SYNAGOGUE . The origins of the synagogue are obscure and will probably never be known. This is in part because the synagogue developed in a nonrevolutionary manner, its significance recognized only once it was a well-established institution of Jewish life. A hint of the original function of this institution may be found in its most prominent Greek and Hebrew names used in antiquity, sunagogē and beit knesset. Both refer to an assembly or house of assembly. Numerous theories have been propounded to explain the origins of this institution. The most venerable of these places the origins of the synagogue in Babylonia (modern Iraq) during the sixth century bce. There, "by the waters of Babylon," this theory suggests, the exiled Judeans assembled to "sing the Lord's song in a strange land" (Ps. 137). Ezekiel 11:16, "Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a lesser sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone," has often been cited in support of this thesis. This approach has roots that go back at least to the medieval period in Babylonia (modern Iraq), and it was developed further by Christian Hebraists beginning in the seventeenth century in their attempt to find biblical antecedents for later Jewish practice. More recent theories place the origins of the synagogue in third-century bce Egypt, asserting that Jewish "prayer places" (proseuchē ) described in inscriptions were in fact the earliest synagogues, or elsewhere in the Western Diaspora. These approaches assert the priority of exile and hence distance from the Jerusalem Temple as a determining factor in the formation of the synagogue. In recent years the origins of the synagogue in biblical Israel have been asserted. According to this theory, the Second Temple–period synagogue was the descendant of the "gate of the city" of biblical times. None of these approaches is supported by sufficient data.
An approach that is more clearly supported by the available evidence suggests that the synagogue as a place for religious ritual was a development of the later Second Temple period. This approach begins with the fact that institutions known as "synagogues" are clearly evidenced in literary and archaeological sources from the first century ce, and it cautiously assumes a development that occurred before synagogues were mentioned in literary texts without asserting a specific moment when the first synagogue appeared. A long prehistory is assumed by Acts of the Apostles 15:21, by Josephus Flavius (Against Apion 2.175), and by the ancient rabbis (e.g., t. Megillah 2:12), all of whom assert the existence of synagogues in hoary biblical antiquity. The factors occasioning the earliest development of the synagogue were shared by other communities in the Greco-Roman world. The general trend toward smaller religious communities that existed side by side with the major cults of each city was adopted by Jews in Palestine and in Diaspora settings. This phenomenon may be evidenced in Egypt as early as the third century, if the "prayer places" (proseuchē ) known from epigraphy were in any way similar to "prayer places" known from the writings of the first-century Egyptian scholar Philo of Alexandria. A Jewish "prayer place" from the second century bce was discovered on the Greek island of Delos. We have no idea what kinds of "prayer" took place in these early "prayer places." By the first century (and undoubtedly much earlier) the increasing significance of Scripture and its interpretation in Second Temple–period Judaism set the liturgical frame for these synagogues. This focus on Scripture and scriptural interpretation is expressed early on in the public ceremony of reading and interpreting the Pentateuch described in Nehemiah 8, a Persian-period text that exercised a profound influence upon later synagogue practice.
The best evidence for synagogues during the first century is a monumental inscription found just south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by R. Weill in 1913–1914. This Greek inscription translates:
Theodotos, son of Vettenos the priest and synagogue leader (archisynagogos ), son of a synagogue leader and grandson of a synagogue leader, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and studying of the commandments, and as a hostel with chambers and water installations to provide for the needs of itinerants from abroad, which his fathers, the elders and Simonides founded.
The terminus ad quem for the inscription is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 ce. It provides evidence of three generations of priestly synagogue leaders. The liturgical focal point for this, and for every other Second Temple–period text that has been recovered, is scriptural study. This is clearly the element that distinguished synagogue liturgy, both for Jews and non-Jews. Philo describes the Sabbath liturgy of an Essene "synagogue" in Palestine:
For that day has been set apart to be kept holy and on it they abstain from all other work and proceed to sacred places (hierous…topous ) that they call synagogues (sunagogai ). There, arranged in rows according to their ages, the younger below the elder, they sit decorously as befits the occasion with attentive ears. Then one takes the books (biblous ) and reads aloud and another of especial proficiency comes forward and expounds what is not understood.…
Luke 4:16–30 and the Acts of the Apostles 13:15–16 provide additional early illustrations of public Scripture reading and explication in synagogues. It is unknown whether other liturgical acts were performed in synagogues at this time, though ample numbers of later Second Temple–period Jewish prayer texts are extant.
