Yeshua Taught in their Synagogues

Luke 4:14-15

After their two days staying with, and teaching the Samaritans, Yeshua and his talmidim then continued on to Galilee.

Now after the two days He departed from there and went to Galilee. John 4:43 NKJV

So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they also had gone to the feast. John 4:45 NKJV

Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.      Luke 4:14-15 NKJV

The word “synagogue” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew ‘Beit Knesset’, meaning ‘House of Assembly‘.  Other Hebrew terms, less frequently used, describe the synagogue as a ‘House of Study‘, or a ‘House of Prayer‘.  Whereas the structure and function of the priesthood and tabernacle (later replaced by the temple) were commanded by God through Moses, synagogues grew organically out of the Jew’s desire to maintain their identity as a community of God regardless of who ruled over them.  Since the synagogue belonged to the local community that built and maintained it; there never was a higher authority that determined its policy, namely how it should be built, decorated, administered, or what sort of liturgy was to be used in it.  Thus, the diversity among synagogues so evident in the first century (1).   It was, therefore, not until well after the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD that the structure and governance of the synagogues was standardised.  

Synagogue – the centre of Jewish community life

During Yeshua’s day each was structured according to the needs of the local community and functioned according to the teachings accepted by the local community, hence there was variety in architecture and how they operated.  They were multi-functional institutions answering the many needs of the entire Jewish community in each location: schools (Josephus, Antiquities  16.43), hostels, courts (Acts 22:19), a place to collect and distribute charity (Matt 6:2), for political meetings (Josephus, Life 276-289), for communal meals (Josephus, Antiquities 14.214-216), and for worship which focused on prayer, reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures.

The synagogue was the social, intellectual, spiritual, political and legal centre of the Jewish community’s life in that village. (2) (3) Worship and study, friendship and community celebration, schooling, collection and distribution of charity, governing of the community and court proceedings were all done in the synagogue and by the synagogue rulers.  The synagogue was thus the heart of every Jewish community and being a member in good standing was essential to being accepted in the Jewish community. (4) (5) (6) 

Synagogue architecture…

Architecturally, synagogues were public buildings constructed, where possible, near a body of water for a mikveh and for the Tashlikh ceremony on Rosh HaShanah, or on the highest point in town, or on a raised platform.  They had a large hall for Shabbat services and many also had smaller rooms for study. 

They generally had a Mikveh (ritual bath / baptismal pool) for ritual washings, and this had to contain enough water for a person to walk down into it, squat and be completely submersed with water.  The Mikveh had one set of steps for people to walk down into it as ceremonially ‘unclean’ and another set of steps for them to walk up out of the water ceremonially ‘clean’.  Synagogues also had kitchen facilities for community feasts, and accommodation for visitors.  

In some cases, the front façade of the main hall had three doors.  Inside there were benches, made of wood or stone, along three or sometimes four sides of the room, with a break for the door of course. (7) 

Within Jewish tradition one stood to read from the Torah and Prophets (t. Sukkah 2.10), so the centre of the room would have a small platform for the readers to stand on, and it is possible that a small menorah (seven-branched candlestick), like the one in the Temple, also stood on that platform.  The floor was usually dirt or flagstones, and common people probably sat on mats on the floor, while the important people sat on the stone benches (Matt. 23:6).  There was a seat for the reader of the Torah called the Moses Seat (or the Seat of Honour), because the Torah recorded the words of Moses so the reader was taking Moses’ place (Matt. 23:2). The Torah scrolls and the writings of the prophets were either kept in a portable chest and brought to the synagogue for worship or were kept in the Synagogue itself in a permanent Torah cabinet. (8) (9)

A Greek inscription dating to the first century dedicating a synagogue gives us some insight into their architecture and functions, as well as the importance that the people placed on lineage:

Theodotos, son of Vettenus, priest and ruler of the synagogue, son of a ruler of the synagogue, grandson of a ruler of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and the teaching of the commandments, and also the guest chamber and the upper rooms and the ritual pools of water for lodging for those needing them from abroad, which his fathers, the elders and Simonides founded.

