The Temple and the Synagogue

Shaye J. D. Cohen

Shaye J. D. Cohen, “The Temple and the Synagogue,” in The Temple in Antiquity: Ancient Records and Modern Perspectives, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 151–74.

It is sometimes taught that the synagogue in Jewish architecture and ritual is a surrogate temple. In this paper Shaye Cohen draws important contrasts between the two structures, and between the two Jerusalem temples. He also shows that the synagogue has provided a democratization of the priestly functions formerly reserved for the temple. In this spirit, one interpretation congenial to the Restoration movement would be that the eventual messianic temple, while making available again the full spectrum of the priestly functions (including sacrifices by the “Sons of Levi”), will also open up to every worthy person, male or female, the privileges, rights (and rites), and ceremonial enactments which in ancient days were performed, in effect, by proxy only, by the one high priest on Yom Kippur; and that eventually the same privileges will be made available to the whole human family, and on the same principle: by proxy.

T. G. M.

My topic was suggested to me unknowingly by Truman Madsen, who in the letter of invitation sent along copies of two articles by Professor Nibley. They are “Christian Envy of the Temple” [1] and “What Is a Temple?” [2] It was while reading those two articles that I began to ponder the relationship of the synagogue to the temple. Although I do not fully accept Professor Nibley’s conclusions, his work stimulated me to prepare my article.

One of the developments which characterize post-biblical Judaism and distinguish it from the religion of biblical Israel is the growth of the synagogue. Biblical Israel had a temple, a priestly caste, and a sacrificial cult like those of its Near Eastern neighbors. Post-biblical Judaism maintained these institutions while it invented and perfected a different institution. The synagogue, unlike the temple, is a Jewish invention, a contribution of inestimable importance to the subsequent history of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic people.

However, the origin of the synagogue is unknown and, unless we are graced by some new discoveries equal in magnitude to the Dead Sea Scrolls, unknowable. The widely accepted theory that the synagogue originated during the Babylonian exile as a replacement for the Jerusalem temple which had been destroyed in 587 B.C.E. is, I admit, plausible and attractive, but it is also unsubstantiated and overly simplistic. It is unsubstantiated because it is supported by nothing whatsoever, not a bit of evidence. The only thing supporting it is its inherent plausibility, but plausibility alone is inadequate support. The theory is also simplistic because it assigns to a single time and place the origin of a most complex institution. Our earliest bona fide reference to a synagogue is from upper Egypt in the third century B.C.E., where it is called a proseuchē in Greek. Proseuchē means prayer. Presumably “prayer (house)” should be understood. Our earliest Judean synagogue is the Jerusalem synagogue of Theodotus, which was erected “for the reading of the law and the teaching of the commandments” (first century B.C.E.). Reading of the law, teaching of the commandments-no reference at all to prayer. We know, too, that synagogues often served as assembly halls or community centers, much as the temple itself occasionally did. Hence the synagogue is an amalgamation of three separate institutions: a prayer house, a study hall or school, and a community center. The time and place in which this amalgamation was effected are as unknown to us as are the origins of each of the three separate institutions which this amalgamation was effected are as unknown to us as are the origins of each of the three separate institutions which comprise the whole. [3] Even after the destruction of the second temple in the year 70 C.E., the amalgamation was not always complete. The Rabbis regularly distinguish synagogues, batē kenēsiyot, from schools, batē midrashōt, although they occasionally study in the former and pray in the latter. Hence, as I said, the origin of the synagogue is really unknown and unknowable.

However, my interest here is not the history of institutions but the history of ideology. I shall attempt here to answer two sets of questions. First: How did the Jews of antiquity see the synagogue? How did they assess its relationship with the Jerusalem temple? What kind of sanctity did they ascribe to it? In sum, was the synagogue considered a second-best institution, a poor replacement of, or addition to, the temple, totally dependent upon it and its cult for its sanctity and legitimacy? Or, was it regarded as something independent, as an autonomous institution endowed with its own importance and worth?

The second set of questions I hope to discuss: Did synagogue practice, that is, prayer and Torah study, affect Jewish attitudes toward the temple? Did the temple lose any of its centrality or importance as a result of “competition” with the synagogue?

Having posed these two sets of questions, I confess immediately that I cannot answer them, or at least I cannot answer them satisfactorily. Why? To do so would necessitate a study not only of the contrast between the temple and the synagogue, but also of the contrasts between prayer and sacrifice and between Torah study and sacrifice. We would have to look at literary texts as well as archaeological data, especially inscriptions and synagogue art. We would have to distinguish pre-70 C.E. evidence, that is, evidence from the time of the second temple, from post-70 C.E. evidence. We would have to distinguish Babylonian from Palestinian from “Hellenistic.” We would have to distinguish Tanaitic from Amoraic, Rabbinic from non-Rabbinic, and so forth. The ideology of the synagogue has not yet been studied on this basis, and I am not about to attempt such a study here. What I would like to do is to propose answers to these two sets of questions, all the while admitting that everything I am going to say is susceptible to amplification and, I’m sorry to report, correction.

