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The Synagogue Service Yeshua Wants

In the last chapter we saw how the apostles ruled in Acts 15 that the returning gentile Ephraimites should repent of four things (idolatry, sexual immorality, strangled meats, and blood), and then they could join their local synagogues, where they would learn the rest of the Torah over time. However, as we will see later, after the destruction of the temple, our Orthodox Jewish brothers decided that they did not want Nazarenes in their services, and so they established a curse over the Nazarenes, to drive them out. From this point it was necessary for the Nazarenes to establish their own houses of worship. But what kinds of houses of worship? What are the specific requirements? What is good for worship, and what is not good for worship?

What we want is to establish the kind of synagogues Yeshua wants. As we will see in the balance of this study, there are some specific requirements, and the kind of synagogue service we need is different than the modern synagogue service. But to explain all of this, first let us understand what a synagogue is, and then we will look at a short history of the synagogues.

Synagogues and Batei Knesset

In the wilderness, Israel worshiped at the tabernacle. However, after Israel settled in the land, the tabernacle was too far away for most people to go on the Sabbaths or new moons, so they only went up for the pilgrimage feasts. To compensate for this, sometimes they would gather in homes, and at other times they would build a local house of worship where they could gather on the Sabbaths and new moons. In Greco-Roman Western languages these buildings are called by the Greek term, synagogues.

The term synagogue (συναγωγή) comes from the Greek sunágō (συνάγω), which means, “I gather together.” We can use the term synagogue in languages other than Hebrew, but Hebrew uses more precise words.

In Hebrew, a group of called-out believers is called a kahal (קָהָל). The community that develops from the regular meetings of such a called-out group is called a kehillah (קְהִלָה).

In addition to the kahal or kehillah there is also a beit knesset (בֵּית כְּנֶסֶת). This is usually translated as a house of assembly. The plural of a beit knesset is batei knesset (בתי כְּנֶסֶת). This is the word most Hebrew speakers use.

A beit tefillah (בֵּית תְפִלָה) is a house of prayer.

There is also a beit midrash (בית מדרש), or a house of study (also called a house of discussion). Sometimes a large beit knesset will have a beit midrash inside its walls.

Sometimes one can also hear Ashkenazi (Germanic) Jews using the Yiddish word shul (שול) to describe their synagogues. This comes from the German word Schule (school).

(Reform Jews often call their synagogue by the term “temple”, but Orthodox Jews only use this term to refer to Yahweh’s house.)

You can call your building whatever Yahweh leads you to name it. The main thing is that you pray, and ask Yahweh to show you what He wants it to be called.

From City Elders to Rabbis

The ancient history regarding synagogues is very spotty. However, many scholars believe that there were always local houses of worship in towns that stood at a distance from Yahweh’s altar. Yet we might guess that the Levites probably did not lead the services, because Yahweh gave the Levites their own special cities, where most of the Levites lived.

Bemidbar (Numbers) 35:2
2 “Command the children of Israel that they give the Levites cities to dwell in from the inheritance of their possession, and you shall also give the Levites common-land around the cities.”

Because most cities did not have Levites, the houses of worship in most cities were probably built and led by the elders of each city. (This is very similar to how Nazarene Israel congregations are built and operate today.)

The Changes of Babylon

Things changed when the house of Judah went into Exile in Babylon. Because there was no temple, there was no longer an altar where the people could bring their tithes. Since no priesthood can survive long without financial support, the Levitical order collapsed. Without spiritual leadership, the people would have soon begun assimilating into Babylonian culture. A solution would have had to be found, and that solution was to create a new order of rabbis (or “great men”). Then, rather than bring their tithes up to the Levitical altar, the people were taught to bring their tithes to the “great men”, and follow their opinions. This was because rather than teach the people to obey Yahweh’s Torah, the rabbis taught that Yahweh had given them the authority to set a new Torah in each generation. They also claimed that it had always been this way, such that Moshe (Moses) was the first rabbi, and Joshua was the second, and so on until the authority to set Torah came to rest with them. While this helped to hold the Jewish nation together in the Exile, Yahweh specifically forbids this.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 12:32
32 “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”

When the Babylonian Exile was over and the house of Judah came back to the land, had the rabbis disbanded and gone back to the Levitical order, all would probably have been well. History would probably have viewed the rabbinical order as a brilliant temporary solution that stopped the Jews from assimilating. Only, the rabbis did not disband, and they did not go back to teaching the Torah of Moshe. Rather, they merged certain aspects of the Levitical order into the rabbinical order, and said this new mixed faith was what Yahweh had always said to do. (You can even hear rabbis say this today.)