Three sacred spaces in Judaism

In Yeshua’s day there were three sacred spaces in Judaism, each of which had its own ordered rituals: Temple, Synagogue and Home (10).   Yeshua attended and ministered in each of these spaces.   For the Jews the Temple was the place of the presence of the transcendent God on earth and so the daily Temple worship involved sacrifice accompanied by worship in music and song.  It was patterned after 1 Chronicles 16:4-6 where David appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD with lyres, harps, cymbals and trumpets, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD.  Twelve was the absolute minimum number of musicians the Mishnah deemed appropriate for the daily psalm, and there was no maximum number. (11) Whereas the temple was governed by priests and its functions undertaken by priests, the synagogue was governed by local elders of the community and all but one optional function was undertaken by the laity.  Priests and Levites were welcome to participate in synagogue life but they had no special role except that only priests could offer the blessing of Aaron from the Torah (Num. 6:23-27) at the end of the service. (8)

Synagogue as centre of community justice…

The Synagogue provided the structure whereby a qahal (community) became rooted in God.  Its primary purpose was the dispensation of justice, which was defined as the study, teaching and application of the Tanakh (Torah (Law of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and K’tuvim (Writings) – ie what we refer to as the Old Testament) and the Oral Law.  Jewish tradition placed the roots of the synagogue in Jethro’s advice to Moses (Exodus 18) to select able men who feared God as rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens to judge the people.  In light of that and Boaz’ gathering of ten elders of Bethlehem to witness the legal transaction that gave him possession of the land that belonged to Naomi, and Ruth as his wife (Ruth 4:2-12) Jewish tradition demanded a minimum of ten persons for any public or official religious gathering.   Less than ten persons was not a community and did not qualify for a communal gathering.  The Mishnah preserves the ruling concerning this required minimum number:

If there are less that ten present, the congregation may not recite the Shema with its benedictions, nor may one go before the ark [to lead the prescribed congregational prayers], nor may priests lift up their hands [in pronouncing the blessing], nor may one read the portion of the Torah or the Prophets, nor may one observe the stations [when burying the dead] or say the mourners’ benediction or the mourners’ consolation, or the benediction over newlyweds, nor may one mention the name of God in the invitation to recite the blessing after the meal. Also [the redemption value of dedicated] immovable property [is assessed] by nine and a priest, and similarly, [the valuation vow] of a person. (Megillah 4:3)

The importance of this religious quorum cannot be overestimated. Rabbi Eliezer, a member of the generation that witnessed the destruction of the Temple, freed one of his slaves so that there would be a quorum of ten for the “Eighteen Benedictions,” the central prayer of the synagogue service. (12)

First Century Jewish society was communal, not individual, and that community was defined as being more than ten people.  At this time women could be counted among the ten for a quorum to enable a Shabbat Synagogue Service to go ahead.   The wellbeing of the individual, the family and the community were intimately tied to the proper functioning of the Synagogue and its officers.  

Synagogue Officials

Rulers of the Synagogue, הכנסת ראש ro’sh ha-keneseth, governed the community.  They formed the בית דין Bet Din, bench of three judges, who dispensed justice to the community.  They were also empowered to collect taxes, buy and sell public property such as Torah scrolls, pay for the construction and maintenance of the synagogue, and pay the salaries of town officials – agronomos (market inspectors), Chazzan (synagogue officers), city guards and teachers.  Ro’sh ha-keneseth had to be tsadiqim (righteous men), that is men who knew Torah and Halakha (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from both the “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah”) and followed these as the pattern of their lives.  These synagogue rulers were also responsible for the conduct of the synagogue services.  When the congregation had assembled it was the ruler’s duty to select the various persons to take the leading parts in the service on that day and send the Cḥazzān to notify them what part they were to perform – prayer, reading from the Scriptures, preaching or translating.   

חזן Cḥazzān (attendant) was the other regular official of the Synagogue.  They were generally provided with a salary for their service.  Their primary role was to keep the synagogue clean and appropriately lit and to care for its sacred scrolls.  At the proper stage of the service the attendant would take the appointed scroll out from the ‘ark’ where they were kept, unwrap it and give it to the person chosen to read, then return it to its rightful place when they were finished reading.   He also blew the shofar at sunset of Friday to announce the arrival of Shabbat.  All work would cease and the people gather in their homes to eat the Sabbath meal which had been prepared that afternoon. The same word, Cḥazzān, was used for the synagogue police who would bring those accused of Law breaking to be judged by the Bet Din and were responsible for whipping synagogue members found guilty.   This scourging was carried out in front of the Bet Din who proclaimed during the scourging “If do not carefully observe all the words of this Law…” (Deut. 28:58). 