A synagogue differs from the temple in three crucial areas: place, cult, and personnel. Let us look at each of these separately. We will first consider the differences in place. According to Deuteronomy, profane slaughter was permitted anywhere in the land of Israel, while sacred slaughter could be performed only at one unnamed place, which the Lord had chosen and in which He had placed His name. [4] For Deuteronomic thinkers this site was the sacred center not only for sacrifices but for prayer as well, since God would surely hearken to the prayers of both Israelites and Gentiles when offered toward or at that place. For example, in 1 Kings 8, after building an ornate slaughterhouse, King Solomon offers a long invocatory prayer which speaks only about prayer toward or at the temple and says nothing about the sacrificial cult. During the second temple period, all Jews regarded Jerusalem as this holy center, as the mother city of the Jewish people, and regarded the temple as the center of the center, as the navel of the earth, and as God’s throne, the very symbol of the entire cosmos. [5] Later, although the Deuteronomic restrictions did not apply outside the land of Israel, the Diaspora Jews apparently refrained from building temples, according instead a sole respect to the temple in Jerusalem. In contrast to all this, of course, is the synagogue, which was not hampered by Deuteronomic theology. Synagogues were built throughout the Greco-Roman world in both Palestine and the Diaspora, both before the destruction of the temple and after it. Synagogues were not built in holy places. They were built anywhere and everywhere: even a private home could be converted into a synagogue. Surely these humble structures were not cosmic centers in any sense of the term.

The second distinction is that of cult. The cult of the temple was sacrifice. What does that mean? The slaughter, roasting, and eating of animals. It was a very bloody affair; as the Rabbis state, “It is a glory for the sons of Aaron that they walk in blood up to their ankles.” [6] Prayer had no official place in this cult. Neither Leviticus nor Numbers nor Deuteronomy nor Ezekiel nor the Temple Scroll nor Philo nor Josephus nor anyone else, as far as I can determine, mentions prayer as an integral and statutory part of the sacrificial cult. The cult is silent, except for the squeals of the animals. Of course, in times of need people prayed, and where else would they pray if not at the central shrine? But these prayers were private petitions, not parts of the sacrificial cult. Similarly the hymns of praise to God sung by the Levites always remained in the background. [7] In contrast, the synagogue cult is bloodless (those who attend modern synagogues might say it’s lifeless, but I won’t discuss that), consisting of Torah study and prayer.

We now turn to personnel, my third distinction. The sacrificial cult was carried out on behalf of the Jews by the priests. The actual administrations, that is, the slaughter, the roasting, and much of the eating, were performed only by the priests. Lay Israelites were not allowed even to enter the sacred precincts, let alone to minister before the Lord. The welfare of Israel thus depended upon the piety and punctiliousness of the priesthood, a hereditary aristocracy. The synagogue, in contrast, was a lay institution par excellence. Torah study and prayer were virtues to be cultivated by every Israelite (i.e., every male Israelite). No clergy mediated between the people and their God. “Teachers” and “heads of synagogues” were titles and professions open to all (including women).

Let us now conceptualize these three differences between the temple and the synagogue. If we focus on the first difference, place, we would conclude that the crucial tension between the temple and the synagogue is the tension between the one and the many, between monism and pluralism, one sacred place versus any place. If we focus on the second and third differences, cult and personnel, we would conclude that the crucial tension between the temple and the synagogue is the tension between aristocracy and democracy, between elitism and populism. Is it a cult by the people or for the people? Do the people perform the cult, or is it performed for them? Is there mediation by a pedigreed elite or not? These tensions, that is, monism versus pluralism and democracy versus aristocracy, are closely related but are not identical. The struggle between the central shrine and the local altars (outlined by the book of Kings), those bamot which are always said not to have disappeared from the land, was a struggle between monism and pluralism, not between elitism and populism. Even bamot had priests. The prophetic tirades against the sacrificial cult and on behalf of personal morality and piety can be interpreted as attempts to democratize Israelite religion, although the prophets were certainly not in favor of local shrines. It was possible, too, for one to believe in the uniqueness of the sacred center, the sole place where heaven and earth meet, while also supporting an unmediated cult of mass participation. There is no inherent contradiction. Deuteronomy, the book which enjoins the centralization of the cult, is also the book which enjoins upon every Israelite the constant study of the words of God. This Deuteronomic ideal was to be one of the powerful forces which democratized Israelite religion and helped it to become post-biblical Judaism. The author of Deuteronomy, not appreciating the full impact of his injunction, still supported a sacrificial cult. Hence in Deuteronomy we have centralization of the cult (monism) combined with individual study (incipient democratization). The book of Lamentations bemoans the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 B.C.E. The author is distraught over the loss of the symbol of God’s divine protection and love for Israel. He is not, however, perturbed by the loss of the sacrificial cult. Not once does he ask how he will atone for his sins without the blood of rams. Not once does he cry out that he cannot find favor in God’s eyes because the altar is no longer. Here is a man for whom the sacred center was essential, while the sacrificial cult apparently was not. I shall argue shortly that ambivalence of this sort characterizes large segments of both second temple and Rabbinic Jewry.

During the second temple period it was easy to entertain ambivalent ideas on the centrality of the temple and its cult. The beginnings of the second temple were most inauspicious. Jeremiah had predicted that the return from Babylon to Israel would be more magnificent than the exodus from Egypt; the new redemption would completely eclipse the old one. [8] But this did not come to pass. Instead, a pagan king issued an edict allowing the Jews to return to their homeland and to rebuild their temple. No Davidic king, no miracles, no glory, no political freedom, just an edict issued by the Persian bureaucracy in the name of Cyrus the Great. Was this the return promised by the Lord? Many Jews objected. An anonymous prophet whom we call II Isaiah (whom some people call I Isaiah) scolded them.