The Knesset HaGedolah: The Great Assembly

After 70 years, the Babylonian Exile ended, and Judah came back to the land. While the Babylonian Talmud is not Scripture (and is not inspired), it tells us that when the house of Judah returned, they convened a great assembly of the 120 greatest prophets and scholars of the day, and that this group re-established the worship in Israel. In Judaism this is called the Great Assembly, which in Hebrew is Knesset HaGedolah (כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה). It is also sometimes called the Great Synagogue.

Jewish tradition tells us that the Knesset HaGedolah was comprised of such great prophets and leaders as Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (whom they claim is Ezra), Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, Nehemiah ben Hachaliah, Mordechai, Zerubbabel ben Shealtiel, and many notable others. However, the big problem with this list is that not all these men were likely alive at the same time. This casts the general reliability of the Babylonian Talmud into doubt.

Brother Judah has an old joke that if you ask two Jews a question you will get at least three opinions, and there are many opinions as to when the Knesset HaGedolah met. Depending on the rabbi, either the Knesset HaGedolah convened after the house of Judah returned to the land in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, or it was convened a century or two later, but before Alexander the Great’s conquests of the land of Israel began (in 333-332 BCE). However, what seems the most likely is that the Knesset HaGedolah did convene soon after the Jews returned to the land, and it was probably one-in-the-same event as the great gathering we read about in Nehemiah 9-10.

Nehemiah 9:1-3
1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads.
2 Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
3 And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Torah of Yahweh their Elohim for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped Yahweh their Elohim.

After confessing their sins and worshiping they made a new covenant with Yahweh, and 85 of the leaders, Levites, and priests signed it. Their names are listed in Nehemiah chapter 10.

Nehemiah 9:38-10:3
38 “And because of all this, We make a sure covenant and write it; Our leaders, our Levites, and our priests seal it.”
10:1 Now those who placed their seal on the document were: Nehemiah the governor, the son of Hacaliah, and Zedekiah,
2 Seraiah, Azariah, Jeremiah,
3 Pashhur, Amariah, Malchijah…”

Interestingly, while the Babylonian Talmud tells us that there were 120 leaders at this meeting, the (far less popular) Jerusalem Talmud records that the Knesset HaGedolah consisted of only 85 elders (which agrees with Nehemiah 9-10). For this and other reasons, it seems most likely that the Knesset HaGedolah was one-in-the-same meeting as that of Nehemiah 9-10.

Nehemiah 10:28-38 describes the details of the new covenant they cut. What we need to see here is that while it was very similar to Yahweh’s Torah, it was a different covenant. Some of the details even differed visibly from the Torah. For example, Yahweh’s Torah commands a half-shekel tax, for the temple.

Shemote (Exodus) 30:13
13 “This is what everyone among those who are numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (a shekel is twenty gerahs). The half-shekel shall be an offering to Yahweh.”

In contrast, the new covenant that was cut in Nehemiah 10 stipulates a third of a shekel for the temple tax.

Nehemiah 10:32
32 Also we made ordinances for ourselves, to exact from ourselves yearly one-third of a shekel for the service of the house of our Elohim.

The difference might seem small, but the problem is that they did not submit to Yahweh’s (existing) covenant. Rather, they drafted their own covenant, and asked Yahweh to accept it. However, Yahweh is clear that we are not to alter His commandments in any way, or they are no longer His commandments, but our own.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:2
2 “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh your Elohim, which I command you.”

The Beginnings of the Torah Service

Jewish tradition credits the Knesset HaGedolah with many things, including establishing the books of the Tanach (Older Covenant), and adding the feast of Purim to the calendar (which is forbidden). However, Jewish tradition also credits the Knesset HaGedolah with having established the weekly Torah portions, and the liturgy that was to go with them. Consider this quote from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhot (blessings) 33a.

