Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library Shopping Mall of Zion AHAVA Hero Products 250x250

בס"ד

<<192>>

On the Origin and Purpose of Synagogues.

by Julius Eckman

Continued from p. 144

 

“Be careful how thou settest thy foot when thou visitest the House of God; or where He is more nigh to hear* thee, than to accept the gift of fools’ sacrifice; for they will not know† that they may (continue to) do evil.” “Nor be forward with thy mouth, nor let thy heart be hasty to utter words before God; for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore, let thy words be few.”—Ecclesiastes iv. 17 ; v. 1 ; (Eng. Ver. v. 1, 2.)

* Or be more ready to hear than to give the sacrifice of fools.
†Will not learn, or be informed.

<<193>>“Place thee in the gate of the house of God, and proclaim there these words, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all ye of Judah that enter at these gates, to prostrate yourselves before the Lord of hosts the God of Israel, amend your ways and your doings, then I will cause you to stay in this place. Trust not in empty words, saying, The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ If you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you execute justice between man and his neighbour, then you may stay* in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for ever and ever, saith the Lord.”—From Jeremiah vii.

* Rest, dwell.

Due preparation, a sanctified heart, and good works, are to pave the way to the place of worship. If these duties have been duly attended to, and properly discharged, we may approach the awful majesty of Heaven, our heart prompting us to pay adoration to Him, and the tongue has but to give utterance to these sensations of our heart; but the words uttered must be felt, must be understood in order to be acceptable, and even then: Let thy words be few, says the text, for the great God† is enthroned above, and knows thy wants even before they were known to thyself—He is in heaven, and thou upon earth.

† The Hebrew definite article in Ha-elohim is emphatic.

This lesson is given us by the Wise King; it is laid down in plain language, easy to be understood, and reasonable enough to be approved of by common sense and reason. As now Scripture and reason conjointly teach us how to approach God, who would not listen? And yet it is strange enough, to observe how weak mortals will allow themselves to follow their own conceit and the fancies of men. We learn that in ancient times Israel did not follow the advice of Scripture, nor that of Solomon, the Wise King and preacher, but chose quite other men for their guides, applied themselves to other books for advice. And what was the Word of God which was announced about this aberration? “Stand astonished and wonder, allow yourself to be blinded, and thou surely wilt become blind; they are intoxicated, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink, for the Lord hath poured out upon them the spirit of profound sleep; he hath closed up their eyes; your prophets, your rulers, the <<194>> seers, he hath covered.* So that the vision of all† hath become unto you as the words of a sealed book, which men deliver to him that is learned, saying, ‘Read this, I pray thee,’ and he saith, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed;’ and the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, ‘Read this, I pray thee,’ and he saith, I am not learned.’ Wherefore the Lord said, For as much as this people draw near me (but) with their mouth, and it is but with their lips that they ween to honour me, while their heart is removed from me, and their religion is but what is taught by the precepts of men:‡ behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, a marvellous work and a wonder: the wisdom of their wise men shall be lost, and the understanding of their prudent men shall not appear.”§

* Meaning, their eyes.
†The former Prophets, or the Word of God.
‡ There must have been, in the days of the prophet Isaiah, men who approached with their lips instead of pouring forth the thoughts of their hearts. And, again, there must have been men whose religion was drawn from the invention of man instead of recurring to Sacred Writ.
§ Isaiah xxix. 9-14.

This is a graphic description of the awful state of affairs before Synagogues were established all over the land. With the rise of the Synagogue, new life was diffused over the whole body of our nation.|| Philo calls the Synagogues “schools of wisdom, fortitude, moderation, justice, holiness, and all the virtues conducive to the proper exercise of all our duties.” In the Synagogue the Word of God was expounded and preached, in the Synagogue the minds¶ were enlightened and their hearts rejoiced, consolation was offered to those who were afflicted, and support to those who were in need. The poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, were received by the Synagogue (assembly) and richly supplied by those who belonged to it. The ancient Synagogue, with its administration, its regulations, and its acts of brotherly love, stands as a model, to this day, and has become the original after which the better religious and devotional institutions of other denominations were Sand are formed. The Synagogue, the ancient Synagogue, in its purer state, has been exactly copied by the <<195>> ancient and purer church.