Shame on him who argues with his maker. Though naught but a potsherd of earth. Shall the clay say to the potter, “what are you begetting?” or a woman, “what are you bearing?” Thus said the Lord, Israel’s holy one and maker. Will you question me on the destiny of my children? Will you instruct me about the work of my hands? It was I who made the earth and created man upon it. My own hands stretched out of the heavens and I marshalled all their host. It was I who roused him (Cyrus the Great) for victory, and who level all roads for him. He shall rebuild my city and let my exiled people go. [9]

God, the creator of the world, is the boss. He does with his creation as he sees fit. Once upon a time, as Jeremiah said, he appointed his servant or vassal (ebed) Nebuchadnezzar to destroy the temple. [10] Now, Isaiah says, God has appointed Cyrus an anointed one, [11] a step above a vassal, to rebuild the temple. Can the Jews argue with their maker? Of course not. Let the Jews accept the divine decree. Similarly, the author of the book of Ezra insists that Cyrus’ kindness to the Jews was motivated not by any selfish or personal desires, but by inspiration from God, thereby fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy of redemption. [12]

But these attempts convinced few. Since fire did not descend from heaven upon the newly reconstructed altar, how could the Jews be sure the new temple and its cult found favor before the Lord? [13] The old men who had seen the majesty and the glory of the first temple shed tears at the dedication of the second-not tears of joy, but tears of sadness. [14]

Matters soon became worse. Prophecy ceased. The Urim and Thummim fell into disuse. Later, corruption spread among the priesthood. A pagan king entered the holy precincts, plundered the treasury, and sacrificed swine on the altar and established idols in the temple, all the while persecuting the Jews and proscribing Judaism. Never before had such atrocities occurred. Was this God’s holy temple? Ultimately the temple was regained and the altar was rebuilt, but still no fire from heaven, no miracles, no explicit sign that God approved the doings of men, and no Davidic king. Even the high priests were no longer legitimate high priests; they were regular priests who usurped the leadership (the Maccabees). Less than a century before its destruction, the temple suffered the ignominy of being rebuilt by Herod the Great, a half-Jew and a complete madman, who incorporated pagan decorations in the structure.

The Rabbis summed this up very nicely when they said, “The second temple had five things less than the first temple.” That is, the first temple had five things more than the second temple. What were they? “The sacred fire, the ark, the urim and thummim, the oil for anointment, and the Holy Spirit (prophecy).” [15]

Yet, in spite of all this, many Jews of the second temple period were content with the cult and the priesthood. After all, the temple was still the temple. The priests were the priests. Nor was this attitude restricted to the temple clergy itself. For how else can we explain the multitudes of the faithful who journeyed to Jerusalem every year at each of the three pilgrim festivals? How else can we explain the prominence accorded to the sacrificial cult by such diverse writers as Philo, Josephus (who, I admit, was a priest), and the authors of the Sibylline Oracles? [16] These Jews supplemented the sacrificial cult with other modes of piety. But these other modes were supplements, not replacements. Josephus, for example, boasts that all Jews are learned in the law and declares that Jews regularly pray to God to acknowledge all the bounteous gifts of the divine. [17] But at no point does he even hint that either Torah study or prayer are replacements for, or subservient to, the sacrificial cult. They exist alongside each other. Philo, too, has the same attitude. [18]

For many Jews, however, the temple was too blemished for such unquestioning allegiance. A few radical Jews, inspired either by one strand of biblical thought (viz., that God cannot be contained by the heavens, let alone by a temple) or by Greek philosophy (Zeno believed that no temple could ever be sacred since no man-made building could be worthy of the gods), or by a combination of the two, argued that God does not require a temple at all-that the entire cosmos is God’s throne. [19] A more common attitude was condemnation of the current temple and cult combined with a hope, which I assume was shared even by those who supported the cult, for the restoration of a new and perfect temple in the future. The condemnation and the hope were expressed in different ways and had different implications among the various Jewish groups. For some the second temple was impure from its very inception; even the sacrifices of Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest were profane. [20] For others, the profanation of the temple was of more recent vintage, since the time of the Maccabees and Antiochus Epiphanes. Some, like the Essenes, concluded that the temple was much too impure for their participation in its cult, while others, like some of the early Christians, felt that the impurity was not as great as that. (According to Acts many Christians spent their day sitting in the temple; and Paul, after returning from Asia Minor, showed his loyalty to the law by sacrificing at the temple.) For the future, some groups could imagine nothing more glorious than a new temple, a new priesthood, and the proper observance of the sacrifices and the festivals. Such was the intention of the Temple Scroll, which gives elaborate instructions for the performance of the festival sacrifices. I assume, as Professor Milgrom does, that this scroll is a blueprint for the ideal future, and the ideal future is a world based on the temple cult. Most visionaries, however, spoke more generally about a new temple which would descend from heaven in a future era; they did not specify or stress the nature of the cult in that temple. Some spoke of a New Jerusalem rather than a new temple, [21] and one wonders whether the New Jerusalem necessarily had at its center a temple with a sacrificial cult. At least one visionary proclaimed explicitly, “And I did not see a temple in her (the heavenly Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth) for the Lord God, the ruler of all is her temple.” [22]

In the meantime, before the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem and/or the heavenly temple, what was one to do? Given the fact that the temple and the sacrificial cult were presently imperfect, how could one find favor with God? Various attempts were made to find substitutes for the sacrificial cult. Some said that contrition and humility were worthy substitutes. “We have at this time no prince, prophet, leader, burnt offering, sacrifice, oblations, incense, no place to make an offering before thee or to find mercy. Yet, with a contrite heart and humble spirit may we be accepted as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls and tens of thousands of fat lambs.” [23] These words are placed in the mouth of someone who supposedly lived after the destruction of the first temple and before the construction of the second, but presumably this text reflects an ideology current in the author’s own day (second century B.C.E.?), when the second temple was standing quite soundly on its foundation. Similarly, in good prophetic fashion, other authors argued that fear of the Lord, charity, and performance of the commandments were replacements for the cult. [24] However, I know of no text from the second temple period which declares either Torah study or prayer to be the equivalent of, or the replacements for, the sacrificial cult. Psalm 119 elevates Torah study to an ideal, but does not compare it to the sacrifices. Deuteronomy enjoins the study of the law so that the Israelite would know how to fulfill the commandments. In Psalm 119 Torah study is not a means but an end. The study of the law is a mode of worship. One finds favor with God by immersing himself in the words of the Torah. Does that replace the sacrificial cult? Not a hint, not a hint. Various texts refer to the practice of coordinating prayer with the times of the sacrifices, [25] but it is unclear to me whether this indicates a conception of prayer as a surrogate for sacrifice, or rather the idea that the times ordained by God for sacrifice were also propitious for prayer. In any case, surrogates were found for the sacrificial cult: humility, contrition, charity, or fear of the Lord, if not Torah study and prayer.

