Synagogue Facts & Features | What is a Synagogue? |

Posted By on February 19, 2023

The Synagogue

In all cultures, houses of worship are important parts of the community. These buildings are rarely just churches, but also serve as community centers, schools, and social places. In few faiths is this as true as in Judaism. In fact, the Jewish house of worship can be identified by three names in Hebrew. Some call it the bet ha-tefilla (house of prayer), while others call it the bet ha-knesset (house of assembly) or bet ha-midrash (house of study). Most of us, however, call it by the name used by the Greeks: the synagogue.

Synagogues are Jewish houses of worship, but are also the centers of many Jewish communities. Community events, family celebrations, and local rallies or debates can all occur in the synagogue. Jewish people can come to the synagogue to study their history, laws, and faith.

Synagogues are very important parts of Jewish communities, and that importance is represented even in the ways that these institutions are founded. Unlike many religions that govern the building of new churches, synagogues are entirely community founded and governed. A Jewish community doesn't need permission from a central authority to found a synagogue; the community just comes together and creates one. After that, a council of community members is in charge of governing the synagogue, including the hiring of a rabbi. Overall, they are very democratic, community-driven institutions that are able to focus their efforts on issues that matter most to the people that use it.

One thing that makes synagogues unique from many other religious buildings is the lack of standardized architecture. Catholic churches are shaped like crosses, Buddhist stupas mimic mountains, but synagogues can take any shape or form. Part of this may relate to Jewish history: After being expelled from Jerusalem, Jews were often marginalized and segregated from mainstream society. Utilizing local architecture may have been a survival strategy that helped them blend in.

That being said, there are a few things that every Jewish synagogue has in common. The most important element of every synagogue is the ark, a cupboard or container where the scrolls of the Torah (the Jewish holy book) are stored. The first ark was the Ark of the Covenant, which Moses used to carry the Ten Commandments, and this feature in the synagogue honors that tradition. In fact, it's common for the Ten Commandments to be written in Hebrew somewhere on or around the ark.

Hanging above the ark is a lamp called the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light. This light represents the constant presence of God in the synagogue, as well as the commandment to keep a fire burning outside the ancient tabernacle, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Since it's called the Eternal Light, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that it is always kept burning. As long as God is in the synagogue, the eternal flame must continue to shine.

Finally, synagogues contain a raised platform or desk called the bimah. When the Rabbi takes the Torah scrolls out of the ark, they are unrolled on the bimah and read to the congregation.

It is worth noting that, while all synagogues serve the same basic functions for Jewish communities, there are some things that change by denomination. For example, Orthodox Jews tend to place the bimah in the center of the synagogue, while Reform Jews often place the bimah closer to the Ark.

There are other differences as well. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately, and the music is unaccompanied. In Reform synagogues, men and women may sit together and choirs are becoming more popular. Orthodox synagogues hold their entire worship services in ancient Hebrew, while Reform services are at least partly in English (or the language spoken by the community). Reforms Jews are also the least likely to use the term ''synagogue''. They call their synagogues ''temples'', seeing each one as an equivalent to the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem that Orthodox Jews prophesy says will be one day rebuilt. So, there are differences, but in all Jewish communities the importance of the synagogue is unquestioned.

In the religion of Judaism, the synagogue is a house of worship, a community center, and a school all rolled into one. Jewish synagogues are community-operated, autonomous institutions built to accommodate the specific needs of their community. They do not have an architectural template to follow, but do contain some common features. The ark contains the Torah scrolls, the Eternal Light above the ark represents the presence of God, and the bimah is used to unroll the scrolls so they can be read. Reform and Orthodox Jews do have different customs within their synagogues, but the importance of this building is unchanged. For many, to be Jewish is to be near a synagogue. They're that important.

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Synagogue Facts & Features | What is a Synagogue? |

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