Except in an occasional large synagogue the following positions were not permanent appointments and did not attract any salary, but were just filled on the day by those chosen by the Synagogue ruler from the congregation gathered once a quorum had been reached.

מתרגמן Meturgeman (interpreter or translator) would be appointed for each service. This man was skilled in languages and stood by those that read, to translate the Hebrew reading into the vernacular language of the synagogue so everyone could understand the message.

שליח צבור Sheliach Tzibbur (angel – or messenger – of the assembly) were required to be humble, be knowledgeable of the rules of prayer and the proper pronunciation of the Hebrew text, have an agreeable voice, proper dress and a beard.  They would recite the prayers on behalf of the congregation, often with musical intonation – representing the community before God in prayer.  They could also be called upon to be messengers of the Bet Din and under their authority transmit Halakhah (Jewish community law), supervise the conversion procedure and lay hands. 

פרנסים Parnassim (administrative officers) were responsible for the care of the poor, and often included at least one woman.   They were in charge of the Mikveh, collection of alms for the poor administration of these funds, visiting the sick, attending to the orphans and widows.  According to Pe’ah 8,7, the collecting was to be done by at least two persons and distributed by three. 

דרשן Darshan (expounder) was the preacher who expounded the Torah in a sermon, delivered after the reading from the Prophets.  This office was also in charge of helping anyone plead their case before the Bet Din.  Some would be travelling preachers, visiting many different communities with their messages.

בעל מסרה  Ba’al Masorah (master of the tradition) was responsible for teaching proselytes in their process of conversion and integration into the Jewish community.  He would also help defend against any deviation from the accepted doctrines and practices of the community as defined by the Bet Din.  (13)  (14)

A Shabbat Service

On Saturday morning the community gathered in the synagogue, then the Ro’sh ha-keneseth (there could be one or more of these synagogue rulers) appointed members of the congregation to various roles in the service.  There was no uniform set order of service that synagogues followed, but most often their pattern was similar to the following:

  • Their service began with blessings offered to God, prayers read with musical intonation by the Sheliach Tzibbur appointed for that day and possibly responses by the congregation. 
  • The whole congregation recited the Shema:  “Sh’ma, Yisra’el! ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI echad [Hear, Isra’el! ADONAI our God, ADONAI is one];(Deut. 6:4) 
  • More structured prayers read by the Sheliach Tzibbur and there may also be responses by the congregation or some spontanious prayers.
  • The Torah scrolls would be brought out by the Chazzan and would be read by the one(s) appointed that day.  In some synagogues one person would be appointed to read while others might have as many as seven readers of different portions.  If Hebrew was not understood by the congregation then a Methurgeman would be appointed to targum (translate) after each verse of the Torah and every three verses of the Nevi’im. 
  • Following the Torah portion, a selection from the Nevi’im (prophets) would be read by the same or another reader. 
  • After all the readings, the one appointed Darshan for that day would teach on what had been read.  The teaching incorporated open responses by those assembled (questions and answers) rather than being a strict monologue. 
  • The service ended with a benediction using the Aaronic blessing found in the Torah (Num. 6:24-26), if a priest was present to offer it. (8) (15) (16)

Music in Jewish Worship

The Tanakh (Jewish Scriptures) clearly exhorts, and gives honoured examples of, praising and worshipping God with musical instruments, song and dance:

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: “Sing to the Lord, For He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider, He has thrown into the sea. Exodus 15:20-21 NKJV

Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land.     Leviticus 25:9 NKJV

After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying. Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man.   1 Samuel 10:5-6 NKJV

Then David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet. 2 Samuel 6:14-15 NKJV

Then Zadok the priest took a horn of oil from the tabernacle and anointed Solomon. And they blew the horn, and all the people said,  “Long live King Solomon!” 
And all the people went up after him; and the people played the flutes and rejoiced with great joy, so that the earth seemed to split with their sound. 1 Kings 1:39-40 NKJV

Then David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets.       1 Chronicles 13:8 NKJV

Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren,  Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of their brethren, the sons of Merari,  Ethan the son of Kushaiah;  and with them their brethren of the second  rank: Zechariah, Ben, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattithiah, Elipheleh, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, and Jeiel, the gatekeepers; the singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were to sound the cymbals of bronze;  Zechariah, Aziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah, and Benaiah, with strings according to  Alamoth;  Mattithiah, Elipheleh, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, Jeiel, and Azaziah, to direct with harps on the Sheminith; Chenaniah, leader of the Levites, was instructor in charge of the music, because he  was  skilful;  Berechiah and Elkanah were doorkeepers for the ark; Shebaniah, Joshaphat, Nethanel, Amasai, Zechariah, Benaiah, and Eliezer, the priests, were to blow the trumpets before the ark of God; and Obed-Edom and Jehiah, doorkeepers for the ark. 1 Chronicles 15:16-24 NKJV

David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who bore the ark, the singers, and Chenaniah the music master with the singers. David also wore a linen ephod. Thus all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn, with trumpets and with cymbals, making music with stringed instruments and harps. 1 Chronicles 15:27-28 NKJV

And he appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to commemorate, to thank, and to praise the Lord God of Israel: Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, and Obed-Edom: Jeiel with stringed instruments and harps, but Asaph made music with cymbals; Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests regularly blew the trumpets before the ark of the covenant of God. 1 Chronicles 16:4-6 NKJV

…and with them Heman and Jeduthun, to sound aloud with trumpets and cymbals and the musical instruments of God. Now the sons of Jeduthun were gatekeepers.    1 Chronicles 16:42 NKJV

Moreover David and the captains of the army separated for the service  some of the sons of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should  prophesy with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals. And the number of the skilled men performing their service was: Of the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah; the sons of Asaph were under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied according to the order of the king. Of Jeduthun, the sons of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with a harp to give thanks and to praise the Lord. Of Heman, the sons of Heman: … … All these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer in the words of God, to exalt his horn. For God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. All these were under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, stringed instruments, and harps, for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the authority of the king. So the number of them, with their brethren who were instructed in the songs of the Lord, all who were skilful, was two hundred and eighty-eight.                  1 Chronicles 25:1-7 NKJV

 …and the Levites who were the singers, all those of Asaph and Heman and Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, stood at the east end of the altar, clothed in white linen, having cymbals, stringed instruments and harps, and with them one hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets—  indeed it came to pass, when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying:
“For He is good,  For His mercy endures forever,”
that the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.   2 Chronicles 5:12-14 NKJV

And he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the Lord by His prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord also began, with the trumpets and with the instruments of David king of Israel. So all the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. And when they had finished offering, the king and all who were present with him bowed and worshiped. Moreover King Hezekiah and the leaders commanded the Levites to sing praise to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshiped.

Then Hezekiah answered and said, “Now that you have consecrated yourselves to the Lord, come near, and bring sacrifices and thank offerings into the house of the Lord.” So the assembly brought in sacrifices and thank offerings, and as many as were of a willing heart brought burnt offerings.  2 Chronicles 29:25-31 NKJV

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord:
“For He is good,   For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.    Ezra 3:10-11 NKJV

 Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings and singing, with cymbals and stringed instruments and harps.                                               Nehemiah 12:27 NKJV

Praise the Lord with the harp; Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.  Sing to Him a new song; Play skilfully with a shout of joy. Psalm 33:2-3 NKJV

Then I will go to the altar of God, To God my exceeding joy;    
And on the harp I will praise You, O God, my God.     
Psalm 43:4 NKJV

They have seen Your procession, O God,
The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary.
The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after;
Among them were the maidens playing timbrels.
Bless God in the congregations, The Lord, from the fountain of Israel. Psalm 68:24-26 NKJV

Also with the lute I will praise You — And Your faithfulness, O my God!
To You I will sing with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.        
Psalm 71:22 NKJV

Sing aloud to God our strength; Make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song and strike the timbrel, The pleasant harp with the lute.
Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, At the full moon, on our solemn feast day.        Psalm 81:1-3 NKJV

Sing to the Lord with the harp, With the harp and the sound of a psalm,
With trumpets and the sound of a horn;
Shout joyfully before the Lord, the King.                         Psalm 98:5-6 NKJV

Awake, lute and harp! I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise You, O Lord, among the peoples,
And I will sing praises to You among the nations.      
Psalm 108:2-3 NKJV

I will sing a new song to You, O God;
On a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You,       
Psalm 144:9 NKJV