It is likely that the earliest synagogue buildings (like many after them) were simply rooms within domestic structures with no special renovations, and hence are unidentifiable archaeologically. Five purpose-built or purpose-renovated buildings that might be identified as later Second Temple–period synagogues have been excavated in Israel. These were uncovered at Masada, Gamla, Herodian, Kiryat Sefer, and Modi'in. Other supposed synagogues, at Magdala, Capernaum, and Jericho, are far less likely. Gamla is the earliest synagogue. This large public building was built on the eastern side of Gamla, next to the city wall. Built of local basalt, this structure is rectangular (13.4 by 17 meters). The main entrance was on the west, with an exedra and an open court in front of it. The center of the hall was unpaved and surrounded (except for the main entrance) by stepped benches. The synagogue at Masada is a ten-meter-square room that was converted by the Jewish rebels who inhabited this desert fortress from 66 to 74 ce. The rebels added banks of benches on each wall, and a small room on the northwestern wall within which were found fragments of the books of Deuteronomy and Ezekiel. The literary definition of the first-century synagogue as a house of assembly where Scripture was studied is uniquely paralleled in this structure. At Herodian a room was converted by Jewish rebels with the addition of benches that were similar to those at Masada. The synagogues at Kiryat Sefer and Modi'in are small freestanding structures with benches lining the walls. It seems likely that these communal buildings served as synagogues as well, though there is no epigraphic evidence to support this identification.
Late Antiquity: The Late Roman and Byzantine Periods
Evidence for synagogues during the second through the fourth centuries is mostly literary. Rabbinic literature from Palestine and from Sassanid Babylonia (modern Iraq) present synagogues as regular features of the Jewish communal landscape. Early rabbinic (Tannaitic) literature mentions a broad range of activities that took place within synagogues. These included the recitation of Aramaic translations of the Torah reading (m. Megillah 4:6,10), Torah blessings (t. Kippurim 3:18), sounding of the ram's horn (shofar ) on the new year (m. Rosh Hashanah 3:7), use of the palm frond (lulav ), myrtle, willow, and citron (ethrog ) on the feast of Tabernacles (m. Sukkah 3:13; t. Sukkah 2:10), recitation of the Book of Esther reading on the Feast of Esther (Purim), possibly even by women (m. Megillah 2:4), recitation of the hallel psalms (t. Pesahim 10:8), eulogies (t. Megillah 2:18), public oaths (m. Shevuot 4:10), local charity collection (t. Shabbat 16:22; t. Terumah 1:10; t. Baba Batra 8:4; Matt. 6:2), communal meals (m. Zavim 3:2; m. Bekhorot 5:5). By the third century they were also used as elementary schools (y. Megillah 3:4, 73a). Rabbinic literature suggests the development of an increasingly standardized public liturgical tradition, important elements of which were enacted within synagogues (e.g., m. Berakhot 7:3). Rabbinic public prayer (the "public" defined as a quorum of at least ten men) took place in formal thrice-daily sessions as well as in the context of communal meals. This format continues to this day. In liberal Jewish communities the quorum now includes women. In antiquity there was considerable variation in custom dependent on locality and scholar, modern scholars differing on the balance between variation and standardization. Rabbinic liturgy was built around the recitation of the "Shema (Deut. 6:4–9, 11:13–21; Num. 15:37–40) and its blessings" together with the Eighteen Benedictions (also known as the "Standing prayer," the Amidah ) morning and evening, and the Eighteen Benedictions with accompanying liturgy in afternoon prayers. Prayer times, though not the content of these rituals, were associated with the times of the Temple sacrifices. By the third century public prayer was described homiletically as being equivalent in efficacy to sacrifices in the Temple, although the notion of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple was never questioned in liturgical terms until the advent of modern Reform Judaism. In rabbinic times synagogue prayer and the preexisting public reading of Scripture melded into a single liturgical structure. The Torah was publicly read, with attendant blessings, in the morning and afternoon services on the Sabbath and festivals and on Monday and Thursday mornings. A reading from the prophets (the haftarah ) accompanied the Sabbath morning and festival Torah reading. Scripture reading was simultaneously translated into Aramaic (later concretized in Targum texts such those preserved in Targum Neofiti and Targum Onkelos ), a tradition that was popular into the early Middle Ages and is still followed by Yemenite Jews. Various cycles for reading Torah existed in antiquity. Palestinians generally completed the entire Pentateuch in something more than three years, while Babylonians read on a yearly cycle. The Babylonian custom is followed in all traditional communities today.
