Synagogues, Shuls and Temples
A Jewish "church" is called a synagogue, shul or temple
A synagogue is a place of worship and study, and a "town hall"
Synagogues are run by laypeople and financed by membership dues
There are several important ritual items found in the synagogue
Non-Jews may visit a synagogue, but dress and should behave appropriately
The Temple is the ancient center of Jewish worship where sacrifices were performed
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 in Jerusalem.
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
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, 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.
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 and chazzan
(cantor) for the community.
Yes, you read that right: Jewish clergy are employees of the synagogue, hired
and fired by the lay members of the synagogue. Clergy are not provided by any
central organization, as they are in some denominations of Christianity.
However, if a synagogue hires a rabbi or chazzan that is not acceptable to the
central organization, they may lose membership in that central organization.
For example, if an Orthodox synagogue hires a
Reform rabbi, the synagogue will lose membership
in the Orthodox Union. If a
Conservative synagogue wishes to hire a
Reconstructionist rabbi, it must first
get permission from the USCJ. The rabbi
usually works with a ritual committee made up of lay members of the synagogue
to set standards and procedures for the synagogue. Not surprisingly, there can
be tension between the rabbi and the membership (his employers) if they do not
have the same standards, for example if the membership wants to serve pepperoni
pizza (not kosher) at a synagogue event.
It is worth noting that a synagogue can exist without a rabbi or a chazzan:
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, and many synagogues, particularly smaller ones, have no chazzan.
However, the rabbi and chazzan are valuable members 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 Jewish law prohibits carrying money on
Tzedakah (charitable donation) is routinely
collected at weekday morning services, usually through a centrally-located
pushke, but this money is usually given to
charity, and not used for synagogue expenses. Instead, synagogues are financed
through membership dues paid annually, through voluntary donations, through the
purchase of reserved seats for services on Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the holidays when
the synagogue is most crowded), and through the purchase of various types of
memorial plaques. 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).
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.
the most important feature of the sanctuary is the Ark, a cabinet or recession
in the wall that holds the Torah scrolls. The
Ark is also called the Aron Kodesh ("holy cabinet"), and I was once told that
the term "ark" is an acrostic of "aron kodesh," although someone else told me
that "ark" is just an old word for a chest. In any case, the word has no
relation to Noah's Ark, which is the word "teyvat" in Hebrew.
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. All
congregants stand when the Ark is open.
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.
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. See The Role
of Women in the Synagogue for details.
Finding a Synagogue
If you are interested in finding an Orthodox synagogue or minyan (prayer group)
in your area, check out Go Daven, a
searchable worldwide database of Orthodox minyans. Just tell them where you
want to daven (pray), and they'll find you an Orthodox minyan, complete with
service times and even a link to a map!
Chabad, a division of the Lubavitcher
Chasidic movement, also has a good searchable
directory of their prayer and learning centers. Although Chabad is strictly and
uncompromisingly Orthodox, they are very open to those at a different level of
observance who are interested in learning.
If you would prefer a Conservative
synagogue, try the USCJ's Find a
Kehilla page. If you prefer Reform, try the
URJ's Directory of Congregations.
For Reconstructionist synagogues, try
the JRF's directory of
Congregations and Havurot.
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. See The Role of Women in the
Synagogue for details.
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 worship 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" (known to Jews as the Western Wall or in
Hebrew, the Kotel) is the remains of the western retaining wall of the hill
that the Temple was built on. It is as close to the site of the original
Sanctuary as Jews can go today. You can see a live picture of the Kotel and
learn about it at
KotelCam. The Temple was
located on a platform above and behind this wall.
Today, the site of The Temple is occupied by the Dome of the Rock (a Muslim
shrine for pilgrims) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (a Muslim house of prayer). The
Dome of the Rock is the gold-domed building that figures prominently in most
pictures of Jerusalem.
Traditional Jews believe that The Temple will be rebuilt when the
Mashiach (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.
© Copyright 5756-5772 (1995-2012), Tracey R Rich
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