Synagogues, Shuls & Temples – Home | Jewish Virtual Library

Posted By on April 1, 2014

What's in a Name? Functions Organization Ritual Items Non-Jews The Temple

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 center.

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 is Yiddish. 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.

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Synagogues, Shuls & Temples - Home | Jewish Virtual Library

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