The origin of liturgical worship in Judaism is clearly grounded, according to the Bible and Tradition, in the revelation of God. Beginning with Abraham there is ritual revealed by God. During the sojourn in Egypt it appears much of what had been revealed was forgotten, but during the Exodus from Egypt, God began an on-going process of revelation, which included the foundations of Jewish liturgical worship. This period of 3,000 years extends through the settlement of Israel and Judah, the time of the Judges, to the Kingship of Solomon and David, and the prophetic period all of which represents a developmental stream within the context of a people chosen and called by God and brought into "the promised land."
While there were undoubtedly foreign influences and continual pressure from local paganism, the liturgical tradition developed in a relatively local context. It becomes clear very early in the Biblical revelation that much of what was unique about Judaism, as compared with local pagan beliefs and practices, was revealed by the God "of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". This includes the specific details about the Ark and the Tabernacle; it also includes specific elements of worship, and beliefs and practices that ranged from "You shall no other Gods before Me" (heresy in a pagan world) to the prohibition of human sacrifice.
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A clear form of worship and the atmosphere within which it was to take place was part of the revelation of God to the Children of Israel. The tribe of Levi was set aside to serve as priests for God and His people. In Exodus chapters 25 to 27, detailed information is provided about the physical structure of the Temple, including its dimensions. Instructions for the Ark are also given. Internal decor of the Tabernacle, up to and including detail about the priest's vestments, the use of incense, the presence of an altar, the daily offerings, and the use of images are all part of the revelation in The Torah. Among the commands of God (Exodus 25:17ff) are the making of the Ark, two cherubim of gold between which God would "meet with thee and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim." The original Ark held the Tablets of the Law, and was understood as the mercy seat, the empty throne from which God spoke from between the cherubim to His chosen people.
When Solomon followed his father's wishes and constructed the first Temple in Jerusalem, it likewise followed and continued the revelation of God concerning worship. The First Temple, while small in size, was glorious in construction, and became the center of Jewish worship until its destruction by the Babylonians. It was the place of sacrifice.
The cadence of the spiritual lives of most Jews of the time was the celebration of Holy Feast days with their corresponding offerings. The determination of what constituted the offerings had also been given by God in the instruction in Exodus and Leviticus. These two books provide instructions about the manner in which worship and sacrifice was to occur, and even what was to be sacrificed on specific occasions. In the Temple sacrifice, the offering of an animal to make amends or reparation for the sin of God's people was the center of worship practice. With the construction of the First Temple, liturgical music is described for the first time as an integral part of worship (II Samuel 6, I Chronicles 6:16-17). In addition, the Psalms of David not only became the core material of liturgical worship, but a "psalmody" developed as a way to chant or sing these Psalms. (See Sacred Sample)
Equally important to understand is that the worship form revealed by God to the Children of Israel was not "just" ceremonial and centered around sacrifice. According to the very same revelation, it was to reflect worship in heaven. The Torah has many instances (Isaiah chapter 6 and Daniel chapter 7) which describe worship in heaven.
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The destroyed Temple was rebuilt in a modest fashion after the Babylonian captivity, and Temple worship resumed within it. During the exile, however, a new form of worship had developed in the absence of the Temple: the synagogue. Originally conceived as a meeting of the faithful to pray, to hear the Torah read, and to receive instruction, over time synagogue worship flourished. Not only did it develop into a more formal worship form during the exile, it continued upon the return of the Children of Israel to the promised land for the simple reason that not everyone could attend the Temple regularly. The synagogue became the local house of worship.
Over time, then, the synagogue and its worship structure developed into a formal ritual. Much was modeled on the Temple; for instance, the building faced east toward Jerusalem. Each synagogue held an "ark" in which was stored the scrolls of the Torah. Each synagogue was built with a bema, a raised dais or platform from which the service was conducted and on which the elders would sit and teach. Synagogue worship, in contrast to the sacrificial forms of the Temple, was characterized by recitation of prayer, chant of the Psalms, reading from The Torah and instruction.
When Herod rebuilt the Temple (begun about 20 AD, completed about 64 AD), he constructed a much larger and grander edifice than that of Solomon. However, the worship role remained essentially the same. The revelation had not changed. The service and celebration may have become more ornate, but the offering of sacrifice to make amends for one's sins did not.
Another consequence of the Babylonian captivity (and later of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple) was the Diaspora those Jews dispersed from Israel and scattered around the Mediterranean, which gave rise ultimately to the Sephardic and Ashkenazie forms of Judaism. The rise of the synagogue tradition during the exile was principally didactic (focused on teaching) rather than the sacrificial worship of the Temple, and it developed its own chant traditions. Many of these traditions were brought back to Israel after the exile and found their way into Temple worship. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., synagogue worship and its liturgical form became the central aspect of Jewish worship.
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- Early History I
- Early History II
- Chant Development
- Jewish Music Overview
Music: Psalm 133 (Syrian Version)
Artist: Alberto Mizrahi