It has also been stated: R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: The Men of the Great Synagogue instituted for Israel blessings and prayers, sanctifications and habdalahs.
[Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 33a, Soncino]

While it cannot be proven, it makes sense that the Torah portions were established at this time. Nehemiah 8 tells us that Ezra the priest read publicly from the Torah at Sukkot. When reading this passage, we can see many similarities to a weekly Torah service. We can even see the elevated platform that exists in many synagogues today (in verse 4).

Nehemiah 8:1-8
1 Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Torah of Moshe, which Yahweh had commanded Israel.
2 So Ezra the priest brought Torah before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month.
3 Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Torah.
4 So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose; and beside him, at his right hand, stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Urijah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah; and at his left hand Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up.
6 And Ezra blessed Yahweh, the great Elohim. Then all the people answered, “Amein, Amein!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped Yahweh with their faces to the ground.
7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Torah; and the people stood in their place.
8 So they read distinctly from the book, in the Torah of Elohim; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.

However, as good as it was that the rabbis established the weekly Torah portions, not everything the rabbis did was good.

Altering Yahweh’s Commandments

Consider for example that Yahweh tells us to celebrate Sukkot (Tabernacles) with four species of plants.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 23:40
40 “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your Elohim for seven days.”

However, in Nehemiah 8 the rabbis told the people to take five species—and only two of the five are the same as the ones Yahweh commands (palm trees and leafy trees). The other three species are different (olive branches, branches of oil trees, and myrtle branches).

Nehemiah 8:14-15
14 And they found written in the Torah, which Yahweh had commanded Moshe, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month,
15 and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.”

It seems like a small and innocent mistake to get the four species wrong. It could have happened by mistake. However, part of any priesthood’s duty is to teach Yahweh’s commandments without alteration. It is not alright for a priesthood to tell the people that they are teaching Yahweh commandments, and then they teach something else—and this kind of thing was also Yeshua’s main complaint with the rabbis.

Sometimes the rabbis misrepresented what Yahweh had said to do (as above), and other times they taught that their own teachings were more important than Yahweh’s Torah, and that their own teachings needed to be obeyed with greater strictness. In this, they effectively presented themselves as if they had more authority than Yahweh did. (That is, they effectively presented themselves as being greater than Yahweh.)

Mattityahu (Matthew) 15:1-6
1 Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Yeshua, saying,
2 “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
3 He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of Elohim because of your tradition?
4 For Elohim commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’
5 But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to Elohim” —
6 then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of Elohim of no effect by your tradition.”

Consider this quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 88b, where the Mishnah (which is the core document of the Talmud) tells us that it is more important to obey the commandments of the scribes, than the Torah.

[Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b, Soncino]

Again, Yeshua’s main complaint with the rabbis was that they placed their own traditions above Yahweh’s Torah (as if they were more important than Yahweh).

The Greek Era and Yahweh’s Name

We are going chronologically, so before we talk about Yeshua, first we should talk about the ravages of the Greek era. Alexander the Great began to conquer the land of Israel around 333-332 BCE. However, after the conquest he proved to be a relatively lenient ruler. He allowed the Jews to worship however they wanted, so long as they paid the tax. Yet his successor Antiochus Epiphanies later changed this policy, decreeing that his whole kingdom had to worship the Greek gods, and that whoever would not worship the Greek gods should be killed. This is recorded in 1 Maccabees 1:41-50.

Macabim Aleph (1 Maccabees) 1:41-50
41 Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people,
42 and that each should give up his customs.
43 All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath.
44 And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land,
45 to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts,
46 to defile the sanctuary and the priests,
47 to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals,
48 and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane,
49 so that they should forget the Torah and change all the ordinances.
50 “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

This also impacted the pronunciation of Yahweh’s name.

Yahweh tells us that He wants His name declared in all the earth; and before the Greek era, Yahweh’s name was used as an everyday greeting and blessing.