|| De Vita Mosis
¶ Those who attended and listened
From the Synagogue they learned to expound the Word of God in a living tongue; from the Synagogue they copied the manner of addressing the people; in the Synagogue they learned to pour forth the warm effusions of the heart in prayer, flowing from the heart, and the Synagogue gave the model for the manner of treating the poor and the needy—all is copied from the ancient Synagogue.*

* This statement, however new it may appear to some, is fully testified to by all who have written on the subject. See Selden, Vitringa, Lightfoot, Whatley, Neander, Apost. Geschichte, 3d edition, p. 1, 161, 201, 214, etc. The very names of the officers, and the offices are but transferred from us to another ground, and into another tongue, viz.: Greek instead of the then Aramaic, etc. Our זקנים are the Presbyters, Elders; our פרנסים presidents, rulers; our שליח צבור messenger or angel of the congregation is the known; our גבאי צדקה (collectors and dispensers of alms) are the Deacons; our servant, waiter, is the חזן (Luke iv. 10?).
“Totum regimen ecclesiasticum conformatum fuit ad Synagogarum exemplar.” Hugo, Grotius, Comment. ad Act. xi. 30.

Those who are acquainted with history know what benefits were conferred on the poor, the sick, and destitute, by these institutions, to what extent the charitable feelings of the rich were cultivated and improved in those ages. A distributer of alms being seized and commanded to produce the church treasures, he collected the helpless poor who were supported by their brethren, and said, “These are the true treasures of the Church.” As the ancient Synagogue served in former ages as a model, they may serve now as an example.

“The Lord has made thee a light unto the Gentiles, to bring saving power to the utmost ends of the earth.”—Isaiah xlix. 6. Heathenism, ancient and modern, barbarous and classical, could build temples, raise altars, bring (often very bloody) sacrifices;—heathen worshippers could chaunt hymns and offer prayers; but instructing in the duties of life, and supplying the wants of life of the worshippers it never could. It was the Synagogue that first adopted the system to provide for the poor, and she found followers among the Gentiles. “Kings have seen, and have risen; princes have beheld it and revered.”† The Emperor Julian held his subjects, who were instructed from the Bible, and who learned from the sacred book the lessons of love and charity, he (the emperor) held them up as an example of beneficence to his heathen subjects.‡

† Isaiah xlix. 7.
‡ Basnage, Hist. des Juifs, Tom. vi., chap. xix. 12.

<<196>>
We all know the ample provisions made in the word of God for the poor and stranger, for the reduced and needy.* We therefore, from Genesis to Malachi hear the name of beggar mentioned but once, Ps. cix. 10, and this passage does not assert the actual existence of such, in the time of the author, but merely his knowledge, that there existed such a state as mendicity. In the latter time of our polity, when the glory of Israel was in its wane, when the Roman eagle spread forth his mighty wing, and overshadowed the hills and plains of Judea;—when the mighty Roman arm wrested the temporal sceptre from the hand of Judah, and rapine and desolation covered the land : it was the Synagogue that stretched forth her extended arms, and opened wide her liberal hands, to receive and to relieve all that came within her reach. The Synagogue was the city of refuge to the sufferer and the poor. Public and private charities were spent by and at the Synagogue. A heathen satirist† may point his wit against the beggars assembled at the Synagogues; to us it is a proof, that they were plentifully relieved, else they would not have appeared there so frequently. To show how high practical acts of love, benevolence, and charity, stood in the eye of the ancient Synagogue, we adduce from the Talmud and Codices the following laws and canons.

* Lev. xii. 11; iv. 22; xvi. 10; xix. 9; xxiv. 19; xxv. 5, 35; et seq. Deut. xv. 7; et. seq.
† Juvenal. Sat.

“In every city where Israelites live it is their duty to elect known and trusty men as גבאי צדקה Deacons (or collectors of alms), to receive the contributions of the people according to their means, and as they are taxed. They distribute these collections every Friday, ‡ giving to every poor man as much as may supply his wants for seven days, and this is called קופה arca, box, elliptical for קופה של צדקה alms-box.§

‡ Talmud Baba Bathra, fol. 8, b; Peah, fol. 11, a.
§ That the poor may not suffer want on the sabbath day.

“Besides this we institute collectors, who accept daily from every house (court) bread, or other provisions, or fruit and money as they (the contributors) may think proper to give at the time, and what is thus collected is in the evening divided among the <<197>> poor, and every one receives as much as will support him for a day, and this is called תמחוי* (Scutella magna).

