Exploring the Synagogue in Jesus’ Day, Part 4

Posted on June 29, 2020


By David Ettinger

This is the fourth of a four-part series. Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here. Read part 3 here.

The Synagogue School
With the growth in popularity of synagogues came the weekday transformation of the synagogue into a schoolhouse for Jewish boys. We are not sure when synagogue schools were established, but by New Testament times the synagogue school was a vital part of Jewish life.

Ruins of the synagogue of Capernaum

The original purpose of synagogue schools was to make sure Jewish boys were literate, particularly so they could read the Mosaic Law. And note the word “boys”; synagogue school was not for girls.

Boys began Hebrew school just following their sixth birthday. Classes were held regularly six days a week, and every boy in a given town or village was strongly urged to attend. In New Testament times, school was in session year-round.

How It Worked
Every morning, the boys, each usually carrying a lunch of bread and heavily-diluted wine, walked to the synagogue. As they entered the building, they were greeted by their schoolmaster – most often the rabbi, though another respected and learned man could lead the teaching. The schoolmaster was a stern figure dressed in a long, white-belted tunic with a tasseled prayer shawl draped over his head.

four scrolls

While the boys sat in a semicircle on the hard floor, the rabbi went back to the ark and delicately removed one of the scrolls. He then took off its linen wrapping and leather case, and took his seat in the center of his pupils. The scrolls, each of which contained one of the books of the Old Testament, were the primary texts used for his lessons.

The boys listened attentively as the rabbi began to recite passages from the scroll. He spoke slowly and distinctly, giving the words an almost musical intonation, which made them easier to memorize. The best of the older students could repeat many passages by heart without omitting or adding a single word.

By the time of Jesus, most Jewish boys throughout Israel learned the ancient Hebrew language in the synagogue classroom, because at home and in public they spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew which came into use during the Babylonian exile.

What They Learned
As the boys got older, they eventually learned to write, first copying the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. To do so, students were equipped with a wax-covered wooden tablet on which they wrote with a pointed stylus of bone, bronze, or wood. When the youths had mastered the letters and short passages, they were allowed to copy longer lessons on sheets of parchment, using reed pens dipped in black ink.

deuteronomy 2

In New Testament times, Jewish schools required each student to master several key passages of Scripture. Of primary importance was the “Shema,” a creedal statement of the Jews (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Next in importance was Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41. Students were also required to learn the “Hallel” – “praise”– which was Psalms 113-118, the Creation story (Genesis Chapters 1-5), and the sacrificial laws (Leviticus Chapters 1-8). If a student was exceptionally bright, he would be given the opportunity to study further in the Book of Leviticus.

Of Crucial Importance
One the most important functions of the synagogue school was that it helped Jewish parents pass on the religious heritage of Israel to their children. In a land contending with Greco-Roman influences, the synagogue schools were there to keep young, impressionable minds focused on the God of Israel and His teachings, and to be better equipped to resist the temptations of the heathen world around them.

As with the synagogues, we can only imagine what kind of interest Jesus of Nazareth invoked in these schoolhouses. Surely scattered throughout Israel were inquisitive boys and young men who sought out the schoolmaster’s opinion regarding this Man claiming to be Israel’s Messiah. Perhaps some of these inquiries led to meaningful conversation, and possibly even salvation.