The increase in synagogue functions was paralleled by the developing notion that synagogues were in some way holy. Mishnah Megillah 3:1–3 describes the centrality of Scripture within the synagogue, as well as the transient holiness ascribed to this institution by the early rabbis. At the focal point of the synagogue, this text suggests, was the Torah scroll, which stood at the top of a hierarchy:
The people of a town who sold their town square: They must buy a synagogue with its proceeds; If they sell a synagogue, they must acquire a (scroll) chest. If they sell a (scroll) chest, they must acquire cloths (to wrap sacred scrolls). If they sell cloths, they must acquire books (of the Prophets and Writings). If they sell books, they must acquire a Pentateuch (scroll). But, if they sell a Pentateuch, they may not acquire books (of the Prophets and Writings). And if they sell books, they may not acquire cloths. And if they sell cloths, they may not acquire a chest, And if they sell a chest, they may not acquire a synagogue. And if they sell a synagogue, they may not acquire town square.
Tosefta Sukkah 4:6 projects a second-century Palestinian reality onto a great synagogue in Alexandria. This text focuses attention upon a large podium (bimah ) upon which the biblical texts were read, with no mention of a Torah shrine. An ideal synagogue is described in Tosefta Megillah 21–23, which establishes categories that set the parameters of Jewish legal discussions of synagogue architecture for the next two millennia. At the same time it suggests a second focal point within synagogues: orientation toward Jerusalem.
The Community leader (hazan ha-knesset ) arises to read, someone stands until the time when he reads. How do the elders sit? Facing the people, their backs to the qodesh. When they set down the (Scroll) chest—its front is toward the people, its back to the qodesh. The hazan ha-knesset faces the qodesh. All the people face the qodesh. For it is said: "and the congregation was assembled at the door of the tent of meeting (Lev. 8:4)." The doors of the synagogue are built on the eastern side, for thus we find in the Tabernacle, for it is said: "Before the Tabernacle toward the east, before the tent of meeting eastward (Num. 3:38)." It is only built at the highest point of the town, for it is written: "Above the bustling (streets) she (wisdom, i.e., Torah) calls out (Prov. 1:21)."
The location of the synagogue and some of its internal arrangement are articulated through reference to the biblical Tabernacle and the Temple of Jerusalem. Alignment toward Jerusalem as focused through a Torah cabinet became basic to synagogue architecture, as did the notion that the ideal synagogue should be higher than the surrounding structures (the latter having generally been kept in the breach). The identification of the synagogue with the Temple was a developing concept throughout antiquity and the medieval period. By the third century the cabinet (teva ) was being called arona (cabinet, reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant), and its curtain parokhta, reminiscent of the Temple curtain. There is no evidence for the physical separation of men and women in ancient synagogues, though a social distinction existed. Physical gender separation is known beginning during the early Middle Ages, when it was seen as an expression of the holiness of the synagogue due to its conceptual relationship with the Temple (where gender separation sometimes occurred).
The dual foci—the scrolls as local cult object along with a more subtle physical alignment in the direction of Jerusalem—became ideologically significant features of almost all synagogues until modern times. While the standard codes of Jewish law all legislate that the synagogue interior be aligned toward the Torah shrine on the Jerusalem wall of the synagogue, local realities were far more complex even in the most rabbinically oriented medieval and early modern com-munities.
