The temple service consisted of a number of set offerings for each day, Sabbath, new moon, and festival, and of occasional offerings brought by individuals. For example, every morning and evening the priests burned incense inside the temple on the incense altar and offered a lamb as a burnt offering on the altar outside the temple. This ritual probably also included psalms sung by the Levitical choir, trumpets, and a priestly benediction on the people gathered for worship and prayer. According to later rabbinic literature, the priests also met in a room before the offering to recite a blessing, portions of the Torah (the Old Testament law), and three benedictions.
Jews would journey to the temple for the three pilgrimage festivals and for required occasional offerings, such as for purification after childbirth. To approach the temple, they needed to be ceremonially pure, perhaps washing in one of the ritual baths (Hebrew mikvaot) located near the temple. If bringing an offering, they would present it to the priests, laying their hand on it, and then the priests would slaughter it and splash its blood against the altar or pour it out at its base, depending on the offering. After preparing the animal, the priests would burn the appropriate portions on the altar.
The temple was controlled by the priests who were dominated by the Sadducees, although various groups including the Pharisees and Essenes also sought to influence temple practices. The priests and Levites were divided into twenty-four courses (groups), and each course would come to Jerusalem about twice a year to perform their duties in the temple for a week. According to later rabbinic literature, the lay Jews were likewise divided into courses, and some of the lay Jews would come to Jerusalem along with the priests and Levites to witness the temple offerings for the week. Those remaining at home would gather during the week to read the creation account and to fast.
The word synagogue comes from the Greek term for a “gathering,” and it is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the congregation of Israel. In the New Testament and other ancient literature, buildings are also referred to as synagogues, although the congregational notion could still be present. These gathering places for Jews, especially in the Diaspora, are also referred to as prayer houses and schools. The synagogues found in Israel from the second temple period have a main rectangular meeting hall, usually with stone benches around the edges and an open area in the middle where, most likely, there was additional seating on benches or chairs.