Let them praise His name with the dance;
Let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes pleasure in His people;
He will beautify the humble with salvation.             
Psalm 149:3-4 NKJV

Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
                         Psalm 150:3-5 NKJV

And in every place where the staff of punishment passes,
Which the Lord lays on him,
It will be with tambourines and harps;
And in battles of brandishing He will fight with it.
    Isaiah 30:32 NKJV

Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel!
You shall again be adorned with your tambourines,
And shall go forth in the dances of those who rejoice.
  Jeremiah 31:4 NKJV  

Since the beginning of the nation, back in Exodus, music had been an integral part of Jewish worship of God.  Something happened during the second temple period which would change all that, and it had nothing to do with what was thought proper for worship.  Rather it was the laws that they built around Shabbat which brought an end to playing musical instruments in Jewish worship.   Influential Pharisees feared that a musician might be tempted to replace a string or otherwise repair or tune his instrument when playing on the Sabbath, and they classed such an act as falling into the forbidden category of work called “repairing a utensil”, and so prohibited the playing of any musical instrument on the Sabbath. This ruling of the Sanhedrin affected the synagogue services, rendering their worship devoid of music.    Only in the temple did the prescribed instruments for worship continue to be played, on Shabbat, and every day.

Shabbat Laws

Keeping Shabbat (the Sabbath) was the fourth of the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses.  Here is what God said about it:

By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.       Genesis 2:3

“Remember the day, Shabbat, to set it apart for God. You have six days to labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Shabbat for ADONAI your God. On it, you are not to do any kind of work – not you, your son or your daughter, not your male or female slave, not your livestock, and not the foreigner staying with you inside the gates to your property.  For in six days, ADONAI made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. This is why ADONAI blessed the day, Shabbat, and separated it for himself.            Exodus 20:8-11 CJB

“On six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is to be a holy day for you, a Shabbat of complete rest in honour of ADONAI. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.  You are not to kindle a fire in any of your homes on Shabbat.”        Exodus 35:2-3 CJB

“You are to take fine flour and use it to bake twelve loaves, one gallon per loaf.  Arrange them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure table before ADONAI. Put frankincense with each row to be an offering made by fire to ADONAI in place of the bread and as a reminder of it. Regularly, every Shabbat, he is to arrange them before ADONAI; they are from the people of Isra’el, as a covenant forever.     Leviticus 24:5-8 CJB

“On Shabbat offer two male lambs in their first year and without defect, with one gallon of fine flour as a grain offering, mixed with olive oil, and its drink offering. This is the burnt offering for every Shabbat, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.”         Numbers 28:9-10 CJB

Happy is the person who does this, anyone who grasps it firmly, who keeps Shabbat and does not profane it, and keeps himself from doing any evil.  Isaiah 56:2 CJB

“If you hold back your foot on Shabbat from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call Shabbat a delight, ADONAI’s holy day, worth honouring; then honour it by not doing your usual things or pursuing your interests or speaking about them.  If you do, you will find delight in ADONAI – I will make you ride on the heights of the land and feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Ya’akov, for the mouth of ADONAI has spoken.”  Isaiah 58:13-14 CJB

Thus says the LORD, “Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the Sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem.”   Jeremiah 17:21

In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.  So I admonished them on the day they sold food. Also men of Tyre were living there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the Sabbath, even in Jerusalem. Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the Sabbath day?
“Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”   
Nehemiah 13:15-18

In order to enforce regulations against work on Shabbat, the Jewish religious leaders created a legal definition of what work was prohibited.  They concluded that what God ceased from in Genesis 2:1-3 was creating, and saw a connection between this and construction of the tabernacle. From that, they defined thirty-nine categories of activity needed for the construction and use of the Tabernacle, which were thus designated as ‘creating’ and therefor forbidden on Shabbat (and could receive the death penalty from the Sanhedrin).  The thirty-nine categories of forbidden activities, based on the Oral Torah which was being developed and debated in Yeshua’s day are:

