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|A synagogue (from Greek: συναγωγή, transliterated synagogē,
"assembly"; בית כנסת beit knesset, "house of assembly"; שול or בית תפילה
beit tefila, "house of prayer", shul; אסנוגה, esnoga) is a Jewish house of
prayer. Synagogues usually have a large hall for prayer (the main
sanctuary), smaller rooms for study, and sometimes a social hall and
offices. Some have a separate room for Torah study, called the Beit midrash
- בית מדרש ("House of Study"). Many Orthodox and Conservative Jews in
English-speaking countries use the Yiddish term "shul" in everyday speech.
The use of "synagogue" is reserved for formal occasions. Spanish and
Portuguese Jews call the synagogue an esnoga. Persian Jews and Karaite Jews
use the term Kenesa, which is derived from Aramaic. Reform and some
Conservative congregations in the United States sometimes use the word
The synagogue Scolanova in Trani
Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, communal prayers centered around the korbanot ("sacrificial offerings") brought by the kohanim ("Jewish priests") in the Holy Temple. The all-day Yom Kippur service, in fact, was an event in which the congregation both observed the movements of the kohen gadol ("Jewish high priest") as he offered the day's sacrifices and prayed for his success. The destruction of Solomon's Temple, and later the Second Temple, and the dispersion of the Jews into the Jewish diaspora, threatened the nation's focus and unity. At the time of the Babylonian captivity the Men of the Great Assembly began the process of formalizing and standardizing Jewish services and prayers that would not depend on the functioning of the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, one of the leaders at the end of the Second Temple era, promulgated the idea of creating individual houses of worship in whatever locale Jews found themselves. This contributed to the concept of "portable Judaism," which was part of what contributed to the saving of the Jewish people by maintaining a unique identity and way of worship, according to many historians. Thus, even now, whenever any group of ten men comes together, they form a minyan, and are eligible to conduct public prayer services, usually in a synagogue.
Built around 1270, the Old New Synagogue in Prague is the world's oldest active synagogue.
In Eastern Europe, synagogues were established by like-minded groups of people. Such a synagogue was known as a kloiz, and was often delineated by the professions of its worshippers: e.g. "the tailor's kloiz," the "water-carrier's kloiz," etc. One kloiz which still bears that name today is the Breslov kloiz built by Nathan of Breslov in the city of Uman, Ukraine in 1834. Today, this kloiz accommodates worshippers in the annual Breslover Rosh Hashana kibbutz (prayer gathering).
The architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly. Other local religious buildings and national culture usually influence synagogue architecture.
Traditional and Orthodox synagogues
It is a myth that synagogues are based on the destroyed Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly. In fact the influence of other local religious buildings can often be seen. (The myth may have arisen because synagogues have been referred to in the Rabbinical Literature as Small Temples and indeed their popularity commenced with the destruction of the original Holy Temple ie as alternatives to the central worship in Jerusalem.)
The Orthodox synagogue usually contains the following features:
Aron Ha-kodesh with dark blue, embroidered parokhet covering.
An ark – called the Aron Ha-Kodesh – ארון קודש, the Holy Ark by Ashkenazim and heikhal – היכל [temple] by Sephardim – where the Torah scrolls are kept. The Ark in a synagogue is positioned in such a way that those who face it, face towards Jerusalem. Thus, sanctuary seating plans in the Western world generally face east, while those east of Israel face west. Sanctuaries in Israel face towards Jerusalem. Occasionally synagogues face other directions for structural reasons; in such cases, some individuals might turn to face Jerusalem when standing for prayers, but the congregation as a whole does not. The ark is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. This is the holiest spot in a synagogue, equivalent to the Holy of Holies. The ark is often closed with an ornate curtain, the parokhet - פרוכת, outside or inside the Ark doors.
A large, raised, reader's platform called the bimah - בימה - by Ashkenazim and tebah by Sephardim, where the Torah scroll is read and from where the services are conducted in Sephardi synagogues.
A continually-lit lamp or lantern, usually electric, called the ner tamid (נר תמיד), the "Eternal Lamp," used as a reminder of the western lamp of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, which remained miraculously lit always.
A candelabrum specifically lit during services commemorating the full Menorah.
A pulpit facing the congregation for the use of the rabbi, and a pulpit or amud - עמוד (Hebrew for "post" or "column") facing the Ark where the Hazzan stands while leading the prayer service.
A mechitzah dividing the men's and women's seating areas. In places where there is not enough room to seat both sexes on one floor, the women's section is located on a balcony.
A synagogue may be decorated with artwork, but in the Rabbinic and Orthodox tradition, three-dimensional sculptures and depictions of the human body are not allowed, as these are considered akin to idolatry.
Synagogue windows are sometimes curved at the top and squared at the bottom, recalling the popular depiction of the shape of the Lukhot (Tablets of the Law) which Moses received from God at Mount Sinai. There is also a tradition to install twelve windows around the main sanctuary to recall the Twelve Tribes of Israel, underscoring the importance of unity and brotherhood as a result of the communal prayers.
