Synagogue (hebrew Insight)

Synagogue in HebrewThe short answer is nothing. While genuinely a Jewish institution, the word itself is not in Hebrew, but rather, in Greek.

Just like thousands of other loanwords, this word made its way into dozens of other languages. The word synagogue is never actually mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but is frequently mentioned in the New Testament.

When we translate the word “synagogue” to Hebrew, the phrase we use to communicate this idea is בֵּית כְּנֶסֶת  Beyt Kneset   which literally means, “House of meeting.”  If this sounds somewhat familiar it is most likely because you recognize the word “Knesset “which is the name used for Israeli parliament.

So what does Synagogue mean in Greek? Like its Hebrew counterpart, it simply means “meeting” or “gathering.”

In James 2:2 we read: “For if a man comes into your synagogue with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?”

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  1. Michael Beer

    May I ask a related question, about synagoues and Temple in first century times?
    In some of the gospel accounts, Yeshua tells men who have been cured of leprosy (or whatever it was) to go and show themselves to the priest and offer the appropriate (Levitical) sacrifice and be certified clean.
    The way Judaism was structured at that time, did these men have to go to the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem or were there priests on duty in synagogues around the land. If there were not priests in the synagogues, who was responsible for spiritual oversight in the synagogues?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Michael,

      thank you for this question and welcome to our forum. Not all synagogues were under one umbrella. Some (slightly later) synagogues do not point to Jerusalem for example as do most (archeological evidence). It is known that some priests did officiate in synagogues, but I do not think it was exclusively run by priests. When we read about the miracles of Jesus they happen in Jerusalem. Synagogues in Jerusalem and synagogues outsides had very different control structures. More over an evangelist keeps contrasting “their synagogues” presumably over “ours”. So it is very complex. I am thinking that when the priest was suppose to check Jesus’ healing in the context of Temple polemic he meant either the Temple itself or Temple affiliated holy place like the pool of Siloam.

      You should read –

      and also

  2. Marinete Almeida

    sinagoga se refere expressão fisica da palavra

  3. carlos

    Não sei se posso dar uma resposta plausivél; mas vejo que estas formas em nada muda o sentido de aprendermos sobre Deus, pois, este ajuntamento, reunião ou qualquer outra nominação que se possa dar a este momento- a suma é: Ela é fisical e também espiritual!

  4. Lee Ostrander

    Thank you Judith for waking me to The Yiddish Language, and up to what most of the world is really speaking about The School or in Spanish it is called Escuela. I’m remembering about a time when all of The Jew were forbidden to even teach about their G-d given Way of Worshiping YHVH.

    Not to cause anyone any harm, at that time in the 3rd Century AD, but even The Roman Emperior Constantine caused the most dammage to be done to the Early Christian Church and to The Jewish Way of assembling for Shul on Shabot, Friday evenings. He even Changed the day of assembly for Christians to a meeting on the first day of the week. The Sabbath Day is remember no more by some of The Gentile Christians, who had no knoledge of what they were doing wrong with the dis Honoring of G-d’s Law and Commandments of The Torah!

    Shalom, Lee…

    So it was very hard for some People to adapt to this new way of disrespecting YHVH’s Law and Commandments, at the request of The Roman Emperior.

  5. Alex Fisher

    Very interesting, however translating synagogue as simply “meeting” is not quite accurate. The Greek derives from “syn-“, together, and “gogo-“, the root of words like pedagogy. A more accurate translation into Hebrew would be “Beth Midrash”, house of learning.
    This seems to be reflected in the various other terms such as schul (or shul), which is Yiddish deriving from the German.
    an interesting discussion.


    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Alex, hi. Thanks for sharing your comment. This wiki page summarizes my point so I will just use it here:

      Beth Midrash (Hebrew: בית מדרש‎; also Beis Medrash, Beit Midrash, pl. batei midrash “House of Learning”) refers to a Jewish study hall located in a synagogue, yeshiva, kollel or other building. It is distinct from a synagogue, although many synagogues are also used as batei midrash and vice versa.

  6. judith green

    In answer to Lee: you won’t find “shul” in a Hebrew dictionary. It is a Judeo-German or Yiddish designation for the Jewish study hall used as early as the thirteenth century. One explanation for the word is the fact that building synagogues was forbidden in nearly every European country at that period, so the Jews had to hold their services in private buildings; and for this purpose they used the schools (same word), which was permitted. It thus became customary and safe for them to say merely “I go to school” instead of “I go to the synagogue in the school.” It is also possible that the Jews just called the synagogue a “schul” in the sense of “assembly,” and study certainly did take place there. This term was adopted for the synagogue in nearly all countries, e.g., “scuola” in Italy, “schola” in England, and “szkola” in Poland and, as you say, it is used today by many Jews as an informal substitute for synagogue.

  7. Lee Ostrander

    This is something new for me to think about the usage being from The Greek Language. I do know that Hebrew speaking People do use the word Shul, when they mean “going to the meeting Place”, but that word meaning is when the meeting is it at their Synogogue. I have just never tried to look the word up in my Hebrew Dictionary before.

    Shalom, Lee…

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg


  8. judith green

    In order to distinguish the “gathering place” of the Jews, the συναγωγή, synagogue, from that of the Christians, a word with similar meaning was adopted, the “place of calling out”, the ἐκκλησία = ecclesia, the basis of the English words “ecclesiastic”, etc. In the Gospels, this familiar word is actually used only a few times in Matthew (18:17, 16:18), not in any other Gospel! It is commonly used in Acts and in Paul and eventually marks the struggle between “synagogue and church”. I wonder if Matthew coined this usage. In earlier Greek usage, it is a political, secular assembly place. You can follow up on these thoughts by studying the eTeacher Biblical Greek Course! I admit – I am the author of the Course….

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I highly recommend the course that Judith authored. You will get more info about it in the near future!

  9. Kat Hobaugh

    You insight is so thought provoking. I will definitely share this with my groups.
    I am wondering how the word Synagogue influences the meanings of “house of worship” or “house of prayer”? In other words, is the Synagogue (or church) to be thought of as a physical place or a spiritual place?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Well… I think some churches (protestant) can be thought of following the synagogal trajectory where reading, preaching and study of Torah became with time central, while others like Catholic and Orthodox followed the trajectory of Jerusalem Temple where worship was more central than study. Of course we have the same variations today in charismatic vs. non-charismatic worship approaches in protestantism. Dr. Eli