  1. Planting (Hebrew: זורע Zorea) Not only planting is included in this category; other activities that promote plant growth are also prohibited. This includes watering, fertilizing, planting seeds, or planting grown plants.
  2. Ploughing (Hebrew: חורש Ḥoresh) Included in this prohibition is any preparation or improvement of land for agricultural use. This includes activities whose purpose is not agricultural such as dragging chair legs in soft soil thereby unintentionally making furrows, or pouring water on the ground or making a hole in the soil.
  3. Reaping (Hebrew: קוצר Koṣer) Removing all or part of a plant from its source of growth is considered reaping. Climbing a tree is forbidden, for fear this may lead to one tearing off a branch. Riding an animal is also forbidden, as one may unthinkingly detach a stick with which to hit the animal.  (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28)
  4. Gathering (Hebrew: מעמר Me’amer) Initial gathering of earth-borne material in its original place. E.g. After picking strawberries, forming a pile or collecting them into one’s pockets, or a basket. Collecting rock salt or any mineral (from a mine or from the Earth) and making a pile of the produce. However, a bowl of apples that falls in a house can be gathered as 1) they do not grow in that environment and 2) they were already initially gathered in the orchard.
  5. Threshing/Extraction (Hebrew: דש Dosh) It refers to any productive extraction and includes juicing fruits and vegetables and wringing (desirable fluids) out of cloths, as the juice or water inside the fruit is considered ‘desirable’ for these purposes, while the pulp of the fruit would be the ‘undesirable.’ As such, squeezing (S’ḥita) is forbidden unless certain rules are applied. 
  6. Winnowing (Hebrew: זורה Zoreh) Sorting undesirable from desirable. The separation of chaff from grain, or any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible.  Rubbing a couple of grains in your hand to remove the husks before eating them would be considered “winnowing” and therefore forbidden.  (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28)
  7. Sorting/Purification (Hebrew: בורר Borer) Any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible or desirable that which was inedible or undesirable. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. Or, if there is a bowl of mixed peanuts and raisins, and one desires the raisins and dislikes the peanuts: Removing (effectively sorting) the peanuts from the bowl, leaving a ‘purified’ pile of raisins free from unwanted peanuts, would be Sorting/Purification as the peanuts are removed and therefor considered a serious transgression. However, removing the desirable raisins from the peanuts does not purify the mixture, as one is left with undesirable peanuts (hence unrefined), not a refined component as before, and is thus permissible.
  8. Dissection Hebrew: טוחן (Toḥen) Dissection can arise in simply cutting into pieces fruits or vegetables for a salad. Very small pieces would involve ‘Dissection’, therefore cutting into slightly larger than usual pieces would be permitted, thus avoiding cutting the pieces into their final, most usable, state.
  9. Sifting (Hebrew: מרקד Meraked) This is essentially the same as Sorting / Purification (see above), but performed with a utensil specifically designed for the purpose of sorting, such as a sieve, strainer, or the like.
  10. Kneading/Amalgamation (Hebrew: לש Losh) this prohibited activity is the combining of solid and liquid together to form a paste or dough-like substance.
  11. Cooking/Baking (Hebrew: אופה/בישול Bishul/Ofeh)  Any method of heating food to prepare for eating is included in this prohibition.
  12. Shearing (Hebrew: גוזז Gozez) Severing/uprooting any body-part of a creature.
  13. Scouring/Laundering (Hebrew: מלבן Melaben) Cleansing absorbent materials of absorbed /ingrained impurities.
  14. Carding/Combing Wool (Hebrew: מנפץ Menafeṣ) Separating/disentangling fibres.
  15. Dyeing (Hebrew: צובע Ṣovea) Colouring or enriching the colour of any material or substance.
  16. Spinning (Hebrew: טווה Toveh) Twisting fibres into a thread or twining strands into a yarn.
  17. Warping (Hebrew: מיסך Meseḥ) Creating the first form for the purpose of weaving.
  18. Making Two Loops/Threading Heddles (Hebrew: עושה שתי בתי נירין Oseh Sh’tei Batei Nirin) Forming loops for the purpose of weaving or the making of net like materials.