Orthodox synagogue in Košice, Slovakia.
Until the 19th century, the synagogue interior was laid out with both a spiritual and a communal focus. In an Ashkenazi synagogue, all seats faced the aron kodesh (Ark) in which the Torah scrolls were housed. In a Sephardi synagogue, seats were arranged around the perimeter of the sanctuary, but when the worshippers stood up to pray, everyone faced the Ark. The Torah was read on a reader's table located in the exact center of each sanctuary, echoing the manner in which the Children of Israel stood around Mount Sinai when they received the Torah. The leader of the prayer service, the Hazzan, stood at his own lectern or table, facing the Ark.
Another related place of worship which is often a small synagogue is the shtiebel (שטיבל, pl. shtiebelekh or shtiebels, Yiddish for "little house") that is frequently used by and preferred by Hasidic and Haredi Jews. A shtiebel may sometimes be a room in the private home of a Hasidic Rebbe, or a place of business which is set aside for the express purpose of prayer. It may or may not offer the communal services of a synagogue.
In the US, there are well over 1200 Orthodox congregations, including over 1000 of which are affiliated with the Orthodox Union (OU), and 150 with the National Council of Young Israel, as well as a great number associated with Agudath Yisrael, a widespread movement often identified with "black-hatter" Orthodox, especially Chassidim.
Reform synagogues and temples
The Gerard Doustraat Synagogue in Amsterdam, Netherlands
The German Reform movement which arose in the early 1800s made many changes to the traditional look of the synagogue, keeping with its desire to simultaneously stay Jewish yet be accepted by the host culture. The first Reform synagogue, which opened in Hamburg in 1811, featured changes that made the synagogue look more like a church. These included: the installation of an organ to accompany the prayers (even on Shabbat—when musical instruments are proscribed by halakha), a choir to accompany the Hazzan, and vestments for the synagogue rabbi to wear .
The Berlin Neue Synagogue
In following decades, the central reader's table, the bimah, was moved to the front of the Reform sanctuary—previously unheard-of in Orthodox synagogues. The rabbi now delivered his sermon from the front, much as the Christian priests delivered their sermons in a church. Bar mitzvah ceremonies, held at age 13, were followed up with "confirmation" ceremonies at age 16/17. Following the teaching of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, Bat Mitzvah ceremonies were introduced for girls. The synagogue was renamed a "temple," to emphasize that the movement no longer looked forward to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
With the emigration of German Reform Jews to America in the mid-nineteenth century, the synagogue exterior also changed. The wealthy German Jewish immigrants built grandiose temples modeled after churches. Temple Emanu-El, the oldest Reform congregation (founded in New York City in 1845), constructed an imposing Moorish-style building, with towering limestone walls, on Fifth Avenue in 1929. The architecture rivaled the design of the great cathedrals of Europe. Inside, arched walls and Tiffany and stained-glass windows accentuated the 2,500-seat main sanctuary and a smaller. Reform temples built in other American cities displayed Romanesque, Byzantine, and other grand, church-like designs. As of 2005, the Reform movement in the US encompassed approximately 900 congregations.
The Conservative movement, which also developed in Europe and America in the 1800s, rejected Reform as being too liberal and Orthodoxy as being too outdated. However, its synagogue design is not consistent. Sometimes, Conservative synagogues resemble Reform temples—complete with organ. Other times they more closely resemble Orthodox synagogues, but usually without a mechitza, the dividing barrier between men and women. There are approximately 750 Conservative synagogues in the US today.
Great Synagogue of Santiago, Chile.
The Reconstructionist movement, which arose in America in the latter half of the 20th century, counts less than 100 synagogues worldwide. In keeping with a Reconstructionist Jewish spirit of liberalism, Reconstructionist synagogues are not as traditionalist as Conservative Judaism in the design of the synagogue and do not use the mechitza. The congregation decides communally how much traditional Judaic imagery and symbols are appropriate. Reconstructionist Jews generally do not call their houses of worship "temples", as Reform Jews often do.
In Israel and regions of the Jewish diaspora archaeologists have uncovered many ruins of synagogues from thousands of years ago. The small ruined synagogue at Masada is one of the most well-documented; it dates from the time of the Second Temple. Synagogues have also been discovered in Egypt and on the island of Delos which predate the synagogue at Masada.
The Dura-Europos synagogue (in today's Syria) is considered the world's oldest preserved Jewish synagogue.
The oldest active synagogue in Europe is the Alteneushul (Old-New Synagogue) in Prague, Czech Republic, which dates from the 13th century. The Altneushul was the pulpit of the great Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal, and his creation, the golem of Prague, is rumored to be hidden within the synagogue. During Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis in Germany and Austria destroyed or significantly damaged 1,574 synagogues, which included many of the greatest synagogues of Europe. Many were also destroyed or fell into disrepair during the Nazis' conquest of Europe, during which many Jewish communities were wiped out.
