Background & Overview
The synagogue is the Jewish equivalent of a church, more
or less. It is the center of the Jewish religious
community: a place of prayer, study and education,
social and charitable work, as well as a social
Throughout this site, I have used the word "synagogue," but there are actually
several different terms for a Jewish "church," and you can tell a lot about
people by the terms they use.
The Hebrew term is beit k'nesset (literally, House of Assembly), although
you will rarely hear this term used in conversation in English.
The Orthodox and Chasidim typically use the word "shul," which
The word is derived from a German word meaning
"school," and emphasizes the synagogue's
role as a place of study.
Conservative Jews usually use the word "synagogue,"
which is actually a Greek translation of Beit
K'nesset and means "place of assembly"
(it's related to the word "synod").
Reform Jews use the word "temple," because
they consider every one of their meeting places to be equivalent to, or a
replacement for, The Temple.
The use of the word "temple" to describe modern houses of prayer offends
some traditional Jews, because it trivializes the importance of The Temple.
The word "shul," on the other hand, is unfamiliar to many modern Jews. When
in doubt, the word "synagogue" is the best bet, because everyone knows what
it means, and I've never known anyone to be offended by it.
At a minimum, a synagogue is a beit
tefilah, 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 the place where children receive their basic religious education.
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.
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
Synagogues do not pass around collection
plates during services, as many churches do.
This is largely because Jews are not permitted
to carry money on holidays and sabbaths.
Instead, 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.
The portion of the synagogue where prayer services are performed is commonly called the sanctuary. Synagogues in the United
States are generally designed so that the front of the sanctuary is on the
side towards Jerusalem, which is the direction that we are supposed to face
when reciting certain prayers.
Probably the most important feature
of the sanctuary is the Ark.
The name "Ark" is an acrostic of
the Hebrew words Aron Kodesh, which
means "holy cabinet." The word has
no relation to Noah's Ark, which is the word
"teyvat" in Hebrew. The Ark is a
cabinet or recession in the wall, which holds
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 an inner 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.
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.
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.
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. There
is an additional, lower lectern in some synagogues called an amud.
In Orthodox synagogues, you will also find a separate
section where the women sit. 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.
Non-Jews are always welcome to attend services in a synagogue, so long as they behave as proper guests. Proselytizing and
"witnessing" to the congregation are not proper guest behavior. Would you
walk into a stranger's house and criticize the decor? But we always welcome
non-Jews who come to synagogue out of genuine curiosity, interest in the
service or simply to join a friend in celebration of a Jewish event.
When going to a synagogue, you should dress as you would for church: nicely,
formally, and modestly. A man should wear a yarmulke (skullcap) if Jewish men in the
congregation do so; yarmulkes are available at the entrance for those who
do not have one. In some synagogues, married women should also wear a head
covering. A piece of lace sometimes called a "chapel hat" is generally provided
for this purpose in synagogues where this is required. Non-Jews should not,
however, wear a tallit (prayer shawl) or tefillin, because these items are signs
of our obligation to observe Jewish law.
If you are in an Orthodox synagogue, be careful
to sit in the right section: men and women are seated separately in an Orthodox
During services, non-Jews can follow along with the English, which is normally
printed side-by-side with the Hebrew in the prayerbook. You may join in with
as much or as little of the prayer service as you feel comfortable participating
in. You may wish to review Jewish Liturgy before
attending the service, to gain a better understanding of what is going on.
Non-Jews should stand whenever the Ark is open and when the Torah is carried to or from the Ark, as a
sign of respect for the Torah and for G-d.
At any other time where worshippers stand, non-Jews may stand or sit.
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. It was partially destroyed at the time
of the Babylonian Exile and rebuilt. The rebuilt temple was known as the
Second Temple. The famous Wailing Wall is the western retaining wall of that
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 Mosque,
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.
Modern Jews, on the other hand, reject the idea of rebuilding the Temple
and resuming sacrifices. They call their houses
of prayer "temples," believing that such houses of worship are the only temples
we need, the only temples we will ever have, and are equivalent to the Temple
in Jerusalem. This idea is very offensive to some traditional Jews, which
is why you should be very careful when using the word Temple to describe
a Jewish place of worship.