  19. Weaving (Hebrew: אורג שני חוטין Oreg) Forming fabric (or a fabric item) by interlacing long threads passing in one direction with others at a right angle to them.
  20. Separating Two Threads (Hebrew: פוצע שני חוטין Poṣe’a) Removing/cutting fibres from their frame, loom or place.
  21. Tying (Hebrew: קושר Kosher) Binding two pliant objects skilfully or permanently via twisting.
  22. Untying (Hebrew: מתיר Matir) The undoing of any tied (see Tying) or spun (see Spinning) binding
  23. Sewing (Hebrew: תופר Tofer) Combining separate objects into a single entity, whether through sewing, gluing, stapling, welding, dry mounting, etc.
  24. Tearing (Hebrew: קורע Kore’a) Ripping an object in two or undoing any sewn connection.
  25. Trapping (Hebrew: צד Ṣad) Forcible confinement of a living creature, the confining of a creature to make it easier to capture in one’s hand.
  26. Killing (Hebrew: שוחט Shoḥet) Ending a creature’s life, whether through slaughter or any other method.
  27. Flaying/Skinning (Hebrew:מפשט Mepashet) Removing the hide from the body of a dead animal.
  28. Curing/Preservation (Hebrew: מעבד Me’aved); sometimes referred to as “Salting” ( מולח Mole’aḥ). Preserving any item to prevent spoiling for a long period of time.
  29. Smoothing (Hebrew: ממחק Memaḥek) Scraping/sanding a surface to achieve smoothness.
  30. Scoring (Hebrew: משרטט Mesartet) Scoring/drawing a cutting guideline.
  31. Measured Cutting (Hebrew: מחתך Meḥateḥ) Cutting any object to a specific size.
  32. Writing (Hebrew: כותב Kotev) Writing/forming a meaningful character or design.
  33. Erasing (Hebrew: מוחק על מנת לכתוב שתי אותיות Moḥek [al menat lichtov shtei otiyot]) Cleaning/preparing a surface to render it suitable for writing.
  34. Construction (Hebrew: בונה Boneh) Contributing to the forming of any lasting structure. The action of joining different pieces together, e.g. inserting the handle of an axe into the socket is a derived form of this activity.  Also, making a protective covering (or a ‘tent’) is forbidden.
  35. Demolition (Hebrew: סותר Soter) Demolishing for any constructive purpose. For example, knocking down a wall in order to extend or repair the wall would be demolition for a constructive purpose. Combing a wig to set it correctly and pulling out hairs during the procedure with a metal toothed brush or comb would be constructive ‘demolition’, as each hair that is removed in the process of the wig (a utensil) is progressing its state towards a desired completion.
  36. Extinguishing a Fire (Hebrew: מכבה Meḥaveh) Extinguishing a fire/flame, or diminishing its intensity. While extinguishing a fire is forbidden even when great property damage will result; in the event of any life-threatening fire, the flames must be extinguished, by the principle of pikuaḥ nefesh.
  37. Ignition (Hebrew: מבעיר Mav’ir) Igniting, fuelling or spreading a fire/flame. This includes making, transferring or adding fuel to a fire. This is one of the few Sabbath prohibitions mentioned explicitly in the Torah (Exodus 35:3). Judaism requires Sabbath candles to be lit before the Sabbath; it is forbidden to light them on the Sabbath. They are intended to take the place of candles which cannot be lit on the Sabbath.
  38. Fine-tuning / Repairing a Utensil (Hebrew: מכה בפטיש Makeh Bapetish). This activity refers to completing an object and bringing it into its final useful form.  This is the prohibition by which instruments cannot be tuned nor a string replaced which lead to the prohibition on any playing of a musical instrument on Shabbat and thus barred instruments from the synagogue.
  39. Transferring Between Domains / Carrying (Hebrew: הוצאה Hotza’ah) Transferring something from one domain type to another domain type, or transferring within a public thoroughfare. All areas are divided into four categories: a private domain, a public thoroughfare, an open area and an exempt area.  Transferring an object from a private domain to a public thoroughfare, or the reverse, is forbidden. Transferring an object between an open area to a private domain or public thoroughfare is prohibited. Transferring an object between an exempt area and any other domain is permissible. In addition, transferring an object for a distance of four cubits (or more) in a public thoroughfare or open area is forbidden.

