25 July 2015

Jewish Temple and synagogue worship, first century CE

For most of the first century CE, religious life of Judaism centered on the temple at Jerusalem, at which sacrifices were made twice a day.  Remember, though, that the Jewish day starts at nightfall the evening before, and runs until the following nightfall; nightfall is defined as when three stars have appeared.  Samaritans centered their worship on their temple at Shechem.

In the first century, not all Jews and Samaritans reckoned the day from nightfall to nightfall.  The Essenes followed a solar calendar, and so reckoned day from dawn to dawn.  Most of the Diaspora, living among the goyim, did likewise.

This is written primarily for Gentiles, though others may be interested.  I have used the name Yahweh rather than later euphemisms because in the first century, that’s what they did.

Prayer times

So the first service of a Jewish day was at Arvit, or Ma’ariv, which did not involve any further slaughter but did include burnt-offering of any further already dead animals not yet burned.  The second, at nine in the morning, was Shacharit, and was the first sacrifice of the day, involving both slaughter and burnt-offering.  The third, at three in the afternoon, was Mincha, and it also involved a sacrifice with slaughter and burnt-offering.  On holidays (Yom Tov), Chol ha-Moed (intermediate days of Matzot and Sukkot), and Rosh Chodesh, the temple priests performed a supplementary sacrifice almost immediately following that at Shacharit called Mussaf.

With the advent of synagogues in the second century BCE, the elders, scribes, and rabbis modeled their services after those at the temple.  At first, these were short and simple, and were mostly the same as those used at the temple.  However, in place of actual sacrifice, the leaders devised a prayer that came to be called the Amidah, which in its original form was much, much shorter and thinner than its modern-day counterpart. 

The synagogues also initiated the reading of Torah passages to their congregations, following a three-year cycle in Palestine, later adding Haftarah readings of the Prophets after the Pharisees became more influential.

Religious calendar

At the core of the Jewish, and Samaritan, religious calendar is Shabbat, the Sabbath day, the seventh day of the week.  Shabbat is the primary, and weekly, feast day of the Israelite religions, so important that the day before it, the sixth day, came to be called the Day of Preparation.  It celebrates the creation of ha-Olam, ‘all that is’.

In Palestine, and perhaps elsewhere, Mondays and Thursdays were observed as fast days.

The new moon marks the beginning of the month, of which there are thirteen, marked by a feast day called Rosh Chodesh.  Though this is called a “minor” feast, it is still an occasion that was marked by an additional sacrifice.  The ceremonies of Rosh Chodesh not directly connected to the sacrifices were held on the Mount of Olives.

The three great pilgrimage festivals of the Israelite religions are Matzot, the first day of which is celebrated as Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Major feasts

The festival of Pesach, or Passover, began in the late afternoon of 14 Abib/Nisan, the day before the start of the festival of Matzot.  Without keeping in mind that the sacrifice was the most important part of every religious occasion, some of the prescriptions in the Torah can be a little confusing.  So, the day of Pesach was when the Passover sacrifice was actually slaughtered, the ceremony beginning immediately after the Mincha sacrifice. 

The Seder and other ceremonies took place starting at the sundown immediately following, which was a new day, 15 Abib/Nisan and the first day of Matzot.  In the beginning, Pesach was an offering of “first fruits” of the flock, but it came to commemorate the liberation of Israelites from slavery in Egypt described in the book of Exodus.

The festival of Matzot, or Unleavened Bread, originally marked the beginning of the barley harvest, and this is still commemorated in the name for the second day of the festival, Reshit Katzir, or ‘beginning of the harvest’.  Each worshipper made an offering of green barley to sanctify his crop, a sheave of it along with the Pesach sacrifice.  The first day, 15 Abib/Nisan, was taken up by the commemoration of Pesach, which was held as a sabbath, as was the seventh day, and, of course if Shabbat fell during the Chol ha-Moed, that day also.

In later times, Pesach and Matzot came to be the time to watch for the reappearance of Elijah the prophet to herald the coming of the kingdom of Yahweh.

Sefirah, or ‘Counting of the Omar’, is the time between the end of Matzot and Shavuot, a counterpart to the Christian season of Easter (as opposed to Easter Day).

The festival of Shavuot, or Weeks, also called the Feast of First Fruits and Pentecost, originally served to mark the beginning of the wheat harvest.  It falls on 6 Sivan.  Later it came to commemorate the giving of the Torah to Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai/Horeb/Paran.

