: – ‘We give praise to Thee, because Thou art He, Jehovah, our God, and the God of our fathers, for ever and ever. The Rock of our life, the Shield of our salvation, Thou art He, from generation to generation. We laud Thee, and declare Thy praise. For our lives which are bound up in Thine Hand, for our souls which are committed to Thee, and for Thy wonders which are with us every day and for Thy marvellous deeds and Thy goodnesses which are at all seasons, evening, and morning, and midday – Thou Gracious One, for Thy compassions never end, Thou Pitying One, for Thy mercies never cease, for ever do we put our trust in Thee. And for all this, blessed and exalted be Thy Name, our King, always, world without end. And all the living bless Thee – Selah – and praise Thy Name in truth, O God, our Salvation and our Help. Selah. Blessed art Thou, Jehovah. The Gracious One is Thy Name, and to Thee it is pleasant to give praise.’
After this the priests, if any were in the Synagogue, spoke the blessing, elevating their hands up to the shoulders 65 (in the Temple above the head). This was called the lifting up of hands. 66 In the Synagogue the priestly blessing was spoken in three sections, the people each time responding by an Amen. 67 Lastly, in the Synagogue, the word ‘Adonai’ was substituted for Jehovah. 68 69 If no descendants of Aaron were present, the leader of the devotions repeated the usual priestly benediction. 70 After the benediction followed the last Eulogy, which, in its abbreviated form (as presently used in the Evening Service), is as follows:
XIX. (XVIII.) ‘O bestow on Thy people Israel great peace for ever. For Thou art King, and Lord of all peace. And it is good in Thine eyes to bless Thy people Israel at all times and at every hour with Thy peace. Blessed art Thou, Jehovah, Who blesseth His people Israel with peace!’
It was the practice of leading Rabbis, probably dating from very early times, to add at the close of this
Eulogy certain prayers of their own, either fixed or free, of which the Talmud gives specimens. From very early times also, the custom seems to have obtained that the descendants of Aaron, before pronouncing the blessing, put off their shoes. In the benediction the priests turned towards the people, while he who led the ordinary prayers stood with his back to the people, looking towards the Sanctuary. The superstition, that it was unlawful to look at the priests while they spoke the blessing, 71 must be regarded as of later date. According to the Mishnah, they who pronounce the benediction must have no blemish on their hands, face, or feet, so as not to attract attention; but this presumably refers to those officiating in the Temple. 72 It is a curious statement, that priests from certain cities in Galilee were not allowed to speak the words of blessing, because their pronunciation of the gutturals was misleading. 73 According to the Jerusalem Talmud, 74 moral blemishes, or even sin, did not disqualify a priest from pronouncing the benediction, since it was really God, and not man, Who gave the blessing. 75 On the other hand, strict sobriety was insisted on on such occasions. Later Judaism used the priestly benediction as a means for counteracting the effects of evil dreams. The public prayers closed with an Amen, spoken by the congregation.
The liturgical part being thus completed, one of the most important, indeed, what had been the primary object of the Synagogue service, began. The Chazzan, or minister, approached the Ark, and brought out a roll of the Law. It was taken from its case (têq, teqah), and unwound from those cloths (mitpachoth) which held it. The time had now come for the reading of portions from the Law and the Prophets. On the Sabbath, at least seven persons were called upon successively to read portions from the Law, none of them consisting of less than three verses. On the ‘days of congregation’ (Monday and Thursday), three persons were called up; on New Moon’s Day, and on the intermediate days of a festive week, four; on feast days, five; and on the Day of Atonement, six. 76 No doubt, there was even in ancient times a lectionary, though certainly not that presently in use, which occupies exactly a year. 77 On the contrary, the Palestinian lectionary occupied three 78 or, according to some, three and a half years, 79 half a Sabbatic period. Accordingly, we find that the Massorah divides the Pentateuch into 154 sections. In regard to the lectionary of three and a half years we read of 175 sections. It requires, however, to be borne in mind, that preparatory to, and on certain festive days, the ordinary reading was interrupted, and portions substituted which bore on the subject of the feast. Possibly, at different periods different cycles may have obtained – those for three and a half years, three years, and even for one year. 80 81 According to the Talmud, 82 a descendant of Aaron was always called up first to the reading; 83 then followed a Levite, and afterwards five ordinary Israelites. As this practice, as well as that of priestly benediction, 84 has been continued in the Synagogue from father to son, it is possible still to know who are descendants of Aaron, and who Levites. The reading of the Law was both preceded and followed by brief Benedictions.