Root (Ruth) 2:4
4 Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers, “Yahweh be with you!” And they answered him, “Yahweh bless you!”

However, in Nazarene Scripture Studies Volume 4, in “About the Pronunciation Yehovah”, we explain how Antiochus Epiphanies made it illegal to pray in Yahweh’s name. If any Jews were heard praying Yahweh’s name, they would be killed. However, it was not illegal to say the title Adonai, which refers to royalty (i.e., King of kings). Therefore, brother Judah put the vowel points of Adonai underneath Yahweh’s name to remind the reader to speak “Adonai” aloud instead of Yahweh, so he would not be killed. This is the real reason rabbinic Jews say “Adonai” today, instead of Yahweh’s name. Yet since this tradition violates the Third Commandment to speak Yahweh’s name, we speak Yahweh’s name instead of Adonai. (For details, see “The Set-apart Names”, in Nazarene Scripture Studies, Volume 1.)

And as long as we are on this topic, even though the Maccabees had defeated the Greeks by 160 BCE, the tradition of placing the vowel points for Adonai under Yahweh’s name had been in place long enough to take on the force of rabbinical law. And as we show in our study on the pronunciation “Yehovah”, when one does not know why the vowel points were put there and tries to say Yahweh’s name using the vowel points belonging to Adonai, one ends up with the mispronunciation “Yehovah.” Judah left these vowel points in place partly to keep the gentiles from learning Yahweh’s true name, as they believe it is taking Yahweh’s name in vain if the gentiles speak it. (For more details, see “About the Pronunciation Yehovah”, in Nazarene Scripture Studies Volume 4.)

[And while we are further here, today a certain unnamed Sadducee teaches that the reason Yahweh’s name should be pronounced “Yehovah” is that there are hundreds of 1,000-year-old manuscripts from the Middle Ages with the vowel points of Adonai written underneath Yahweh’s name. However, this proves nothing, as those manuscripts were written over a thousand years after the Greek era, when the tradition of placing the vowels of Adonai underneath Yahweh’s name began.]

The Early First Century: Praying by Heart

There is one more change that we need to know about, and it is a big change that took place at the end of the first century, after the Romans destroyed the temple. But first, let us consider that Yeshua is our Example, and it was His custom to go into the synagogue on the Sabbath day.

Luqa (Luke) 4:16
16 So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.

The fact that Yeshua stood up to read tells us that He was a respected member of His community, as standing up to read is considered an honor in Judaism. This honor is only given to those who are in good standing in the congregation. (You do not just walk in off the street and stand up to read.) And if it was Yeshua’s practice to be active in the synagogues, then it should be our practice as well.

However, if we are to be active in the synagogues today, then what should our synagogue services look like? The synagogue service has changed since Yeshua’s time. Some subtle-yet-critical changes took place after the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 CE, and we believe that Yeshua would not have approved of these changes.

To understand these changes, let us understand how our Jewish brothers view the role of tradition in society. The Jews believe children grow up learning who they are because of their traditions. Further, they believe that when people perform traditions together, it creates the ties that bind people and nations together. These are undoubtedly very wise insights. Yet in the wake of the Babylonian Exile, the Jews would have been painfully aware that they had strayed from Yahweh’s pathways, and had not worshiped Him correctly. Because of this, it seems likely that they would have wanted to establish new traditions that would unify the people, and train up their children correctly. While some Ephraimites might want to reject these traditions because Yahweh does not command them in the Torah, that would be a mistake, as Shaul tells us that the worship service of Elohim was given to Judah to safeguard.

Romim (Romans) 9:3-4
3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Messiah for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh,
4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Torah, the [style of worship] service of Elohim, and the promises…

Further, by understanding what kind of synagogues our Rabbi liked to participate in, we can understand what kind of synagogues we should create for ourselves and our children.

Unifying by Ritual: How Much is Just Right?

In Jewish thought, shared rituals form the ties that bind, yet if these rituals are done wrong they can also destroy what brother Judah calls positive intention. Positive intention is a separate subject that we won’t get into here, but the point is that Judah sees a certain amount of rigidity in their rituals to be a good thing. However, at least historically they also do not want too much rigidity, because at least historically it was believed that too much rigidity is destructive. Because of this, at least historically, Jews are always trying to find the right balance between rigidity and educated spontaneity.