* Yoreh Deah, 256. The Thamchui is chiefly collected for strangers who apply. Baba Bathra, 8, b.

“We have never heard of, or seen a congregation (קהל Synagogue) in Israel, that should not have a קופה של צדקה; but as regards the תמחוי there are places, where this collection is not in use.” This testimony in favour of the ancient Synagogue is to be found in the two known Codices Yoreh Deah, and Yad Chazakah of the Rambam.† Again, we find, “It is better to assist youths, and enable them to study the law, or to spend money to the poor when they are sick, than to contribute it to build a Synagogue.”‡ The reason is obvious: we may meet in any place to receive instruction, to unite as brethren and worshippers. The building is the means, charity is the end. Speaking about instruction, I must advert to the following law: “A Synagogue or Congregation that wants a Teacher and a Reader, and they cannot afford to engage both, if the Teacher is proficient, and versed in Biblical and Talmudical learning, he has the preference, if not the Reader is to be preferred,§ להאוציא את הרבים ידי חובתן to dispense the multitude (by proxy) of their duty.” But in our days, as our Readers are not מאציא את הרבים for we have books in plenty, and every attendant can read himself, and our חזנים are merely kept|| <<198>> משום תקנות חכמים, as formerly, when it was necessary, adopted by our Rabbins: teaching, as a duty enjoined in so many passages of the Bible, ought again, as in former times, to form the most essential portion of our service.

† Maimonid. Hilchoth Mattanoth Aniyim Cap. 9, § 3; Yoreh Deah, § 256.
תשב״ץ בשם הר״ש בבית יוסף טור י״ד סוף ס׳ רמ״ט
§ Tur Yoreh Deah, 251; Orach Hayim. § 53, 24.
|| Vide Orach Hayim, 53, 19; || Beer Heteb, Maimonides. Hilchoth Thephillah Hal. 8; Mish. 10, Text et Keseph Mishneh, and Lehem Mishneh.

Again, א״ח קכ״ד סע׳ ג׳ קהל שהתפללו וכלם בקיאים בתפלה אעפ״כ ירד ש״ץ והוזר לתפלל כדי לקיים תקנות חכמים.
Our הזנים do but lead, but do not pray for the Congregation; they are not the ancient ש״ץ Delegus or Angelus Ecclesiae, but merely kept as instituted by custom. This may teach Israelites who have not the means to pay for this custom, to join and constitute themselves into a proper Congregation, and any man may recite them, and do all other functions of the Synagogue, can read the prayers, may give גטין קידושין perform the function of marriage, &c., if he else knows the דנים. The Jews have no mediators to pray for them, the Jews have no Hierarchy, no Popes, no Bishops, no heads of the church—the Synagogue acknowledges but one head, the invisible, and blessed One above. We shall come back to this important point, when we shall speak of the government of the Synagogue. Even the Rabbi or Teacher of the Synagogue, is not head of the Congregation, he teaches his brethren, wherever his duty calls him to teach. The Rabbi, or Doctor in the church, like the physician in the civil community, recommends what he thinks fit and proper for those who apply to him, he is not the superior of the applicants; and if he is true to his calling, he will devote his care and attention, where his services are most wanted. The most desperate case, will be the most acceptable; nor will he allow the patient to apply in vain, if even some pieces of furniture, or some regulations in the house of the patient are not exactly as enjoined, either by the faculty, or if not according to general custom. The best Physicians may pray with, and for the worst of patients, (Orach Hayim, xc. xci., Beer Heteb,) and surely he may give to such some good dietetic rules.

It is on fast days that the poor must be supplied, and if the people break their fast without thinking of the poor, they are in a manner considered as having spilled blood.*

* Maim.

These are the duties of the Synagogue to the poor, and history tells us, that past ages acquitted themselves most religiously, and liberally. We come now to another duty, the redeeming of brethren, who fell into the hands of enemies, robbers, or pirates.†

† For such cases, there is seldom any call in our days; yet it shows what the object of the Synagogue is, and what our times require in other oases of distress among our co-religionists.

It is the duty of the Synagogue to redeem captives. This duty is more urgent than even clothing and maintaining the poor, and there is no greater (מצוה) duty than this.‡

‡ Maim. Hilchoth Mattanoth Aniyim. Cap. viii. Yoreh Deah, § 252.