Upon the Law followed a section from the Prophets, 85 the so-called Haphtarah. 86 The origin of this practice is not known, although it is one that must evidently have met a requirement on the part of the worshippers. Certain it is, that the present lectionary from the Prophets did not exist in early times; nor does it seem unlikely that the choice of the passage was left to the reader himself. At any rate, as regarded the ordinary Sabbath days, 87 we are told that a reader might omit one or more verses, provided there was no break. As the Hebrew was not generally understood, the Methurgeman, or Interpreter, stood by the side of the reader, 88 and translated into the Aramæan verse by verse, and in the section from the Prophets, or Haphtarah, after every three verses. 89 But the Methurgeman was not allowed to read his translation, lest it might popularly be regarded as authoritative. This may help us in some measure to understand the popular mode of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. So long as the substance of the text was given correctly, the Methurgeman might paraphrase for better popular understanding. Again, it is but natural to suppose, that the Methurgeman would prepare himself for his work by such materials as he would find to hand, among which, of course, the translation of the LXX. would hold a prominent place. This may in part account alike for the employment of the LXX., and for its Targumic modifications, in the New Testament quotations.
The reading of the section from the Prophets (the Haphtarah) was in olden times immediately followed by an address, discourse, or sermon (Derashah), that is, where a Rabbi capable of giving such instruction, or a distinguished stranger, was present. Neither the leader of the devotions (‘the delegate of the congregation’ in this matter, or Sheliach Tsibbur), nor the Methurgeman, nor yet the preacher, required ordination. 90 That was reserved for the rule of the congregation, whether in legislation or administration, doctrine or discipline.
The only points required in the preacher were the necessary qualifications, both mental and moral. 91 When a great Rabbi employed a Methurgeman to explain to the people his sermon, he would, of course, select him for the purpose. Such an interpreter was also called Amora, or speaker. Perhaps the Rabbi would whisper to him his remarks, while he would repeat them aloud; or else he would only condescend to give hints, which the Amora would amplify; or he would speak in Hebrew, and the Amora translate it into Aramæan, Greek, Latin, or whatever the language of the people might be, for the sermon must reach the people in the vulgar tongue. The Amora would also, at the close of the sermon, answer questions or meet objections. If the preacher was a very great man, he would, perhaps, not condescend to communicate with the Amora directly, but employ one of his students as a middleman. This was also the practice when the preacher was in mourning for a very near relative – for so important was his office that it must not be interrupted, even by the sorrows or the religious obligations of ‘mourning.’ 92
Indeed, Jewish tradition uses the most extravagant terms to extol the institution of preaching. To say that it glorified God, and brought men back, or at least nearer to Him, or that it quenched the soul’s thirst, was as nothing. The little city, weak and besieged, but delivered by the wise man in it, 93 served as symbol of the benefit which the preacher conferred on his hearers. The Divine Spirit rested on him, and his office conferred as much merit on him as if he had offered both the blood and the fat upon the altar of burnt offering. 94 No wonder that tradition traced the institution back to Moses, who had directed that, previous to, and on the various festivals, addresses, explanatory of their rites, and enforcing them, should be delivered to the people. 95 The Targum Jonathan assumes the practice in the time of the Judges; 96 the men of the Great Synagogue are, of course, credited with it, and Shemayah and Abhtalyon are expressly designated as ‘preachers.’ 97 How general the practice was in the time of Jesus and His Apostles, the reader of the New Testament need not be told, and its witness is fully borne out by Josephus 98 and Philo. 99 Both the Jerusalem and the Babylon Talmud assume it as so common, that in several passages ‘Sabbath-observance’ and the ‘Sabbath-sermon’ are identified. Long before Hillel we read of Rabbis preaching – in Greek or Latin – in the Jewish Synagogues of Rome, 100 just as the Apostles preached in Greek in the Synagogues of the dispersed. That this practice, and the absolute liberty of teaching, subject to the authority of the ‘chief ruler of the Synagogue,’ formed important links in the Christianisation of the world, is another evidence of that wonder-working Rule of God, which brings about marvellous results through the orderly and natural succession of events – nay, orders these means with the view to their ultimate issue.
But this is not all. We have materials for drawing an accurate picture of the preacher, the congregation, and the sermon, as in those days. We are, of course, only speaking of the public addresses in the Synagogues on Sabbaths – not of those delivered at other times or in other places. Some great Rabbi, or famed preacher, or else a distinguished stranger, is known to be in the town. He would, of course, be asked by the ruler of the Synagogue to deliver a discourse. But who is a great preacher? We know that such a reputation was much coveted, and conferred on its possessor great distinction. The popular preacher was a power, and quite as much an object of popular homage and flattery as in our days. Many a learned Rabbi bitterly complained on finding his ponderous expositions neglected, while the multitude pushed and crowded into the neighbouring Synagogue to hear the declamations of some shallow popular Haggadist. 101 And so it came, that many cultivated this branch of theology. When a popular preacher was expected, men crowded the area of the Synagogue, while women filled the gallery. 102 On such occasions, there was the additional satisfaction of feeling that they had done something specially meritorious in running with quick steps, and crowding into the Synagogue. 103 For, was it not to carry out the spirit of Hos. vi. 3; xi. 10 – at least, as Rabbinically understood? Even grave Rabbis joined in this ‘pursuit to know the Lord,’ and one of them comes to the somewhat caustic conclusion, that ‘the reward of a discourse is the haste.’ 104 However, more unworthy motives sometimes influenced some of the audience, and a Talmudic passage 105 traces the cause of many fasts to the meetings of the two sexes on such occasions.