Archaeological evidence for purpose-built synagogues begins to appear during the late third or early fourth century, becoming quite common between the fifth and ninth centuries. Undoubtedly there were many other buildings that are archaeologically unidentifiable as synagogues. More than one hundred synagogues are known archaeologically from the Land of Israel, and another ten structures have been discovered that served Diaspora communities. At least 150 Diaspora synagogues are known from literary and archaeological sources. The earliest extant late-antique synagogue is also one of the most important. The synagogue discovered at Dura Europos, a city in the Syrian desert, is the earliest yet discovered, and among the most important. Excavated in 1932, the Dura synagogue was built as a renovated private dwelling. Sometime before 244–245 this dwelling was renovated as a synagogue. The largest room was renovated for this purpose, with a large Torah shrine built on the western (Jerusalem-aligned) wall and benches around the walls. The façade of the Torah shrine was decorated with the image of the Jerusalem Temple, flanked on the right by the Binding of Isaac (which according to 2 Chronicles 3:1 took place on "Mt. Moriah," the Temple Mount) and on the left by a seven-branched menorah, a palm frond (lulav ), and citron (ethrog ). There was some other painting, lost in a massive renovation of the synagogue that took place in 244–245. At that time the walls were completely covered with paintings drawn from the Hebrew Bible and read through the prism of Jewish biblical interpretation (midrash). Sixty percent of the paintings have been preserved. Themes are generally heroic, reflecting such themes as the Discovery of Moses by the Daughter of Pharaoh, the Crossing of the Read Sea, the Tribes encamped around the Tabernacle, Ezekiel's Vision of the Dry Bones, and Esther before King Ahasveros. The paintings show profound parallels with traditions preserved in rabbinic literature, as do Aramaic and Persian inscriptions on the paintings and a Jewish liturgical parchment found near the synagogue. The Dura synagogue has been interpreted as a forerunner of Christian art and as evidence for a supposed late-antique "nonrabbinic Judaism." The evidence is actually much closer to rabbinic tradition than most contemporary scholars have suggested.
Archaeological evidence for synagogues increases from the fourth century onward. Synagogues conforming to three main architectural types were constructed by Jews in late antique Palestine: the broadhouse (e.g., Horvat Shema, Eshtemoa), the "Galilean-type" basilica (e.g., Capernaum, Kefar Baram), and longhouse basilicas (e.g., Hammath Tiberias B, stratum 2a), which from the latter fifth or sixth century onward often were apsidal (Beth Alpha, Na'aran).
The interior space of most of these synagogues was aligned toward a permanent Torah shrine, which usually stood on the Jerusalem-aligned side of the synagogue. The basilica form was used by both Jews and Christians beginning around the turn of the fourth century. "Broadhouse-type" synagogues have benches built around the interior walls, focusing attention upon the center of the room. The broadhouses from the Hebron Hills (e.g., Eshtemoa, Khirbet Susiya) form a regional type. The entrances of these halls were aligned toward the east. The eastward alignment is perhaps modeled upon the Temple, and parallels Tosefta Megillah 3:23. The interior of the synagogue hall was aligned toward the Torah shrine, which stood on the Jerusalem-aligned wall.
Galilean-type basilicas are architecturally related to the narrow gable churches of nearby Syria. Like these churches, most Galilean-type synagogues were entered through three portals. A unique feature of these synagogues is the arrangement of the interior columns. Columns were constructed on the northern, eastern, and western sides of the hall. This served to focus attention on the interior of the southern, Jerusalem wall with its three portals. Scholars have posited that Torah shrines were constructed between the doors on the Jerusalem wall at Capernaum, Chorazin, and Meiron. In an instructive parallel, S. D. Goitein notes that in synagogues in Yemen two entrances flank the Torah shrine on the Jerusalem wall and that this arrangement existed in a synagogue in medieval Hebron.
Basilical synagogues were constructed throughout the Land of Israel. In "basilica-type" synagogues the visitor might cross the expanse of the atrium, sometimes a narthex, and the nave, to reach the Jerusalem-aligned wall. At the center of this wall was the building's focal point, the Torah shrine, which often stood upon a raised platform. Following contemporary church architecture, synagogues from the late fifth century onward often included an apse on the Jerusalem wall that housed the Torah shrine, and the platform was often surrounded by a low partition (called in Christian context a "chancel screen") decorated with Jewish iconography.
The art of Palestinian synagogues, particularly decorated mosaics, is an integral part of the late Roman and Byzantine artistic tradition. The synagogue at Beth Alpha contains the most completely preserved Byzantine period mosaic and well exemplifies this tradition. It builds on iconography well known from the Hammath Tiberias B, 2a mosaic, with its images of the zodiac and a panel containing a Torah shrine flanked by two menorahs. The Beth Alpha mosaic is divided into three panels. As at Hammath Tiberias, closest to the Torah shrine of the synagogue is a panel containing the image of a shrine flanked by lighted menorahs. In the center is a zodiac wheel, personifications of the seasons in the corners, and unique to this building, closest to the entrance to the synagogue, the image of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22).