And if surrogates could be found for the cult, could they not be found for the temple as well? It is likely that both sects and synagogues, whose interrelationship remains unexplored, were regarded by their adherents as replacements for the polluted and imperfect temple. Many sects, notably Christians, Essenes, and Pharisees, transferred to themselves-each sect in its own distinctive way-at least some of the laws and ideology of the temple. The corporate brotherhood, the encampment of the sectarians or the table of the group, became the new temple and the new altar. Were synagogues, too, regarded as replacements for the temple? An affirmative answer is almost inevitable, although no text of the second temple period equates Torah study and prayer with the temple cult, or the synagogue with the temple. In fact, few second temple sources even speak about synagogues. Both Philo and Josephus mention the synagogue, but neither attempts to give its history or its ideology. Their praise of prayer and study does not extend to the institution in which these practices took place. Few works of the so-called Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha even mention the synagogue, and not a single work of the Dead Sea Scrolls. [26] This reticence concerning the synagogue allows me to return to my theme and to put these pieces together.

During the second temple period the Israelitic religion was democratized. Professor Milgrom spoke about that not too long ago. Torah study, prayer and performance of the commandments by the individual Jew became the distinguishing characteristics of Judaism. Reward and punishment, life after death, immortality of the soul, final judgment-all these beliefs were individualized as the individual Jew became more distinct from the corporate body of Israel. Sect and synagogue ministered to this need for individual self-expression and self-fulfillment. These ideas are the wave of the present and the future. Against all this stood the temple and the sacrificial cult, both based on the idea that the few perform the religion on behalf of the many. Not only were these the waves of the past, but they were, even on their own terms, imperfect and blemished. Hence for many Jews, new ways of serving God supplemented and/or replaced the old ways of the temple and the sacrificial cult, so much so that we cannot assume that all eschatological visions included a place for the sacrificial cult. In fact, few such visions emphasize or describe in detail the sacrificial cults of the future. (The temple scroll is a notable exception.)

However, the temple had one great advantage which neither the synagogue nor the school nor the sect nor prayer nor humility nor anything else could ever hope to duplicate. The temple was located on the one sacred place on Mount Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, where Jacob saw a ladder reaching into heaven, and where the angel of the Lord commanded David to build an altar. [27] It was the meeting place of heaven and earth, the center of the cosmos, the symbol of the cosmos, the visible presence of God’s oneness. As Josephus says in a rhyme which I assume he learned in the Sunday School of his time, “One temple for the one God.” [28] Any institution which upset this unity and which was not established on this sacred center was not part of the Jewish ideal. Hence synagogues and sects, by their very nature, are impermanent and imperfect institutions which have no share in the world to come. According to many texts of the second temple period, God has in the heavens a temple and/or a Jerusalem prepared for the delectation of his faithful, but he does not have a heavenly synagogue or a heavenly sect. Synagogues and sects represent the breakdown of unity and the departure from unanimity, yet monism and unanimity are the proofs of Judaism’s truth. [29] Hence in the ideology of second temple Judaism, the sacrificial cult could be supplemented or replaced by democratic alternatives, but the temple could never be replaced. As a result, no one cared to talk much about sects or synagogues.

The Rabbis inherited these ideas as part of their legacy from second temple Judaism, and they, too, maintained an ambivalent and complex attitude toward the sacrificial cult and the temple, both of which were destroyed in 70 C.E. The entire Rabbinic enterprise is predicated on the democratic assumptions mentioned earlier which are diametrically opposed to those of the sacrificial cult. Rabbinic Jews find God through prayer, Torah study, mystical speculation, and the continuous performance of the commandments, notably the commandments of Shabbat and festivals, purity, tithing, food laws, and ethical behavior. All of these are personal and unmediated, and all of them (except mystical speculation) were incumbent upon every male Jew. The relationship of this Rabbinic piety to the sacrificial cult, which most Rabbis believed would be restored in the Messianic era, was never worked out systematically. [30] After all, the Rabbis never worked out anything systematically. Nonetheless, they always held that Torah study was at least equal, if not superior, to the sacrificial cult. Prayer, however, is in a different category, and here we find three attitudes:

  1. Prayer is a religious obligation which exists independently of the sacrificial cult. The presence or absence of the cult does not affect it.
  2. Prayer is a second-rate replacement for the sacrificial cult. Without the cult, Israel has difficulty finding atonement for its sins. Hence it yearns for the restoration of the cult, which will bring it normalcy and security.
  3. Prayer is a first-rate replacement for the sacrificial cult, perhaps even better than the original. The logical outgrowth of this position is the idea that the temple of the age to come does not necessarily have to have a sacrificial cult.

We see in these three attitudes echoes of the views held by the Jews of the second temple period. The sole Rabbinic innovation, as far as I can see, was the elevation of Torah study and prayer to that prophetic list of equivalents or replacements for the sacrificial cult. Just like their ancestors, the Rabbis did not endow the synagogue with an independent existence. They, too, regarded it as a poor surrogate for the temple and accorded it no role in the world to come. For the Rabbis, prayer versus sacrifice and Torah study versus sacrifice were real issues. Synagogue versus temple was not.