The type of a popular preacher was not very different from what in our days would form his chief requisites. He ought to have a good figure, 106 a pleasant expression, and melodious voice (his words ought to be ‘like those of the bride to the bridegroom’), fluency, speech ‘sweet as honey,’ ‘pleasant as milk and honey’ – ‘finely sifted like fine flour,’ a diction richly adorned, ‘like a bride on her wedding day;’ and sufficient confidence in his own knowledge and self-assurance never to be disconcerted. Above all he must be conciliatory, and avoid being too personal. Moses had addressed Israel as rebellious and hard-hearted, and he was not allowed to bring them into the land of promise. Elijah had upbraided them with having broken the covenant, and Elisha was immediately appointed his successor. Even Isaiah had his lips touched with burning coals, because he spoke of dwelling among a people of sinful lips. 107 108 As for the mental qualifications of the preacher, he must know his Bible well. As a bride knows properly to make use of her twenty-four ornaments, so must the preacher of the twenty-four books of the Bible. He must carefully prepare his subject – he is ‘to hear himself’ before the people hear him. But whatever else he may be or do, he must be attractive. 109 In earlier times the sermon might have consisted of a simple exposition of some passages from Scripture, or the Book of Sirach, which latter was treated and quoted by some of the Rabbis almost as if it had been canonical. 110 But this, or the full discussion of a single text 111 (xrq, to bore), would probably not be so attractive as the adaptation of a text to present circumstances, or even its modification and alteration for such purposes. There were scarcely bounds to the liberties taken by the preacher. He would divide a sentence, cut off one or two syllables from a word and join them to the next, so producing a different meaning, or giving a new interpretation to a text. Perhaps the strangest method was that of introducing Greek words and expressions into the Hebrew, and this not only to give a witty repartee, 112 but in illustration of Scripture. 113 Nay, many instances occur, in which a Hebrew word is, from the similarity of its sound with the Greek, rendered as if it were actually Greek, and thus a new meaning is given to a passage. 114
If such licence was taken, it seems a comparatively small thing that a doctrine was derived from a word, a particle, or even a letter. But, as already stated, the great point was to attract the hearers. Parables, stories, allegories, witticisms, strange and foreign words, absurd legends, in short, anything that might startle an audience, was introduced. 115 Sometimes a discourse was entirely Haggadic; at others, the Haggadah served to introduce the Halakhah. Sometimes the object of the preacher was purely homiletical; at others, he dealt chiefly with the explanation of Scripture, or of the rites and meaning of festivals. A favourite method was that which derived its name from the stringing together of pearls (Charaz), when a preacher, having quoted a passage or section from the Pentateuch, strung on to it another and like-sounding, or really similar, from the Prophets and the Hagiographa. Or else he would divide a sentence, generally under three heads, and connect with each of the clauses a separate doctrine, and then try to support it by Scripture. It is easy to imagine to what lengths such preachers might go in their misinterpretation and misrepresentations of the plain text of Holy Scripture. And yet a collection of short expositions (the Pesiqta), which, though not dating from that period, may yet fairly be taken as giving a good idea of this method of exposition, contains not a little that is fresh, earnest, useful, and devotional. It is interesting to know that, at the close of his address, the preacher very generally referred to the great Messianic hope of Israel. The service closed with a short prayer, or what we would term an ‘ascription.’
We can now picture to ourselves the Synagogue, its worship, and teaching. We can see the leader of the people’s devotions as (according to Talmudic direction) he first refuses, with mock-modesty, the honour conferred on him by the chief ruler; then, when urged, prepares to go; and when pressed a third time, goes up with slow and measured steps to the lectern, and then before the Ark. We can imagine how one after another, standing and facing the people, unrolls and holds in his hand a copy of the Law or of the Prophets, and reads from the Sacred Word, the Methurgeman interpreting. Finally, we can picture it, how the preacher would sit down and begin his discourse, none interrupting him with questions till he had finished, when a succession of objections, answers, or inquiries might await the Amora, if the preacher had employed such help. And help it certainly was not in many cases, to judge by the depreciatory and caustic remarks, which not unfrequently occur, as to the manners, tone, vanity, self-conceit, and silliness of this.