In Yeshua’s day, some of this had been handed down through the generations as “traditions of the elders”, and some was still being newly formed and debated.  Yeshua joined in such debates and even called into question traditions of the elders when these brought forth actions which were contrary to the intent of Scripture.  In 1st Century Jewish society, the job of protecting Shabbat, and defining the other laws of the community,was ascribed to the members of the Sanhedrin – hence all the political intrigues engaged in to get a majority representation on the Sanhedrin.  For each of these thirty-nine prohibitions they made rulings as to what the Jewish people were commanded or forbidden to do in keeping with the prohibition – and such rulings were the “Law”, sometimes even referred to as the “Torah” of the Jewish people.  Breaching these rulings was considered to be breaking God’s law, even when the ruling had little relationship to what God had written for us in Scripture.  

Thus, despite all the exhortations in Scripture for the Jewish people to praise and worship God with instruments, they were forbidden to be played as part of the Shabbat Service in the Synagogue.  In another context Yeshua said of the religious leaders: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commandments of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9)   Music did, however, remain an essential part of services in the Holy Temple. This kind of rabbinical enactment—a prohibition designed to prevent desecration of Shabbat—is called a shvut.  In general, a shvut was deemed not to apply in the Holy Temple.  Music accompanied even those Temple rituals that were deemed not to essentially require musical accompaniment in order to be obedient to Torah.  However, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, this left the Jewish people totally devoid of music in their worship as they had enculturated the prohibition against such in their Synagogues on Shabbat. (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (23)

Reference List

1. Levine, Lee I. The First Centurary Synagogue: New Perspectives. Arg. 77 : Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift, 2001.
2. Lacey, Ian. Synagogue Services. Israel & Judaism Studies. [Online] NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, 2007. [Cited: 3rd Dec. 2016.]
3. Spigel, Chad. First Centurary Synagogues. Bible Odyssey. [Online] [Cited: 3rd April 2019.]
4. The First-Centurary Synagogue – New Perspectives. Levine, Lee I. Jerusalem : Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift. Arg., 2001, Vol. 77.
5. Laan, Ray Vander. He Went To Synagogue. That The World May Know. [Online] [Cited: 25th July 2019.]
6. —. He Went To Synagogue. That the World May Know. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Dec. 2016.]
7. Spigel, Chad. First Century Synagogues. Bible Odessey. [Online] [Cited: 2nd April 2019.] Chad Spigel, “First Century Syn
8. Turnage, Marc. Exploring the Practices and Customs of the First Century Synagogue. [Online] 9th August 2016. [Cited: 19th April 2019.]
9. Synagogues – Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Hachlili, Rachel. May/June, s.l. : Biblical Archaeology Society, 2015.
10. Matthews, Doc. History of Christianity: Early Christian Worship. Youtube. [Online] [Cited: 17th April 2019.]
11. The Exclusion of Musical Instruments from the Ancient Synagogue. McKinnon, James W. s.l. : Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 1979, Vol. 106, pp. 77–87.
12. Sauter, Megan. Ancient Synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora. Biblical Archiology. [Online] 3rd September 2016. [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
13. Killian, Greg. The Synagogue – Bet HaKnesset. Bete Munah. [Online] [Cited: 9th November 2019.]
14. Gafni, Professor Isaiah. Jewish Life in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 29th July 2019.]
15. The Ancient Synagogue Service. Burton, Ernest De Witt. The Biblical World, Vol. 8, pp. 143-148. 01903578.
16. Hegg, Tim. The Public Reading of the Scriptures in the 1st Century Synagogue. s.l. : Torah Resource, 2007.
17. Shurpin, Yehuda. Why can’t we connect to G-d through music on Shabbat? Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 9th November 2019.]
18. Activities Prohibited on Sabbath. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
19. EISENBERG, RONALD L. Shabbat’s Work Prohibition. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
20. Palatnik, Lori. Laws of Shabbat for Beginners. Aish He Torah. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
21. OU Staff. The 39 Categories of Sabbath Work Prohibited by Law. OU. [Online] 17th July 2006. [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
22. Melamed, Rabbi Eliezer. Laws of Shabbat – Volume 1. s.l. : Yeshivat Har Bracha Maggid Books.
23. Lizorkin, Ilya. Aspects of the Sabbath in the Second Temple Period. 2006.

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* In what ways was worship in the Synagogue like worship in your church, and in what ways was it different?
* What were the functions that the synagogue fulfilled in Jesus’ time, and what functions does your church fulfil now?
* Compare the rolls of the synagogue officials with the roles of leaders within your church.
* What do you think of the 39 laws that the Jews made to ensure their people kept the Sabbath as God had commanded? Can you think of any instances when Jesus commented on any of their Sabbath rules?
* What are your thoughts on their reasons for excluding the playing of musical instruments in their synagogue worship and the ultimate result of such being that after the destruction of the second temple in 70AD, all Jewish worship has been without musical instruments? Is this practice of excluding instruments from worship in agreement with the scriptures?