Zodiacs and some other images are often labeled in Hebrew, the language of Scripture and most liturgy, even as dedicatory inscriptions appear in Aramaic and Greek. At Beth Alpha the narrative of the scene is glossed with biblical citations in Hebrew. Biblical themes in other synagogues include David (Gaza), Daniel in the Lion's Den (Na'aran and Khirbet Susiya), and Gerasa (Noah's Ark, labeled in Greek). Sepphoris contains the Angelic Visitation to Abraham (Genesis 18), the Binding of Isaac, Aaron before the Tabernacle, and other cultic imagery. Jews continued to use images of the zodiac long after Christians abandoned this imagery, owing to the significance of the heavens and constructions of time in Jewish thought and liturgy.
Archaeological remains of late-antique synagogues show important parallels to contemporaneous liturgical and rabbinic texts. This is particularly evident in inscriptions, where formulae show clear relationships with literary sources. A very significant example is the Rehov inscription, discovered in the narthex of a sixth-century synagogue. This twenty-nine-line inscription, which deals with local agricultural law, is the earliest extant physical evidence of a rabbinic text. Increased decoration of the physical environment of Palestinian synagogues paralleled the development of increasingly complex liturgical texts. Professional poets composed prayers for each Sabbath and festival according to the local reading cycles. These texts (piyyutim ) were often quite complex. Named poets appear from the fourth century onward, beginning with Yosse ben Yosse, Yannai, Eleazar son of Rabbi Qallir, Yehuda, and Yohanan the Priest. These homiletic texts strongly parallel public homilies (midrashim ) and traditions in Targumic literature. There is no theme in synagogue art that does not find important parallels in these literatures. The tradition of virtuoso poets preparing liturgical compositions for synagogue performance continued through the Middle Ages, particularly (though hardly exclusively) in areas of Italy and Northern Europe that continued elements of the Palestinian liturgical tradition.
Known Diaspora synagogues during this period conform to local architectural norms. What unifies them are the presence of a large Torah shrine and often images of menorahs. Other than Dura, the most impressive extant Diaspora synagogues were uncovered in Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, and in Sardis in Asia Minor. The Ostia synagogue building was first constructed toward the end of the first century of the Common Era, though it is not known whether it served as a synagogue at this point. The use of the building as a synagogue went through two stages. It was enlarged during the second and third centuries, then enlarged further and partly rebuilt at the beginning of the fourth. The entrances in the façade of the basilica from the second through third centuries are aligned toward the east-southeast, perhaps in the direction of Jerusalem. A stepped podium stood on the wall opposite the main entrance. A Latin and Greek inscription from this phase makes mention of a shrine for the Torah:
For the well-being of the emperor! Mindus Faustus established and built (it) and set up the ark (keiboton ) of the Holy Torah (nomo hagio ).
During the fourth century the southernmost entrance portal on the eastern wall of the synagogue was sealed and replaced with a large freestanding Torah shrine. This Torah shrine is structurally contiguous with images of shrines in wall paintings and gold glasses discovered in the Jewish catacombs of Rome and with images on oil lamps discovered in Ostia.
The Sardis synagogue is the largest and the grandest synagogue yet uncovered, its main hall measuring fifty-four by eighteen meters. It has been estimated that the synagogue could accommodate one thousand people. This impressive building, the largest synagogue known before the modern period, was part of the municipal center of Sardis and taken over by the Jewish community and remodeled as a synagogue during the fourth century. It formed the southern side of the civic center of Sardis. The remodeling included the installation of two aediculae on stepped podia on the eastern wall of the synagogue and the construction of a podium in the center of the hall. The significance of these aediculae is made clear both by their prominence and by an inscription found near them that reads "Find, open, read, observe." Another Greek inscription refers to the Torah shrine as the nomophylakion, "the place that protects the Torah." A molding from the synagogue contains both an inscribed menorah and the image of a Torah shrine with its doors open to show scrolls stacked horizontally within it.
We know little of the liturgies of Jews in the western Diaspora. John Chrysostom describes synagogue customs in fourth-century Antioch as part of his polemic Against the Jews, aimed against Judaizers within his community. These include blowing the ram's horn on Rosh Hashannah, walking barefooted and fasting on Yom Kippur (known from rabbinic literature), and incubation in synagogues. He also knows that Jews and non-Jews considered synagogues to be holy places, the sanctity of the place being construed as deriving from the presence of biblical scrolls. Chrysostom suggests that reading of Psalms was important to synagogue liturgy. Inscriptions, most notably a Greek rendition of Psalm 135:25 discovered in ancient Nicaea (today Iznik in Turkey) supports this. These characteristics (other than incubation) were also prevalent in synagogues in Palestine and in Sassanian Iraq that are described in the Babylonian Talmud. The great significance of Torah shrines and images of shrines full of scrolls suggests the centrality of Scripture within Diaspora communities, as it was for communities in the Land of Israel.
