The Worship Of The Synagogue
One of the most difficult questions in Jewish history is one that is connected with why a synagogue was found to exist within the Temple. There is no question that it existed because its meeting-place was in “the hall of hewn stones” that was at the south-eastern angle of the court of the priests. This hall was also the meeting-place for the great Sanhedrim.
There they made legal decisions, but also gave religious lectures and had many theological discussions. Ever since synagogues had been formed, they were used for things other than worship in the communities they were in.
We have proof from the Bible that lectures and discussions were held there in New Testament times because that is where Mary and Joseph found Jesus as He was astounding the older men with His knowledge and asking them many questions. This also may explain how the Scribes and Pharisees had so much access to “come upon Him” while He taught in the Temple.
In reference to the “Temple-synagogue”, though, there is this difficulty: there were certain prayers and rites that seem to have been connected with it that formed no part of the regular Temple services. We can only conclude that the growing change in the theological views of Israel about the time of Christ, made them think that the Temple services alone must have not been sufficient to meet all their needs.
The symbolical and everyday things that constituted the life and center of Temple worship had lost their spiritual meaning and attraction to the majority of that generation of people. The place that they had once held with such reverence and honor had pretty much been replaced by just an outward performance of getting forgiveness of sins. So it had ended up that the worship of the letter had taken the place of real worship to God, and the table was set for Israel to reject the true Christ for religious Pharisaism.
The synagogue was basically substituted for the Temple and inwardly overshadowed it. Within its walls was mostly man-devised worship, but it was carried on with the God-ordained rites of the sanctuary. Man instituted his own addition of synagogue-worship in addition to what God had already ordained for His people. He had given them exact instructions, but this wasn’t good enough for them anymore. They had to institute their own set of rules for worship.
This was only one of those terribly significant things that they did that unconsciously pronounced their own doom. Another thing they did that was so significant was when they chose Barabbas to be set free instead of Jesus by pronouncing that “His blood be upon us and our children”. They were getting further away from God instead of turning to Him.
Even though it had gone drastically downhill, it was still the medium that Jesus was able to use to teach the people because that was its main object of being. From its very conception, it had been used only for teaching the Jewish law. Even though several different things might happen there, they were all connected with teaching, and the synagogue didn’t deviate from its original purpose.
The “teaching” part of the service consisted mainly in reading a section from the law, a portion from the prophets, and a sermon, or address, about what had been read. There was no service of “praise” inside the synagogue itself.
Public worship started on ordinary occasions with the “Shema”, which was preceded in the morning and evening by two benedictions, and followed in the morning by one, and in the evening by two benedictions, with the second benediction being an evening prayer.
The “Shema” was a kind of creed that was composed of the following three passages of Scripture:
Deuteronomy 6: 4 – 9
Deuteronomy 11: 13 – 21
Numbers 15: 37 – 41
It obtained its name from the first three words of the passage: “Hear, O Israel”, which means “Shema” in Hebrew.
From the Mishnah, we know that this part of the service existed already before the time of Jesus. All males were bound to repeat this belief twice every day, with children, slaves and women being exempted from the obligation. The Mishnah expressly mentions the three Scriptural sections, the number of benedictions before and after it, and even the initial words of the closing benediction.
Therefore, there were certain prayers that Jesus must have heard and shared in hundreds of times. These prayers still exist in the synagogue, and are greatly valued. Even thou they were quoted, there were expressions used in the Hebrew that lead us to think that there were local variations of each one that might have been lengthened a bit or shortened a bit. The basic benedictions were considered as fixed, though.
The following are the benedictions that were given before the “Shema” was read. These are in their original form:
1. “Blessed be Thou, O Lord, King of the world, Who formest the light and createst the darkness, Who makes 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 handiwork and for the light-giving lights which He has made for His priase. Selah! Blessed be the Lord our God, Who hath formed the lights.”
2. “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 Oneness. Blessed be the Lord Who in love chose His people Israel.”
After this followed the “Shema”. The Mishnah gives the following beautiful explanation of the order in which the portions of Scripture of which it is composed are arranged.
The section Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 is said to precede that in 11: 13-21, so that we might “take upon ourselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and only after that the yoke of the commandments.” Again: Deuteronomy 11: 13-21 precedes Numbers 15: 37-41, because the former applies, as it were, both night and day and the latter only by day.
The reader can definitely grasp the teaching of the Mishnah upon the gracious invitation of our Lord when He said “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your soul. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matt. 11: 28-30)
These words were of special significance to them because they understood that by coming to the Savior they would first take upon them “the kingdom of heaven”, and then that of “the commandments”. Compared to what they had been living under, they would truly find that this “yoke was easy” and this “burden was light”.
The prayer after the “Shema” was as follows:
“True it is, that Thou art Jehovah our God and the God of our fathers, our King and the King of our fathers, our Savior and the Savior 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 seashore; together did all praise and own Thee King, and say, Jehovah will reign world without end! Blessed by the Lord Who saveth Israel!”
Then next was the very last evening prayer:
“O Lord our God! cause us to lie down in peace, and raise us up again to life, O our King! Spread over us the tabernacle of Thy peace; strengthen us before Thee in Thy good counsel, and deliver us for Thy Name’s sake. Be Thou for protection round about us; keep far from us the enemy, the pestilence, the sword, famine, and affliction. Keep Satan from before and from behind us, and hide us in the shadow of Thy wings, for Thou art a God who helpest and deliverest us; and Thou, O God, art a gracious and merciful King. Keep Thou our going out and our coming in, for life and for peace, from henceforth and for ever!”