Center for Tanakh Based Studies
By: William J Jackson
The Torah tells us no fewer than 17 times to have a “Holy Convocation”. In doing so, it is referencing to both the Sabbath and six out of seven Feast and Festivals. So, since this is such a critical piece for God’s appointed times, shouldn’t we know exactly what He means by Holy Convocation? Please join us with this phrase study to ensure that we are honoring God the way He intended us.
Firstly, “Holy Convocation” in Hebrew is “Miqra Qodesh” (מִקְרָא־קֹדֶשׁ). “Qodesh” meaning Holy, whereas “Miqra” could mean convocation or assembly. Starting with Holy or qodesh, this word simply means holiness, sacredness and/or separateness. When refereeing to God’s appointed times, this would infer a separation for God, making God centered and everything else irrelevant.
The second, and more controversial part of this phrase is miqra and is often interpreted as convocation. Webster’s defines a convocation as “an assembly of persons called together to a meeting”1. Yes, convocation can be one of the definitions of miqra, but miqra has another definition which is “reading”2. You see the root word of miqra is “qara”, which can mean to “recite, read, or proclaim”3. So how do we decide which meaning to use or is it possible both meanings were interwoven for good reason?
There was a time when somebody was reading aloud, it implied there was a meeting taking place. Likewise, it probably meant if somebody recited from the Torah during this meeting it was considered a Holy Meeting. To validate this point, the word miqra can be synonymous with the word Tanakh because it stands for “that which is read”4. So, why did everyone have to assemble for a Torah reading? Simple, it was a literacy issue. Doctor Christopher A. Rollston, an Epigraphic Consultant for National Geographic, states “Literacy in ancient Israel and Judah was probably 15 or 20 percent of the population, at most,”5. Additionally, not everyone had a Torah Scroll to read from. For the average Israelite, there would have been a Torah Scroll at his or her local Synagogue.
However, during the Exodus they would not have had Synagogues as we understand them today, but they might have had a gathering where they recited God’s Word. You see, if we look at Israel’s census in Numbers 26, we can total up the Israelite male population as 601,730. If you add wives and children to this number, we can conservatively assume that there were over two million Israelites in the desert. This would be a population larger than Houston, Texas (1,630,00 +) or the State of West Virginia (1,852,994). Yet, in Deuteronomy, Moses gives speeches to these Israelites. Begs the question, did Moses orate to 2 million plus people or did he adhere to advice his father-in-law Jethro gave him in Exodus 18:21. This is where Jethro basically said to delegate – “…you should choose from among all the people competent men who are God-fearing, honest and incorruptible to be their leaders, in charge of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens”. God also gives Moses this same advice earlier (Exodus 3:16, 18, Numbers 11:16). In fact, this is how the Israelites did their first Passover (Exodus 12:21). So, although there was a central point that things were done, one could assume that individual leaders took information back to their flocks and disseminated.
Later, after Israel entered the promised land, the Israelites would have priests. As you recall, back in Exodus 28:1, God makes the Levites priests. Thus, once Israel enters Canaan, these priests by design become disperses among the tribes. Evidence for this can be found in Numbers 35:6-7 where God distributes the Levites among 48 cities. Once the written Torah was copied, people could read aloud the Words of God in a gathering, i.e. have a “Holy Convocation” as commanded by Leviticus 23. This would have been the beginning concept of the Synagogue. There is evidence of these early meeting houses, both archaeologically and in the Tanakh. In Jeremiah 39:8 it says that the Babylonians burnt down the Palace and people’s houses. If the “people’s house”6 was just residences, it would simply be houses. “People’s houses” could imply a public area of significance. A place of worship would meet this profile. The name “Synagogue”7 wouldn’t come for another 300 years after the Babylonian captivity. Synagogue was a Greek word used to label Israel’s houses of worship during the Hellenist period, around 323 BCE8.
Ruins of Synagogue in Basilica
Getting to our meaning for “Miqra” (convocation/reading), we need to ask ourselves was this public reciting of the Torah done out of design or convenience? It is true that today we all have a Torah, most of us have several. So, when we read our Torah on Sabbath, are we not having a “Holy Reading”? Yes, this would appear to meet the requirements, but “the writings” do communicate there is a benefit to community:
Psalm 119:63 I am a friend of all who fear you, of those who observe your precepts.
Psalm 133:1 “…Oh, how good, how pleasant it is for brothers to live together in harmony”.
Psalm 145:4 Each generation will praise your works to the next and proclaim your mighty acts.
Proverbs 27:17 Just as iron sharpens iron, a person sharpens the character of his friend.
Proverbs 27:9 Perfume and incense make the heart glad, [also] friendship sweet with advice from the heart.
Yet, when we look at Exodus 16:29 we are told not to leave our homes on Sabbath. So by us band our family spending time with God within the confines of our homes we are having a “Miqra Qodesh” (Holy Convocation).
1. “Convocation.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/convocation.
2. The Lockman Foundation. “Entry for מִקְרָא.” New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance. La Habra, CA: Zondervan, 2004.
3. Gesenius, Wilhelm. “Entry for קָרָא.” Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. London, UK: Samuel Bagster & Sons, Limited, exact publication date unknown.
4. BIBLICAL STUDIES Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation. Norton Irish Theological Quarterly.2007; 72: 305-306
5. Rollston, Christopher A. Writing and literacy in the world of ancient Israel: epigraphic evidence from the Iron Age. Leiden: Brill, 2011.
6. Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi). “Yirmiyahu – Jeremiah – Chapter 39.” Tanakh Online – Torah – Bible. Accessed January 13, 2018. http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16036/jewish/Chapter-39.htm#showrashi=true
7. Lewis N. Dembitz, Wilhelm Bacher, “JewishEncyclopedia.com.” SYNAGOGUE – JewishEncyclopedia.com. Accessed January 13, 2018. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14160-synagogue.
8. Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. Retrieved 27 May 2013. Archived here.