The Biblical Origins of the Synagogue

February 8, 2019 | Jonathan Sacks
About the author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician. He served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

Synagogues date back to before the destruction of the Second Temple in the 1st century CE, but the loss of that central place of worship in Jerusalem made them all the more necessary for the preservation of Judaism. Jonathan Sacks traces the idea behind the synagogue to this week’s Torah reading of Trumah (Exodus 25:1–27:18), which prescribes the construction of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary where the Jews worshipped in Moses’ time:

[The Israeli historian] Menachem Stern has written that “in establishing the synagogue, Judaism created one of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion and society, for the synagogue was an entirely new environment for divine service, of a type unknown anywhere before.” It became, according to [the historian] Salo Baron, the institution through which the exilic community “completely shifted the emphasis from the place of worship, the Sanctuary, to the gathering of worshippers, the congregation, assembled at any time and any place in God’s wide world.” The synagogue became Jerusalem in exile, the home of the Jewish heart. It is the ultimate expression of monotheism—that wherever we gather to turn our hearts toward heaven, there the Divine Presence can be found, for God is everywhere.

Where did it come from, this world-changing idea? It did not come from the Temple, but rather from . . . the Tabernacle—the essence [of which] was that it was portable, made up of beams and hangings that could be dismantled and carried by the Levites as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. The Tabernacle, a temporary structure, turned out to have permanent influence, whereas the Temple, intended to be permanent, proved to be temporary. . . .

The very concept of making a home in finite space for an infinite presence seems a contradiction in terms. The answer, still astonishing in its profundity, is contained [in God’s preamble to His instructions for the Tabernacle]: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them [b’tokham]” (Exodus 25:8). The Jewish mystics pointed out the linguistic strangeness of this sentence. It should have said, “I will dwell in it,” not “I will dwell in them.” The answer is that the Divine Presence lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart. The Sanctuary was not a place in which the objective existence of God was somehow more concentrated than elsewhere. Rather, it was a place whose holiness had the effect of opening hearts to the One worshipped there.

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