Medieval and Modern Synagogues
Liturgies during medieval and modern times were largely based upon models developed already in classical rabbinic literature. While significant differences exist between Ashkenazic (Central and Eastern European) rites, Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) rites, Italian, and the rites of Jews in the lands of Islam, the differences are far outweighed by the continuities. Modern liturgies maintain continuity to the extent that each movement sees itself as bound by Talmudic tradition. The interior furnishings of synagogues also follow ancient models as preserved in rabbinic sources. These include a large permanent Torah shrine (called aron ha-qodesh, "Holy Ark" by Ashkenazim; hekhal, "shrine," by Sephardim), generally on the Jerusalem-aligned wall of the synagogue and a platform for reading Scripture.
In all periods of Jewish history, the physical structure of the purpose-built synagogue buildings generally followed the styles prevailing in contemporary non-Jewish architecture. Neither early rabbinic literature nor later medieval and modern rabbinic scholars focused on the architectural aspects of the synagogue. Architects, however, were confronted with a major liturgical problem. Since two major components of the synagogue were the Torah shrine and the platform (bimah ) from which it was read, the spatial relationship between the two had to be resolved. The sixteenth-century Sephardic legalist Joseph Caro (1488–1575) reflects on this tension. Caro debates whether the platform must be placed in the center of the hall or whether it could be joined with the Torah shrine, usually on the Jerusalem-aligned side of the building. Caro writes: "the placement [of the bimah ] in the center is not required, rather everything depends upon the locality and the time…" (Kesef Mishneh to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah 11:3). Solutions (and nonsolutions) differed from community to community. In Central Europe, for example, the center of attention was the almemor, the reading podium, which dominated the entire space. In baroque and rococo Italy, however, a harmonious solution was found between the reading podium and the Torah shrine by placing them at opposite ends of the hall, connected by a broad and open central aisle. Seating was placed on the sides. In such a way neither dominated but both contributed to a sense of balance.
Medieval and Pre-Emancipation Synagogues
Much of what we know about synagogues in Byzantine Palestine and under medieval Islam is derived from the documents discovered in the repository of the medieval Ben Ezra Synagogue in old Cairo (Fostat), itself an exceptional example of synagogue architecture under Islam. Archaeological evidence for medieval European synagogues is widespread beginning near the turn of the first millennium. The famous Worms synagogue, built in 1175, is generally accepted by scholars as the oldest surviving medieval synagogue. Although the original was destroyed by the Nazis, a faithful reconstruction now stands in its place. Its double-nave building, patterned after Romanesque chapter houses of convents and monastic refectories suggest a model that is found in such later Ashkenazic synagogues as the famous late thirteenth-century Altneuschul of Prague, the old synagogue of Kraców (in the suburb of Kazimierz), and those of Regensburg, in Bavaria, and Buda (now part of the city of Budapest). The almemor (bimah) in these synagogues predominated: it stood in the center between two columns or piers.
There are two synagogues extant in Toledo, Spain, albeit transformed into churches after the expulsion in 1492: the five-aisled synagogue later known as Santa María la Blanca and the synagogue later known as El Tránsito. In style Santa María la Blanca resembles twelfth-century Moroccan mosques. El Tránsito was built around 1357 by Shemu'el ha-Levi Abulafia, treasurer to King Pedro the Cruel of Castile. Its ornamental plasterwork with Hebrew inscriptions and Mudéjar designs is especially noteworthy. The Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) synagogue of Amsterdam, designed by the Dutch architect Elias Bouman around 1675, became the prototype for synagogues for the entire Sephardic world. The Amsterdam synagogue, a large, galleried basilican hall, was clearly inspired by neighboring Protestant churches.
The many rural wooden synagogues in Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, most destroyed by the Nazis, are most interesting. Dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, these wooden synagogues, probably constructed by anonymous Jewish craftsmen, had intricate multicolored painted interiors. In many of them, four wooden columns supported the interior domed bimah. Numerous synagogues are extant from this period from Islamic countries, India, and elsewhere in Asia and the Americas. Among the most exotic is a synagogue known only from drawings dated 1722 by a Jesuit missionary. The synagogue of Kaifeng, China, was built in a local vernacular architecture and furnishings. A raised bimah stood at the center of the prayer hall, with a Torah shine aligned toward Jerusalem on the western wall.
