The Worship Of The Synagogue
The “Shema” and its accompanying benedictions seem to have been said in the synagogue at the pulpit area; whereas the next series of prayers the leader went forward and stood before “the ark”. This is where the expression “to go up before the ark” comes from. The Mishnah makes this distinction many different times, and talks about a distinct difference between the two.
The prayers offered before the ark consisted of eighteen eulogies, or benedictions, and formed the “tephillah”. These are of various dates, with the earliest being the first and last three of them. There is much reason to believe that these six were said at worship in the synagogues during the time of Jesus.
Next in date are the eulogies 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 16. Eulogy 7 dates from a time of national calamity, and others were added after the fall of the Jewish people as a nation. Eulogy 12 was intended to be against the early Jewish converts to Christianity.
In all likelihood, it was the practice in earlier times to insert private prayers that dealt with each individual during the first and last three eulogies. The extra ones were probably added gradually because of this.
We know that on the Sabbaths and other festive occasions during the time of Jesus, the first and last three were repeated with other petitions being inserted between them. This is probably where the “long prayers” came from that Jesus condemned in Mark 12: 40 and Luke 20: 47.
It was also customary that one offered a prayer both on entering and leaving the synagogue. The Rabbis taught the people that doing this would prolong their lives.
Below are the first three and last three eulogies that the people repeated:
1. “Blessed be the Lord our God and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, 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.”
2. “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 unto the dead. Blessed be Thou, Jehovah, Who quickenest the dead!”
3. “Thou art holy, and Thy Name is holy; and the holy ones praise Thee every day. Selah! Blessed art Thou, Jehovah God, the Holy One!”
One can truly feel the solemnity of these prayers because they breathe the deepest hopes of Israel in simple, Scriptural language. It’s truly amazing, though, to think that Jesus Himself uttered these same prayers; because He knew that He was to be the answer to them.
17. “Take gracious pleasure, O Jehovah our God, in Thy people Israel, and in their prayers. Accept the burnt-offerings of Israel, and their prayers, with Thy good pleasure; and may the services of Thy people Israel be ever acceptable unto Thee. And oh that our eyes may see it, as Thou turnest in mercy to Zion! Blessed be Thou, O Jehovah, Who restoreth His Shechinah to Zion!”
18. “We praise Thee, because Thou art Jehovah our God, and the God of our fathers, for ever and ever. Thou art the Rock of our life, the Shield of our salvation, from generation to generation. We laud Thee, and declare Thy praise for our lives which are kept within Thine hand, and for our souls which are committed unto Thee, and for Thy wonders which are with us every day, and Thy wondrous deeds and Thy goodnesses, which are at all seasons – evening, morning, and mid-day. Thou gracious One, Whose compassions never end; Thou pitying One, Whose grace never ceaseth – for ever do we put our trust in Thee! And for all this Thy Name, O our King, be blessed and extolled always, for ever and ever! And all living bless Thee – Selah – and praise Thy Name in truth, O God, our Salvation and our Help. Blessed art Thou, Jehovah; Thy Name is the gracious One, to Whom praise is due.”
19. “Oh 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 with praise at all times and in every hour. Blessed art Thou, Jehovah, Who blesseth His people Israel with peace.”
According to the Mishnah, the person who read in the synagogue the portion from the prophets was also expected to say the “Shema” and to offer the prayers which have just been quoted. In all likelihood, Jesus Himself had led the devotions in the synagogue of Capernaum on that Sabbath when He read the portion from the prophecies of Isaiah which was that day “fulfilled in their hearing.”
The prayers were said aloud by one person who was specifically chosen for the occasion, with the crowd responding with “Amen.” The service then concluded with a priestly benediction that was spoken by one of the descendants of Aaron, or by the leader of the synagogue if that was not available.
While they gave the benediction, they raised their hands up to the shoulders in the synagogue, and in the Temple up to the forehead. This rite, then, is designated by the expression, “the lifting up of the hands.”
According to the present practice, the 2nd and 3rd and 4th and 5th fingers are joined together, forming a “V”. The Mishnah says that priests could not do this who had blemishes on their hands, or had their fingers dyed. If they were the only one available, then the people could not look at their hands as the performed this function.
While praying, the body was to be fully bent, but care was to be taken that this never looked as if it became burdensome. One of the Rabbis wrote that he bent down as a branch, but lifted himself up again like a serpent – beginning with the head.
Any person asked to say the “Shema” in the congregation could do so unless he was a minor. The eulogies or priestly benedictions, though, could not be repeated by anyone who was not properly clothed, nor by a person who was so blind that they could not discern daylight. If a person praying tried to introduce any heretical views, he was immediately stopped. If this was bad enough, he was put under a ban for a week.
The Mishnah talks about certain modes of dress and appearance, and certain expressions used in prayer. Either of these could mark heresy or indicate that a man was not to be allowed to lead prayers in the synagogue. It could be that some of these statements refer to the early Jewish Christians.
After the priestly benediction came the reading of the Law. For this very purpose, the Pentateuch had been arranged in 54 sections, one for each of the Sabbaths of the year beginning immediately after the Feast of Tabernacles. In Palestine, though, the Pentateuch was so divided that its reading occupied at least half a Jubilee period, or 3 1/2 years.
The section for each day was subdivided, so that every Sabbath at least 7 persons were called up to read a portion that consisted of at least 3 verses. The first reader began, and the last one closed with a benediction.
By this time, the Hebrew language had given place to the Aramaic, so an interpreter stood by the side of the reader and translated each verse.