Having presented a summary of the Rabbinic position, I would like now to elaborate upon it briefly. It is often said that Judaism’s will and spirit were devastated by the destruction of the temple, particularly by the cessation of the sacrificial cult. This view is usually supported by the following two Rabbinic stories.

Once as Rabban Johanan ben Zokkai was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him and beheld the temple in ruins. “Wo unto us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned, is laid waste!” “My son,” Rabban Johanan said to him, “be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this.” “And what is it?” “It is acts of loving kindness. As it is said, ‘for I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” [31]

After the destruction of the temple, perushim (ascetics or separatists) who would neither eat meat nor drink wine became numerous in Israel. Rabbi Joshua met them and inquired, “My sons, why don’t you eat meat?” They replied, “Shall we eat meat when the continual sacrifice, which used to be offered every day on the altar, is no longer?” He then asked, “Why don’t you drink wine?” They responded, “Shall we drink wine, which used to be poured on the altar as a libation, and is no longer?” He said to them, “Even figs and grapes we should not eat because from them they used to bring the first fruits on the Azereth [Pentecost]; bread we should not eat, because they used to bring two loaves and the bread of the presence, water we should not drink because they used to pour libations at Sukkoth [Tabernacles].” The perushim were silent. Rabbi Joshua said to them, “Not to mourn at all [for the destruction of the temple] is impossible. To mourn excessively is impossible. But thus the sages have said, ‘A man plasters his house, but leaves a little bit unplastered as a memorial for Jerusalem.’” [32] In other words, just as Jeremiah wrote to the Jews in Babylonia, normalcy must be maintained, but we must never forget what happened.

The historicity of these stories I do not wish to judge here. But even if they are historical as written, they do not indicate a widespread belief among the Jews of the time that they were at a loss how to proceed after the sacrificial cult had been removed. The second story is said explicitly to concern only the perushim, a small group separate from the main religious body of Israel. Furthermore, their asceticism was prompted, not by their inability to obtain atonement, but by their feeling that it was not right for man to sup upon meat and wine while the Lord’s table, the altar, was destroyed. The first story is more germane to our discussion, but more striking than the anguished cry of Rabbi Joshua (the same Rabbi Joshua who knew very well how to handle the separatists) is Rabban Johanan’s hackneyed response. The Master merely paraphrases Hosea: deeds of loving-kindness replace the sacrifices. Indeed, if Rabbi Joshua was satisfied with this reply, the wonder is that he didn’t think of it on his own. Rabban Johanan’s statement is just another in the long chain of statements, beginning with the prophets and the book of Psalms, which declare some virtue or other to be equal or superior to the sacrifices. Rabban Johanan leaves out the truly revolutionary Rabbinic response to the catastrophe of 70 C.E.-the elevation of Torah study and prayer. Hence this isolated exchange is not real evidence for a deep-seated religious crisis among Rabbinic Jews after the destruction of the second temple.

Indeed, like the author of Lamentations, the Rabbis of the Tannaitic period [33] and the authors of the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch and IV Ezra were distressed more by the loss of Jerusalem and the loss of the temple, the visible signs of God’s presence in Israel, than by the loss of the sacrificial cult.

Presumably, the sacrificial cult had been supplemented or replaced for so long that its loss was not as devastating as it might have been. The Rabbis of the Tannaitic period, of course, hoped and expected that the sacrificial cult would be restored-indeed, one-sixth of the Mishnah is devoted to the laws of the sacrificial cult-but they did not sense a need to find an immediate replacement for the cult. Life could go on without sacrifices. It is even questionable whether the petition for the restoration of the sacrifices figures as prominently in the prayers of the Tannaim as it does in the liturgy of the following generation. [34] As I have already indicated, the real Rabbinic response to 70 C.E. is not the hackneyed declaration of Rabban Johanan but the affirmation that prayer and Torah study have as great a worth as the sacrifices of old, not as their replacement but as their equivalent or supplement. The classic statement of this view is in the Tannaitic commentary to Deuteronomy 11:13. “To love the Lord your God and to serve Him. This is Torah study. . . . Just as the sacrificial cult is called ‘service’ (Abodah), so too is Torah study called ‘service’ (Abodah). Another opinion: ‘to serve Him’ is prayer. . . . Just as the sacrificial cult is called ‘service’ (Abodah), so too prayer is called ‘service’ (Abodah).” [35] Presumably, these Rabbis believed that the Messianic future held in store a sacrificial cult, combined in some mysterious way with prayer and Torah study, since all three are means of serving the Lord.

