The Synagogue:

The synagogue is one of the centers of the Jewish religious community: A place of prayer, study and education, social and charitable work, as well as a social center.


What's in a Name?

In America today, there are several names by which the synagogue is called. The word "synagogue," is Greek translation of Beit K'nesset and means "place of assembly."

The Hebrew term is beit k'nesset (literally, House of Assembly). It is also called "shul," which is Yiddish. The word is derived from a German word meaning "school," and emphasizes the synagogue's role as a place of study.

Less traditional Jews call the synagogue a "temple." However, the use of the word "temple" to describe modern houses of prayer offends traditional Jews because it is seen as a rejection of the Temple in Jerusalem.


Functions of a Synagogue:

At a minimum, a synagogue is a house of prayer. It is the place where Jews come together for community prayer services.

Jews can satisfy the obligations of daily prayer by praying anywhere; however, there are certain prayers that can only be said in the presence of a minyan (a quorum of 10 adult men), and tradition teaches that there is more merit to praying with a group than there is in praying alone. The sanctity of the synagogue for this purpose is second only to The Temple. In fact, in rabbinical literature, the synagogue is sometimes referred to as the "little Temple."

A synagogue is usually also a beit midrash, a house of study. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish education does not end at the age of bar mitzvah. For the observant Jew, the study of sacred texts is a life-long task. Thus, a synagogue normally has a well-stocked library of sacred Jewish texts for members of the community to study. It is also a place where Jewish children receive much of their basic religious education and understanding.

Most synagogues also have a social hall for religious and non-religious activities. The synagogue often functions as a sort of town hall where matters of importance to the community can be discussed.

In addition, the synagogue functions as a social welfare agency, collecting and dispensing money and other items for the aid of the poor and needy within the community.


Organizational Structure

Synagogues are generally run by a board of directors composed of lay people. They manage and maintain the synagogue and its activities, and hire a rabbi for the community. It is worth noting that a synagogue can exist without a rabbi; religious services can be, and often are, conducted by lay people in whole or in part. It is not unusual for a synagogue to be without a rabbi, at least temporarily. However, the rabbi is a valuable member of the community, providing leadership, guidance and education.

Synagogues are financed through membership dues paid annually, through voluntary donations, and through the purchase of reserved seats for services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the holidays when the synagogue is most crowded). It is important to note, however, that you do not have to be a member of a synagogue in order to worship there. If you plan to worship at a synagogue regularly and you have the financial means, you should certainly pay your dues to cover your fair share of the synagogue's costs, but no synagogue checks membership cards at the door (except possibly on the High Holidays mentioned above, if there aren't enough seats for everyone).

Synagogues are, for the most part, independent community organizations. In the United States, at least, individual synagogues do not answer to any central authority. There are central organizations for the various movements of Judaism, and synagogues are often affiliated with these organizations, but these organizations have no real power over individual synagogues.


Ritual Items in the Synagogue

The portion of the synagogue where prayer services are performed is commonly called the sanctuary. Synagogues are generally designed so that the front of the sanctuary is on the side towards Jerusalem, which is the direction we are supposed to face when reciting daily prayers.

The Ark: Probably the most important feature of the sanctuary is the Ark. The Ark is a cabinet or recession in the wall, which holds the Torah scrolls. The Ark is generally placed in the front of the room; that is, on the side towards Jerusalem. The Ark has doors as well as a curtain called a parokhet. This curtain is in imitation of the curtain in the Sanctuary in The Temple, and is named for it. During certain prayers, the doors and/or curtain of the Ark may be opened or closed. Opening or closing the doors or curtain is performed by a member of the congregation, and is considered an honor.

Ner Tamid: In front of and slightly above the Ark, you will find the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Lamp. This lamp symbolizes the commandment to keep a light burning in the Tabernacle outside of the curtain surrounding the Ark of the Covenant. (Ex. 27:20-21).

Menorah: In addition to the Ner Tamid, you may find a Menorah (candelabrum) in many synagogues, symbolizing the menorah in the Temple. The menorah in the synagogue will generally have six or eight branches instead of the Temple Menorah's seven, because exact duplication of the Temple's ritual items is improper.

Bimah: In the center of the room or in the front you will find a pedestal called the Bimah. The Torah scrolls are placed on the Bimah when they are read. The Bimah is also sometimes used as a podium for leading services.

Amud: In most synagogues there is a lectern called an Amud from which most services are led.

Ezras Nashim: In Orthodox synagogues, you will find a separate section where the women sit, called the Ezras Nashim. This may be on an upper floor balcony, or in the back of the room, or on the side of the room, separated from the men's section by a wall or curtain called a Mechitzah. Men are not permitted to pray in the presence of women. This is so they will be able to totally focus on the prayer service.

What to wear:

When going to a synagogue, you should dress nicely, formally, and modestly. A man should wear a yarmulke (skullcap). Many synagogues have yarmulkes available at the entrance for those who do not have one.

The Temple:

Our synagogues are called "Mikdash Meat" which means a small temple and in many ways the architecture and service are meant to remind us of the real Temple that was in Jerusalem.

When we speak of "The Temple," we speak of the place in Jerusalem that was the center of Jewish religion from the time of Solomon to its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. This was the one and only place where sacrifices and certain other religious rituals were performed. The first Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed at the time of the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. and started to be rebuilt in 538 B.C.E. and was completed in 516 B.C.E. (The dates we are using need further explanation, see this response by Rabbi Shraga Simmons). The rebuilt temple was known as the Second Temple. The famous Wailing Wall is the western retaining wall of the second Temple, and is as close to the site of the original Sanctuary as Jews can go today. The site of The Temple is currently occupied by a Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock.

Traditional Jews believe that The Temple will be rebuilt when the Moshiach (Messiah) comes. They eagerly await that day and pray for it continually.

Last updated on: 03/31/2020
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