Modern Synagogue Architecture
During the nineteenth century, when Jews in Western Europe were emancipated and American Jews strove for full acceptance, prominent architects, some of whom were Jewish, built large and impressive synagogues as statements of the new status of Jews in Western society. These synagogues were often built in neo-Islamic and neo-Byzantine styles (although sometimes the Romanesque was employed), ostensibly to emphasize the Eastern origins of Judaism. Neoclassical synagogues were also constructed, especially in America at the turn of the twentieth century as an alternative to Christian and Moslem architecture and as a statement of a developing Jewish-American synthesis.
In the modern period, many innovations have been introduced to synagogue architecture, particularly within liberal communities. Separate seating for women has been eliminated in liberal synagogues, thus generally making balconies or separate rooms unnecessary. In America, Reform (and today, many Conservative) synagogues are referred to as "temples," originally in an attempt to distance their communities from traditional beliefs in the messianic return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and to avoid the term "synagogue," which had negative connotations in Christian circles. Prayer services became far less participatory and hierarchical, following Protestant liturgical models. This was expressed architecturally through the construction of a single podium at the focal point of the synagogue, which housed a Torah shrine, a reading table (often turned toward the congregation rather than toward the shrine), and a speaking lectern. During the postwar years daring experimentation by such leading architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Erich Mendelssohn employed a modernist aesthetic for American synagogue buildings. Synagogues were consciously integrated into their surroundings, and the maximum use of glass brings nature into the sanctuary. Recent years have seen a turning away from the monumentality of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century edifices. Synagogue architecture in America has become far less monumental, responding to a current the focus on "spirituality" and "community." The central bimah has reappeared in liberal synagogues (and reasserted itself within Orthodox contexts), as more participatory and less hierarchical liturgical forms have emerged.
Fine, Steven. Art and Judaism During the Greco-Roman Period: Toward a New "Jewish Archaeology." Cambridge, 2005. In addition to presenting a liturgical analysis of ancient synagogue remains and further reflection on the notion of synagogue holiness, Fine discusses the significance of ideology and influence of ancient synagogue architecture in the construction of American neoclassical synagogues.
Fine, Steven, ed. Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World. New York, 1996. Essays by Fine, E. Meyers, L. Rutgers, L. Feldman, R. Hachlili, and A. Shinan survey the history, literature and archaeology in the ancient world.
Grossman, Susan, and Rivka Haut, eds. Daughters of the King: Women in the Synagogue. New York, 1992. Essays in this volume discuss both the history of women's participation in synagogue life and more recent developments in North American Jewish communities.
Gruber, Sam. "Archaeological Remains of Ashkenazic Jewry in Europe: A New Source of Pride and History." In What Athens Has to Do with Jerusalem: Essays in Classical, Jewish, and Early Christian Archaeology in Honor of Gideon Foerster, ed. L. Rutgers, pp. 267–301. Louvain, 2002. The most recent and comprehensive study of archaeological remains of early European synagogues.
Gruber, Sam. American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community. New York, 2003. A general presentation of the history and architecture of synagogues in America during the twentieth century.
Gutmann, Joseph. The Jewish Sanctuary. Leiden, Netherlands, 1983. An introduction to the synagogue, its art and arch-itecture.
Jarrassé, Dominique. Synagogues: Architecture and Jewish Identity. Paris, 2001. This survey of synagogue architecture is refreshing both because it is not focused on the United States, but on synagogues of the Islamic world and Asia.
Krinsky, Carol H. Synagogues of Europe. New York, 1985. Krinsky surveys the architectural history of the synagogue in Europe.
Lambert, Phyllis, ed. Fortifications and the Synagogue: The Fortress of Babylon and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo. Montreal, 2001. An in-depth study of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, this collection throws considerable light on the history of the synagogue during the medieval and modern periods in the lands of Islam.
Levine, L. I. The Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. New Haven, Conn., 2000. A handbook for the study of the synagogue from its origins to the rise of Islam.
Reif, Stefan C. Judaism and Hebrew Prayer. Cambridge, U.K., 1993. A survey of the history of Jewish prayer from its origins to the modern period.
Joseph Gutmann (1987)
Steven Fine (2005)
"Synagogue." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/synagogue
"Synagogue." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/synagogue