The Hurba Synagogue, located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, was Jerusalem's main synagogue from the 16th century until 1948, when it was destroyed by the Arab Legion. After the Six-Day War, an arch was built to mark the spot where the synagogue stood. Reconstruction is now under way, in keeping with plans drawn up by architect Nahum Meltzer. The Ramban Synagogue, founded by Nahmanides in 1267, is the oldest active synagogue in the Old City. See also Synagogues in Jerusalem.
The Paradesi Synagogue in the old city of Kochi, Kerala State, India, dates from 1568.
The Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, in Recife, Brazil, was the first Jewish temple erected in the Americas, in 1636. Its foundations have been recently discovered, and the temple was entirely recovered. The synagogue appeared during the government of Dutch John Maurice of Nassau in Northeastern Brazil and it was built by Portuguese Jews that came from Europe with him. They used to live in Holland since they were ordered to leave the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain by the end of the 15th century. A few decades after their arrival in Recife, Portuguese Inquisition started a new era of persecutions against Jews, who had to leave again. Those people were among the ones who founded the city of New Amsterdam, in North America, later called New York.
The Barbados Nidhe Israel Synagogue ("Bridgetown Synagogue") located in the capital city Bridgetown. First built 1654. Destroyed in the hurricane of 1831, reconstructed in 1833.
The Amsterdam Esnoga is a Sephardic synagogue The Netherlands. It was founded by ex-Maranos (Portuguese Crypto-Jews) in 1675.
The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island modeled after the Esnoga in Amsterdam, is the oldest Jewish house of worship in North America. It was built in 1759 for the Jeshuat Israel congregation, which was established in 1658. In 1787 this sanctuary was the location where the British commanders surrendered at the end on the revolutionary war to General George Washington.
The Bialystoker Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side, is located in a landmark building dating from 1826 that was originally a Methodist Episcopal Church. The building is made of quarry stone mined locally on Pitt Street, Manhattan. It is an example of Federalist architecture. The ceilings and walls are hand painted with zodiac frescos, and the sanctuary is illuminated by 40-foot stained glass windows. The Bima and floor-to-ceiling Ark are handcarved.
The Snoga Synagogue in Willemstad, Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles was built by Sephardic Portuguese Jews from Amsterdam and Recife, Brazil. It is modeled after the Esnoga in Amsterdam. Congregation Mikvé Israel built its synagogue in 1692, and it was reconstructed in 1732.
The largest synagogue in the world is the New Beit Midrash of Ger in Jerusalem (citation needed), Israel. The main Sanctuary seats over 8,500. The second largest synagogue in the world is the Belz World Center, also in Jerusalem, Israel, whose main Sanctuary seats 6,000. Construction took 16 years. The largest synagogue outside of Israel is Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, a Reform house of worship located on Fifth Avenue, New York City, with an area of 3,523 m², seating 2,500.
The Dohány Street Synagogue or Great Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary is the largest synagogue in Europe and the fourth largest in the world, after the Beit Midrash of Ger in Jerusalem, the Belz World Center and the Congregation Emanu-El in New York City. It seats 3,000 people and is a centre of Neolog Judaism and hosts the Jewish Museum of Budapest. The building was built in 1854-1859 according to the plans of architect Ludwig Förster.
Other large synagogues include the Great Synagogue and the Great Synagogue in Plzeň, Czech Republic; the Orthodox synagogue in Košice, Slovakia; Synagogue in Novi Sad, Serbia, the Sofia Synagogue in Sofia, Bulgaria. The synagogue of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Connecticut, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Images of selected famous synagogues
The dome of the Hurva synagogue dominated the skyline of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem for centuries.
Remains of the Hurva as they appeared from 1967 to 2003. The area is now a construction site.
Scenes from the Book of Esther from the Dura-Europos synagogue, 244 CE
Great Synagogue of Plzeň
Temple Beth-El, the oldest synagogue in Florida, built in Art Deco design
Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest
Fasanenstrasse synagogue (Berlin) after the Kristallnacht. The Jewish Community Center was built in its place in 1959.
Interior of a Karaite synagogue (kenesa)
Sofia Synagogue, Sofia, Bulgaria
The famously preserved Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Beirut, Lebanon. It was abandoned greatly during the civil war.
Interior of Kahal Shalom Synagogue, Rhodes, Greece
Baal Shem Tov's shul in Medzhybizh, c. 1915. The shul no longer exists.
Another type of communal prayer group, favored by some non-Orthodox Jews, is the chavura (חבורה, pl. chavurot, חבורות), or prayer fellowship. These groups meet at a regular place and time, usually in a private home.
Levine, Lee [February 9, 2000] (October 24, 2005). The Ancient Synagogue - The First Thousand Years, 2nd. ed., New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10628-9.
Lesko Synagogue, Poland.
Bobowa Synagogue, Poland.
|Synagogues, Shuls &
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.
What's in a Name?
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.
Functions of a Synagogue
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 education.
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.
Ritual Items in the Synagogue
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 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 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. 27:20-21).
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.
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, because they are supposed to have their minds on their prayers, not on pretty girls.
Non-Jews Visiting a Synagogue
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 synagogue.
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.