In later times, Shavuot came to be the time to watch for the appearance of the Messiah ben Joseph, the forerunner of the kingdom of Yahweh.

The final festival of the year, Sukkot, or Booths, also called the Feast of Ingathering, originally marked the end of the fruit harvest.  Later, it commemorated the forty years of Wandering in the Sinai.  It began on 15 Ethanim/Tishrei and lasted seven days, the first observed as a abbath.  The seventh day is called Hoshanna Rabbah and has its own special features, but it remains part of the Chol ha-Moed of Sukkot.

The festival of Shemini Atzeret, literally the ‘eighth day of assembly’, immediately followed Sukkot on 22 Ethanim/Tishrei, but it is a separate festival in its own right.

By the first century CE, Sukkot had become the time of expectation for the Messiah ben David, and along with him the Righteous Priest.

Other major observances

Yom Teruah, which literally means ‘blowing the trumpet’, takes place on 1 Ethanim/Tishrei, and its most significant feature, other than it being a sabbath, is the blowing of the shofar.  It primarily signals the beginning of the Yamim Nora’im, or ‘Days of Awe’, of which there are ten leading up to and including Yom Kippur.

Yom Teruah is better known by its later name, Rosh Hashanah, and for Rabbanite Jews signifies one of their New Year Days (there are four in all throughout the year).  Karaite Jews and Samaritans do not recognize this, however, and continue to use the older, Biblical name.

Yom Kippur, or ‘Day of Atonement’, in temple times was originally primarily a priestly observance, but by the first century laity took part in the fasts and many of the prayers, which had by then grown to last all day long.  Its chief feature in its early use was the ritual cleansing of the temple, its altars, the sacred vessels, and priestly garments.  Yom Kippur also marked the one day of the entire year when the chief priest entered into the Holy of Holies, and the sending of the scapegoat to Azazel in the desert.

Minor feasts

Although Judaism now observes several other minor feasts and fasts, these are the only two most Gentiles will have at least heard of (check out the Wikipedia page on Jewish holidays; there are several I had no clue about).

Hanukkah, literally the feast of the ‘Dedication’, also known as the Feast of Lights, lasts seven days and eight nights, from 25 Kislev through 2 Tevet.  Its observance began by ordinance of the Hasmonean high priests to commemorate the cleansing and rededication of the Temple after their victory in the civil war.  Its signal feature is the hanukkyah, a nine-branched candelabrum in which a new candle added to those lit each night; the one in the center and higher is lit every night and supplies the flame for the others.

Purim, observed on 14 Adar, also known as the Feast of Lots, was instituted to commemorate the deliverance from genocide of all the Parsim, the Jews of Iran, at the hands of Haman, vizier to Persian Shahanshah Ahasuerus (possibly Artraxerses).  The heroes of the fictional tale are Mordecai and his adopted daughter Esther, Jewish like himself but one of the queens of Ahasuerus.

Temple prayers in the first century

Since the prayers for accompanying the Shacharit sacrifices are the most comprehensive, we will start here.


After the sacrifice(s) had been slaughtered but before they had been offered, the priests issued a call to prayer, and the worshippers responded.  The exchange is known as the Barokhu.

Blessed be Yahweh, who is to be praised.

Blessed be Yahweh, who is to be praised forever and ever.

Then followed the Ten Debharim, or ‘Ten Statements’.  Note: Debharim, not Mitzvot, or ‘Commandments’.  No one called them that until the Geneva Bible of 1560.

I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of Yahweh your God.

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.

Honor your father and your mother.

You shall not kill.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The earliest liturgical version of the Shema Yisrael, now composed of four passages (two of which are adjacent in the Torah), followed afterward.

Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.  Love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words in your heart, and teach them to your children.  Discuss them sitting in your house and walking down the road, and when you lie down and when you rise up.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, and wear them as an emblem on your forehead.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The following two blessings were incorporated into synagogue ritual after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.  The first is the benediction of the Torah, second is known as Avodah, and the third as Hoda’ah.  The first became part of the Torah ritual even while the temple stood, the second and third were incorporated into the Amidah after it no longer did.

Blessed be Yahweh our God, who has chosen us from all nations and given us his Torah of the truth.  Amen.

May Yahweh our God accept the service of his people Israel, and receive with favor their fire-offerings and prayer.   Blessed be he who receives the service of his people Israel with favor.  Amen.