It was during the Amoraic period (200–500 C.E.), as the temple receded further into the past, as the prospects of restoration grew dimmer and dimmer and nostalgia for the good old days increased, that the loss of the temple and the sacrificial cult was felt more keenly than before. Rabbi Eleazer declared: “Since the day the temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer have been locked. Since the day the temple was destroyed an iron wall has separated Israel from their Father in Heaven.” [36] During this period the Rabbis were much more eager than they had been previously to find substitutes for the sacrificial cult, and the most commonly proposed substitute now was prayer. Now, for the first time, the Rabbis disputed the origin of the statutory prayers. According to one school of thought, they were established by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that is, they have an independent existence, just as the Tannaim has assumed. According to another school of thought, they correspond to, or derive from, the different offerings of the sacrificial cult. This view prevailed. [37] The sacrificial cult was the norm, the only true and effective mode of reaching God, while prayer was its inadequate, temporary, and unavoidable replacement. Paradoxically enough, this attitude was enshrined in the liturgy, which explicitly declared itself to be a poor substitute for the real thing. The last phrase of Hosea 14:3, a phrase which I cannot translate into English because it is woefully obscure and probably corrupt, was understood by the Rabbis to mean that prayer should be offered in lieu of sacrifice, and the phrase was inserted into the liturgy. Since the Rabbis declared that he who studies the scriptural passages concerning the sacrifices and meditates upon the laws of the sacrificial cult is regarded by God as if he had brought a burnt offering, these verses and laws were incorporated in the liturgy also. [38] Rabbi Sheshet used to pray on the evening after a fast day, “Lord of the world, when the temple was standing, one who sinned offered a sacrifice of which only the fat and the blood were taken on the altar, and thereby his sins were forgiven. I have fasted today, and through this fasting my blood and my fat have been decreased. Deign to look upon the part of my blood and my fat which I have lost through my fasting as if I had offered it to thee on the altar, and forgive my sins in return.” [39] It is in this spirit, I think, that we should understand the Amoraic dicta which declare, “He who moves his bowels, washes his hands, dons the phylacteries and recites the shma [in other words, he who follows the norms of Rabbinic piety and hygiene every morning of his life] is regarded as if he had built an altar and brought an offering upon it,” or which declare, “He who prays in the synagogue is regarded as if he had brought a pure offering,” or which equate Torah study and other Rabbinic virtues with the sacrificial cult. [40] The norm, the standard of comparison, remains the cult. According to this view, when the temple is rebuilt and the sacrificial cult restored in the Messianic era, prayer would have little function, although I doubt that the Rabbis imagined it would be eliminated completely any more than they imagined that Torah study and humility would disappear in the age to come. [41]

For some Jews, however, Rabbinic piety was not only a replacement of the sacrificial cult-it was superior to the original. “Torah study is greater than the continual offerings.” God told King David, according to one legend, that He took more pleasure in one day of King David’s Torah study than he would take from the thousand holocausts which Solomon would offer on the altar. Another quotation: “He who studies the Torah has no need for any of the sacrifices.” Similarly, humility and charity were said to be equivalent to all the sacrifices put together. [42] Prayer, too, was magnified and sanctified. One Rabbi stated explicitly that prayer was greater than the sacrifices, greater, in fact, than good deeds. In this spirit a late Rabbinic homily narrates that “Moses foresaw through the Holy Spirit that the temple would be destroyed and that the offerings of the first fruits would cease. He arose and enacted that the Jews should pray three times a day because prayer is dearer to the Holy One, blessed be He, than are good deeds and all the sacrifices.” A logical conclusion from such views is that there was no need in the future for the return of the sacrificial cult. After all, we already have something better. An explicit acknowledgment of this idea we find in another late Rabbinic homily: “Sacrifices are practiced only below (on earth), while charity and the commandments are practiced both below and above (in heaven). Sacrifices are practiced only in this world, while charity and the commandments are practiced in this world and in the world to come.” [43] This attitude proved congenial to many Jewish philosophers, notably Maimonides.

I have discussed here three different Rabbinic attitudes towards the relationship between the sacrificial cult on the one hand and prayer and Rabbinic piety generally on the other. We must not imagine that these attitudes were fully systematized and clearly articulated. Nor should we attempt to reconcile the contradictory attitudes. The same Rabbi might have preached in the synagogue one morning that Torah study was infinitely superior to the sacrificial cult, and then have proceeded to pray that the cult should be restored. This ambivalence, the legacy of the second temple period, was sharpened by the interplay between the sense of loss caused by the destruction of the temple and the realization that the entire Rabbinic enterprise is antithetical to a sacrificial cult. What is important for us here is that the Rabbis attempted to democratize the cult for both the present and the future. According to two of the three views sketched here, Rabbinic piety is not a second-rate replacement for the sacrificial cult: it is an end in itself, a permanent and successful way of bridging the gap between man and God-so successful, in fact, that some Jews believe that it would replace the sacrificial cult in the age to come.

Missing from all this is the synagogue. Missing from this entire discussion of replacements for and supplements to the sacrificial cult is the very institution which houses prayer and Torah study. Again, following the legacy of second temple times, the Rabbis do not bestow on the synagogue an independent ideology. The little sanctity which the synagogue has derives from two sources: the fact that it is a pale imitation of the temple, and the fact that sacred activities are conducted within its precincts. Let us examine these two points briefly.

Synagogues obviously are a reflex of the temple in Jerusalem. The ancient names for the synagogue include many which originally applied to the temple. [44] The Rabbis legislated that doors of a synagogue must face east, just as the doors of the temple faced east, and archaeologists have uncovered synagogues whose doors do, in fact, face east. The Rabbis also legislated that synagogues must be built on the highest point of the city, presumably to mimic the temple, which was built on the highest mountain of Jerusalem. Congregational prayer in the synagogue was declared akin to offering a sacrifice.

In sum, the Rabbis had good reason to mistranslate Ezekiel 11:16. “And I have become to them (the exiles) a diminished sanctity in the countries whither they have gone,” as “I shall be for them a miniature temple.” “Diminished sanctity” has become “miniature temple,” that is, the synagogue and the school. [45] But the synagogue’s status as a miniature temple does not confer upon it any autonomous sanctity or legitimacy. On the contrary, the transference of temple imagery and terminology to the synagogue indicates that the latter is an imperfect representation of the former. The temple is the ideal. Thus, according to Rabbinic legislation the doors of the synagogue face east, but when one prays he orients himself toward Jerusalem irrespective of the doors. Why? Because he faces the one holy site, the ideal center, oblivious to the fact that the imperfect but necessary structure which protects him from the rays of the sun is oriented in a different direction. [46] Unlike the temple, whose site remains holy forever, even after its destruction, a synagogue building has no inherent sanctity in Rabbinic law. Indeed, according to one opinion in the Mishna, it could even be converted into a bathhouse. [47] This law demonstrates that the sanctity of the synagogue derives from the fact that the building is used for sacred purposes. When such use ceases, so does the sanctity. Hence, many Rabbinic passages which speak of the shekhinah (the divine presence) in the synagogue do so while referring to the prayer and the study conducted by the Jews. These actions, not the building or the place or the institution, confer sanctity. For example, “Rabbi Judan said in the name of Rabbi Isaac, whenever the Jews assemble in synagogues and schools, the Holy One blessed be He assembles his shekhinah with them.” [48]