If money has been collected to build a Synagogue, and some other duty presents itself, we apply the money to satisfy the demand of that; but if building material (stones and timber says the text), have already been purchased, we do not sell them to satisfy any other, except it be to redeem captives, and this we should do, even if the stones be already sculptured, and the timber carved, and all prepared to raise the building. Yet a Synagogue already built we do not sell to release captives, but raise a contribution for that purpose.§

§ Maimonides, et Tur Yoreh Deah, § 252; Talmud Baba Bathra, fol. 3, b.

<<199>>The following passage from our history, bearing upon this subject, will, I hope, not be unwelcome to the friends of Israel.

About the year 990, four celebrated Rabbins—R. Hushiel, R. Moses, R. Shemavya ben Elchanan, and a fourth, whose name history has not preserved* found themselves on board of a Greek vessel, captured by an Andalusian Admiral, near Cilicia. They had embarked from Bari, with the intention to go to the Isle of Sebaste. They either went for some religious purpose, to fetch a bride from there, or to collect money for portioning poor brides. The unfortunate Rabbins were bound, and treated like slaves; they did not acquaint the captain with their station.† Rabbi Moses, who had his spouse and his child with him, lost, besides his liberty, his partner. Her charms inflamed the desires of the Admiral, and to protect herself against his insults, the pious daughter of Israel asked her afflicted husband, in the holy tongue, that she might not be understood by the gentile, if those whose fatal lot it was to sink into the deep, dared to hope to become partakers of the future Resurrection? The godly man made a hasty reply from the word of God,‡ “The Lord says: I bring again from Bashan,§ I bring again from the depth of the sea.”|| At these words the noble woman—more noble than a Lucretia, as she had to tear herself from an unfortunate husband, and a helpless child—at these words, I say, the noble woman flung herself into the sea,¶ and soon her pure soul ascended to heaven.

* This name is supposed to have been Chanoch son of Rabbi Mosheh. See Frankel’s Periodical, Vol. iii. p. 427.—Ed. Oc.
† Very likely they concealed this, to facilitate their liberation.
‡ Psalm lxviii. 22.
§ In allusion to בוש מבשן בשת from “confusion, shame.”
|| A similar allusion, on a similar occasion, we find in Midrash Echah, 67 a.
¶ However, contrary this act is to the dictates of religion and the law, רמב״ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ה׳ &c, it shows her high sense of honour, and her purity of soul.

R. Shemarya was soon after sold in Alexandria; his brethren bought him, and liberated him, and finding him a man of learning, made him their Chief Rabbi at Mezr (Cairo.) R. Hushiel, was bought and liberated, on the coast of Tunis, became the head of the Congregation of Kairowan, where he afterwards was <<200>> blessed with a son, the celebrated R. Hanannel. Rabbi Moses, with his son Chanoch, were brought to Cordova, where the Congregation bought. and liberated both immediately, without the least expectation of their acquisition. One day R. Moses went as usual to the Synagogue, and, after prayer, into a contiguous Beth Hammidrash, where casuistic disputations were held. A certain R. Nathan, the דיין (judge or teacher) of the Congregation, addressed the audience. At such discussions, every person was at liberty to ask questions, and to make objections. R. Moses heard there several things stated contrary to what he had learned at the then flourishing school at Babylon. Thinking it his duty to correct what he thought wrong, he suddenly made a remark that astonished the hearers; upon this the Rabbins present, addressed several other questions to him, and asked his opinion on different subjects. Finding him so learned, they requested him to elucidate the subject under discussion; he displayed the full store of his knowledge and power of eloquence, to the delight of all present. At the door, a party awaited the end of the discussion, to bring a cause for decision before R. Nathan. Notice being given to the judge, he himself went to the door, brought the parties into the room, exclaiming in a loud voice, “I am not your דיין; this man here whom you see dressed in sackcloth, is my teacher, I am but his scholar; him elect as your judge!” This act of humility of R. Nathan was considered just; R. Moses became chief of the Congregation of Cordova. Hasham II., the then King, as it was the interest of the country to save the expenditure of sending, as was the case till then, to Babylon, for all difficult legal decisions, ratified the election, and honoured the Rabbi with a splendid state-carriage. קבלת הראב״ד יוחסין דף קכ״ו צמח דוד ח״א תשכ״ז

Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, Tom. ix. chap. v. From that time, Cordova became the seat of Hebrew learning, and gave rise to the celebrated Spanish school, in every respect much more learned and superior, than any that had existed before. This anecdote is suggestive of many useful lessons.

(To be continued.)