Before the Romans destroyed the temple, the rituals of the temple service unified Judah. All males came up to Jerusalem three times a year to tithe, and for worship and fellowship. Because there was already a lot of tradition in this, there was not a need to unify the people through rote prayers. While some rabbis favored saying rote prayers, most felt that praying by rote was very bad, as it destroys positive intention. What they wanted to see were spontaneous prayers from the heart (and especially when the the worship leader was well-versed in Scripture).

When Judah came back from the Babylonian Exile, it was clear that the leadership needed to do something different, and so the Knesset HaGedolah established an order of worship for the synagogue service. This order of worship included two very special prayers which we will discuss in detail later. One of those two prayers is actually an ordered collection of eighteen prayers called the Amidah (the Standing Prayer), because it is normally said standing (as the people stood in Nehemiah 8:5, above). The Amidah is also called the Shemonei Esrei (meaning eighteen), because originally it was a series of eighteen benedictions (although now there are nineteen, which we will also discuss later). Only, the language of the Amidah was not fixed in the way it is today. Rather, the beginning, end, and the topic of each of these eighteen benedictions was fixed, but the middle was left completely up to the worship leader. He was supposed to be learned in Scripture, but he was also encouraged to improvise, so that the prayers would come from the heart (and with positive intention). Consider for example this quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhot (blessings) 34a.

Our Rabbis taught: Once a certain disciple went down before the Ark in the presence of R. Eliezer, and he span out the prayer to a great length. His disciples said to him: Master, how longwinded this fellow is! He replied to them: Is he drawing it out any more than our Master Moses, of whom it is written: The forty days and the forty nights [that I fell down]? Another time it happened that a certain disciple went down before the Ark in the presence of R. Eliezer, and he cut the prayer very short. His disciples said to him: How concise this fellow is! He replied to them: Is he any more concise than our Master Moses, who prayed, as it is written: Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee?
[Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 34a, Soncino]

Before the destruction of the temple (i.e., in Yeshua’s time), the style of the worship was also very flexible. The Jews could stand, kneel, or prostrate themselves. While there were some fixed prayers, they were considered guidelines and examples, rather than being compulsory. However, after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, all this changed. The new nasi (prince, president) of the Pharisaic Beit Din Gadol (supreme court), Rabban Gamaliel II, fixed the words of the Amidah, and required all Jews to recite it by rote three times a day.

We do not know exactly why Rabban Gamaliel II chose to fix the language of the Amidah, and make the prayers compulsory. However, Rabban Gamaliel II was known for taking harsh measures which he felt would keep the Jewish nation united. Since the Jews no longer had the temple service to unite them, perhaps he felt that some strong rote traditions were needed if the Jews were to remain unified as a people, and as a nation?

Saying the Amidah (and other prayers) by rote three times a day remains the practice in Judaism to this day. It is certain that Yeshua would disapprove. If you watch an Orthodox prayer service, sometimes you can see the participants race through the rote prayers as fast as possible, trying to get it done with, and thinking Elohim will be pleased with them for having recited so many words. (And of course, they always say they have done so “with good intention.”)

For His part, Yeshua was adamantly against such rote prayers, and He called those who prayed this way, “the heathen.”

Mattityahu (Matthew) 6:5-8
5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
7 And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.
8 “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”

So what we see in all of this is that the kind of synagogue our Example liked to go to had a framework for the worship. However, the leaders were very learned in Scripture and Jewish history, and they were encouraged to improvise, and speak from their hearts for the benefit of all the people. The people could also stand, sit, kneel, or prostrate themselves, as the Spirit led. And since that is the kind of synagogue service our Example liked to attend, then that is the kind of synagogue services we need to host. It will take a lot of learning on our parts, but then we will be able to host the kind of synagogue services that our Husband would want to attend if He were here (which He is, in Spirit).

We need to explain the flow of the first century Sabbath service. However, before we do that, first we need to explain the technical reasons why Yeshua ignored the teachings of the rabbis.

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