The synagogue’s status as a second-rate institution is clear again from Rabbinic eschatology. Like their ancestors in the second temple period, the Rabbis speak of a heavenly temple, a heavenly Jerusalem, a heavenly court, and a heavenly Sanhedrin. To this list they add a heavenly altar, a heavenly academy, and a heavenly school. But nowhere, neither in their mystical speculations nor in their musings about the end of days nor in the apocalyptic texts of the sixth and seventh centuries, do the Rabbis refer to a heavenly synagogue. [49] In the ideal world of the heavens and the ideal world of the future, synagogues do not exist. In one stray passage a Rabbi declares that in the future all the synagogues and academies of Babylonia will be picked up and established in the land of Israel. What happens then he does not say. Even this isolated but somewhat well-known passage does not ascribe to synagogues any important role in the Messianic future. [50]

The explanation for this phenomenon should be clear. The Rabbis attempted to democratize Judaism. Whether prayer and Torah study were legitimate supplements to or replacements for the sacrificial cult was a serious question which provoked much thought and speculation. In a choice between aristocracy and democracy, elitism and populism, Rabbinic ideology would support the latter. But between the one and the many, between monism and pluralism, there could be no choice. The Rabbis knew that in unity there is truth, that Israel’s credo of monotheism was founded on oneness. They knew that the temple was the cosmic center, that it was a symbol of the entire world, that it was the place where heaven and earth meet. [51] This could never be duplicated or replaced. Perhaps some Jews attempted to attribute this centrality to their synagogues by depicting the Zodiac and the sun chariot in the middle of the mosaic floors, as if to say, “Here is the center of the cosmos; our synagogue performs the role once performed by the temple.” The Christians made a similar artistic and architectural attempt to represent the entire cosmos within their cathedrals. [52] But these attempts were doomed to failure. For how could there be more than one cosmic center? How could there be more than one divine throne? The Rabbis, at least, ignored these attempts and did not attribute any cosmic significance to their synagogues. In fact, they attributed very little ideological significance to the synagogue. They looked forward instead to a time when they would have the monism of the temple and the democratic cult of the synagogue, an uneasy union of dissimilar ideals. However, the Rabbis tell us that contradictions are tolerated in the world of the divine. Even two contradictory statements can be the words of the living God. [53]


[1] Jewish Quarterly Review L (1959): 972–93; L (1960): 229–40.

[2] “What Is a Temple?” originally published as “The Idea of the Temple in History,” Millennial Star, August 1958, pp. 228–37, 247–49.

[3] Martin Hengel, “Proseuche und Synagoge,” Tradition und Glaube:. . . . Festgabe fur Karl Georg Kuhn (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971), pp. 157–84 (reprinted in the Ktav anthology The Synagogue, ed. Joseph Gutmann).

[4] See especially Deuteronomy 12.

[5] All Jews, that is, except the Samaritans. On the sacred center see Ezekiel 43:7. On the metropolis or mother city see Philo, Against Flaccus 46.

[6] B. Pesahim 65b, a reference I owe to my teacher Rabbi David Weiss Halivni.

[7] For a definition of statutory prayer, see Joseph Heinemann, Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1977), pp. 14–17. Since prayer was not an integral part of the temple cult, it is not discussed by Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978). Isaiah 1:15 and56:7, 1 Kings 8, and Josephus, Against Apion 2.196–97 refer to personal, private prayers or to spontaneous petitions in times of need, not to a fixed and obligatory mode of worship. This is not the place to discuss the rabbinic institution of mishmarot and maamadot (M. Taanit 4.2–4). Theophrastus (c. 300 B.C.E.) mentions that the Jewish priests pray while they sacrifice, but his account is not believable; see Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, I (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974), pp. 10–12.

[8] Jeremiah 16:14; 23:7.

[9] Isaiah 45:9–13.

[10] Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6.

[11] Isaiah 45:1.

[12] Ezra 1:1.

[13] The lack of a sacred fire in the second temple is heightened by the Chronicler, who adds to 1 Kings that fire came down from heaven upon Solomon’s altar to indicate divine approval of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 7:12 Chronicles 7:1) The author of 2 Maccabees 1:10–2:18 tried to show that the second temple did have the sacred fire.

[14] Ezra 3:12.

[15] P. Taanit 2.1 (65a) and parallels.

[16] John J. Collins, The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1974), pp.44–53.

[17] Against Apion 2.175–78; Antiquities 4.212–13.

[18] Harry A. Wolfson, Philo (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1947; reprinted., 1968), 2.241–48.

[19] For the biblical thought see 1 Kings 8:27. On Zeno see Johannes von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, I (Leipzig: Teubner, 1905; reprint ed., 1938), pp.61–62, number 264. An example of the radical Jews is Stephen in Acts 7. Josephus, Jewish Wars 5.458.

[20] Assumption of Moses 4.6–8; Ethiopic Book of Enoch 89.73–74.

[21] See the passages and the bibliography assembled by David Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979; The Anchor Bible), pp. 203–5 (commentary on Wisdom of Solomon 9:8).

[22] Revelation 21:22; contrast 11:19.

[23] Prayer of Azariah 15–16 (one of the additions to the book of Daniel).