At this point, the worshippers prostrated themselves and gave thanks privately, after which the officiating priest gave the following blessing:

We gratefully thank you, Yahweh our God and God of our ancestors forever and ever.  We proclaim his praise evening, morning, and noon.  We will always put our hope in him. May his name be blessed and exalted, continually forever and ever.  Amen.

After this, the congregants stood up and the officiating priest offered the sacrifice upon the altar and burned it.  As it burned, the Levites sang the Psalm of the Day: Psalm 24 for Sunday, Psalm 48 for Monday, Psalm 82 for Tuesday, Psalm 94 for Wednesday, Psalm 81 for Thursday, Psalm 93 for Friday, the Day of Preparation, and Psalm 92 for Shabbat.

On Shabbat, Yom Tov, Chol ha-Moed of Sukkot, and Rosh Chodesh, the Levites would here lead the singing the Lesser Hallel, Psalms 113-118.

When the burning was finished, the priest, if it were Shabbat, said the following prayer in honor of the Temple Guard and section departing for their homes.

May Yahweh who causes his name to dwell in this house, cause to dwell among you love and brotherliness, peace and friendship.  Amen.

Then the priest, extending his arms with his hands forming in what most people know as the Vulcan salute, gave the Aaronic Priestly Blessing, or Birkat ha-Kohanim.

May Yahweh bless you and keep you.  May Yahweh make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you.  May Yahweh lift up his countenance and give you peace. Amen.


The prayers for the afternoon sacrifices were very limited.  They were probably limited to the Barokhu, the Avodah, the Hoda’ah, and the Birkat ha-Kohanim.


There was no more slaughter at this time, marking both the end of the Temple’s day and the beginning of the “secular” day, though if any slaughtered animals had not been burned, that was done at this time.  Prayer was limited to the Ten Debharim and the Shema, with the Priestly Blessing to close.


On those occasions (Shabbat, Yom Tov, Chol ha-Moed, Rosh Chodesh) when extra sacrifices were called for, they were performed immediately after those of Shacharit, most likely accompanied by the same prayers as at Mincha.

Synagogue prayers

These followed, and still follow, the same pattern as services at the Temple, in the same order of service.  In place of sacrifices, however, the elders and scribes developed the series of benedictions that came to be known as the Amidah, or Tefillah.  Originally, like the Shema, this was much shorter, and there were fewer petitions.

The synagogues also instituted the practice of publicly reading the Torah to the laity at regular services on Shabbat, Mondays and Thursdays, Rosh Hodesh, and Yom Tov, at both Shacharit and Mincha.  Later, with the rise of the Pharisees, readings from the Prophets called Haftarah were added to Shacharit on Shabbat and Yom Tov and fast days.

Services in the beginning were very short, even with the readings.

Amidah in the first century

This is approximately the Amidah, or Tefillah, of the first century, shorter in overall length as well as in each of its individual benedictions.  It has expanded to such an extent that is is more common called the Shemoneh Esrei, or ‘Eighteen Blessings’, though it actually has nineteen.

O Yahweh, open my lips, that my mouth may proclaim your praise.
Elohim make speed to save me; Yahweh make haste to help me.

Blessed be Yahweh our God and God of our forefathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob; who bestows beneficial kindnesses and create all that is.  Amen.

May Yahweh our God heal us and bring complete recovery for all our sicknesses, for he is the faithful and compassionate Healer.  Amen.

May Yahweh our God bless this year and all our crops; bless us with dew and rain on the face of the earth; and satisfy us with his goodness.  Amen.

May Yahweh our God have mercy upon his people Israel, upon his city Jerusalem, upon his dwelling place Zion, and upon his Temple and habitation.  Amen.

May Yahweh our God answer our voice, free us, and have mercy upon us, and accept our prayer; and not turn us away empty-handed from before himself, for he hears the prayer of his people Israel with compassion.  Amen.

Kaddish in the first century

Now mostly identified in popular culture as the prayer for mourners, it began as the closing for a rabbi’s teaching session.  This form, which now goes by the misnomer Hatzi-Kaddish (‘Half-Kaddish’) is, in fact, the original complete prayer.

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which he has created according to his will.  May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the lifetime of the entire house of Israel, speedily and soon. 

Amen.  May his great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. 

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be he, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world.  Amen.

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