I'm unaware of the existence of any synagogues having existed between the 1st and 2nd Temple Period. It seems to have begun only after the 2nd Temple existed. Between the two Temples, from what I'm reading, it was common for Jews to pray and hear public Torah readings in the market place.

I'm assuming that one of the main motives for building a synagogue was to have a house of prayer available to supplement the temple (while it existed) for those who could not get to the Temple itself to offer sacrifices and pray, there. Moreso, when the Temple did not exist, the prayers substituted for the sacrifices.

However, it seems that during the period between the 1st and 2nd Temples, it seemed that a building was not necessary. Why is that? Or, rather, what changed during the 2nd Temple period that made people build actual structures vs. praying in the market place?

  • Do you mean as opposed to Beis Midrash or when they started to call it בית הכנסת or else?
    – Al Berko
    Sep 16, 2019 at 18:15
  • Do you mean as overlooked by WIKI en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synagogue#Origins? I think the WIKI is pretty clear. BTW Why do you ask "between" and not "when they started"?
    – Al Berko
    Sep 16, 2019 at 18:18
  • @AlBerko Yes, I am specific regarding its usage as בית הכנסת, specifically, for prayer. As for "when they started" question - I considered that concept, but, I think it's a separate question. I'm making an assumption regarding the motive for having it in the first place, and I'm uncertain if my assumption is correct.
    – DanF
    Sep 16, 2019 at 19:11
  • I think the destruction of the Temple made the need for מקדש מעט. As it says נשלמה פרים שפתנו. As long as the Temple seemingly functioned there was no need in praying in groups.
    – Al Berko
    Sep 16, 2019 at 19:50
  • @AlBerko If that's true, then why were synagogues built during the 2nd Temple period at all? There was some other reason for that besides נשלמה פרים שפתנו
    – DanF
    Sep 16, 2019 at 19:56

1 Answer 1


There are many synagogues known to have existed in the Second Temple period both from literature and archaeology (see lists on Hebrew and English Wikipedia). So the question isn't whether they existed, but more what purpose they served. This subject is addressed in Ezra Fleischer's article "On the Beginnings of Obligatory Jewish Prayer" (in Hebrew), specifically pp. 402-414.

To summarize his argument, synagogues weren't used for public prayer during the Second Temple period. בית כנסת (like its Greek counterpart sunagogē) means "house of gathering," not "house of prayer." What took place in synagogues is adduced from contemporary sources, which never mention public prayer in a synagogue. In fact, the structure of synagogues that have been discovered seems to indicate places for sitting on all four sides of the building (whereas a house of prayer would more likely have all seats facing the Temple or the ark).

On the other hand, contemporary sources do mention it as a place for gathering and reading from the Torah. To mention a few of them: An inscription on one Israeli synagogue says that Theodotus "built this synagogue for reading the Torah and learning the commandments." Philo (Life of Moses 2.215-216) describes the houses of prayer of his own day (in Alexandria) as "schools of wisdom." The gospels and the Acts of the Apostles portray Israeli and diaspora synagogues as a place in which the Torah was read and where Jesus and Paul tried to teach. Reading from the Torah in the synagogue has survived until this day as part of the public prayer, but in those days it wasn't part of public prayer, it was the main purpose of the gathering in the synagogue, while prayer was individual.

The reason why synagogues became places for public prayer is because public prayer was standardized after the destruction of the Second Temple by Rabban Gamli'el. The standard prayer seems to have been composed at this time, along with the practice to say prayers communally. Due to the need to pray with ten people, prayers became part of the synagogue.

  • Thank you. You've listed an assortment of what seems to be good sources for me to explore, and get some better context. I'll try to look at them. Thanks for the great summary and the research.
    – DanF
    Sep 16, 2019 at 20:52

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