[24] Judith 16:16; Tobit 4:10–11; Jubilees 2.22; see Schrenk, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, III: 241.

[25] Judith 9:1; Daniel 9:21 (cf. 6:11); Acts 3:1; Luke 1:10.

[26] 3 Maccabees 7:20 (written in Alexandria); Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 11.8 (reminiscent of Philo and Josephus). In his translations of The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, R. H. Charles occasionally employs the terms “synagogue” and “congregation,” but in these verses the meaning is “community,” not “prayer-house” or “school.”

[27] On Moriah see 2 Chronicles 3:12 Chronicles 3:1; Genesis 22. On Jacob’s ladder see Genesis 28:11–19. On David see 2 Samuel 24.

[28] Against Apion 2.193; cf. Antiquities 4.201.

[29] Against Apion 1.6–46.

[30] The tension between the Rabbinic enterprise as a whole and the Rabbinic desire for the return of the sacrificial cult is analyzed by Robert Goldenberg, “The Broken Axis: Rabbinic Judaism and the Fall of Jerusalem,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45.3 (Sept. 1977), Supp., F:869–82. My analysis differs somewhat from Goldenberg’s because I distinguish between Torah study and prayer and I attempt to analyze the material chronologically. Further study will undoubtedly result in corrections to both his analysis and mine.

[31] Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, version A, chapter 4 (p. 11a ed. Schechter); cf. version B, chapter 8 (p. 11b ed. Schechter. I follow the translation of Judah Goldin (New Haven: Yale University, 1955), p. 34.

[32] T. Sotah end; cf. a different version in B. Baba Bathra 60b.

[33] Tannaim are the Rabbis who lived from approximately 70 C.E. to 200 C.E. and produced the Mishnah and related works (Tosephta and commentaries on Exodus [Mekhilta], Leviticus [Siphra], Numbers and Deuteronomy [Siphre]). Amoraim are the Rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia who lived from approximately 200 C.E. to 400–500 C.E. and produced a Palestinian Talmud and a Babylonian Talmud, both of which are allegedly commentaries on the Mishnah. In these footnotes, the names of Rabbinic tractates are preceded by either a B, P, T, or M, which indicate respectively Babylonian Talmud, Palestinian Talmud, Tosephta, and Mishnah. Much of Rabbinic literature is available in translation; see the bibliography, already somewhat outdated, by John Townsend in The Study of Judaism: Bibliographical Essays (New York: Ktav, 1972).

[34] Ismar Elbogen, Der judische Gottesdienst, Hebrew edition, ed. Joseph Heinemann et al. (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1972), pp. 88, 190.

[35] Siphre on Deuteronomy 41.

[36] B. Berakhot 32b; cf. Lamentations 3:7–9, 44.

[37] B. Berakhot 26b; P. Berakhot 4.1 (7a-b).

[38] B. Taanit 27b; B. Megillah 31b; B. Menahot 110a; Leviticus Rabbah 7.3 (p. 155, ed. Margoliouth).

[39] B. Berakhot 17a. I follow the translation of Jacob Lauterbach, Jewish Encyclopedia, 10 (1905): 625. Lauterbach and Seligsohn (p. 622) provide a useful anthology of rabbinic statements regarding sacrifices.

[40] On hygiene see B. Berakhot 15a. On the synagogue see P. Berakhot 5.1 (8d). On Torah study and other virtues see B. Berakhot 10b; B. Menahot 110a; Pesiqta de Rab Kahana, p. 87, ed. Mandelbaum (p. 998 in the English translation of W. G. Braude).

[41] Some sacrifices and prayers would cease in the world to come because they would no longer be needed. See Leviticus Rabbah 9.7 with the discussion of W. D. Davies, Torah in the Messianic Age and/or the Age to Come (Society of Biblical Literature, Monograph Series 7, 1952), pp. 54–56.

[42] B. Megillah 3b; B. Makkot 10a; B. Menahot 110a; B. Sotah 5b; B. Sukkah 49b.

[43] B. Berakhot 32b; Tanhuma, Ki Tabo 1; Deuteronomy Rabbah on Deuteronomy 16:18 (p. 96, ed. Lieberman).

[44] For example: place, holy place, holy, house, house of God.

[45] T. Megillah 3.22–23; P. Berakhot 5.1 (8d); B. Megillah 29a.

[46] M. Berakhot 4.5–6; T. Berakhot 3.14–16; P. Berakhot and B. Berakhot ad loc.

[47] M. Megillah 3.1–3; T. Megillah 2.12–18; P. Megillah and B. Megillah ad loc.

[48] Pesiqta de Rab Kahana, pp. 431–32, ed. Mandelbaum; cf. p. 90.

[49] See n. 21 above and Joseph M. Baumgarten, “The Duodecimal Courts of Qumran, Revelation, and the Sanhedrin,” Journal of Biblical Literature 95 (1976): 59–78. The apocalyptic texts of the sixth and seventh centuries are edited by Yehudah ibn Shemuel, Midreshē Geulah (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1954).

[50] B. Megillah 29a; cf. 28b. A sermonic plea for synagogue attendance in this world is the context for a reference to a synagogue in the age to come in P. Berakhot 5.1 (8d).

[51] On the temple as a cosmic symbol see Pesiqta de Rab Kahana, p. 8, ed. Mandelbaum. On unity and oneness, see Shaye Cohen, “A Virgin Defiled: Some Rabbinic and Christian Views on the Origins of Heresy,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 36 (1980): 1–11.

[52] Emile Mâle, Religious Art in France, XIII Century, trans. Dora Nussey (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1913; frequently reprinted). I owe this reference to my friend Professor Ivan Marcus.

[53] B. Erubin 13b.