A synagogue (from Ancient Greek συναγωγή, synagogē, ‘assembly’; Hebrew: בית כנסת bet knesset, ‘house of assembly’, or בית תפילה bet tefila, “house of prayer”; Yiddish: שול shul, Ladino: אשנוגה esnoga, ‘bright as fire’, or קהל kahal) is a Jewish or Samaritan house of worship. Synagogues have a large place for prayer (the main sanctuary) and may also have smaller rooms for study and sometimes a social hall and offices. Some have a separate room for Torah study, called the בית מדרש beth midrash, lit. “house of study”.
Synagogues are consecrated spaces used for the purpose of prayer, reading of the Tanakh (the entire Hebrew Bible, including the Torah), study and assembly; however, a synagogue is not necessary for worship. Halakha holds that communal Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. Worship can also be carried out alone or with fewer than ten people assembled together. However, halakha considers certain prayers as communal prayers and therefore they may be recited only by a minyan. In terms of its specific ritual and liturgical functions, the synagogue does not replace the long-since destroyed Temple in Jerusalem.
In the New Testament, the word appears 56 times, mostly in the Synoptic Gospels, but also in the Gospel of John (John 9:22; 18:20) and the Book of Revelation (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). It is used in the sense of ‘assembly’ in the Epistle of James (James 2:2).
Israelis use the Hebrew term beyt knesset “house of assembly“. Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally used the Yiddish term shul (cognate with the German Schule, ‘school’) in everyday speech. Sephardi Jews and Romaniote Jews generally use the term kal (from the Hebrew Ḳahal, meaning “community”). Spanish Jews call the synagogue a sinagoga and Portuguese Jews call it an esnoga. Persian Jews and some Karaite Jews also use the term kenesa, which is derived from Aramaic, and some Mizrahi Jews use kenis. Some Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews use the word temple. The Greek word synagogue is used in English (German, French and most Romance languages) to cover the preceding possibilities.
Although synagogues existed a long time before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, communal worship in the time while the Temple still stood centered around the korbanot (“sacrificial offerings”) brought by the kohanim (“priests”) in the Temple in Jerusalem. The all-day Yom Kippur service, in fact, was an event in which the congregation both observed the movements of the kohen gadol (“high priest”) as he offered the day’s sacrifices and prayed for his success.
According to Jewish tradition, the men of the Great Assembly (around 5th century BCE) formalized and standardized the language of the Jewish prayers. Prior to that people prayed as they saw fit, with each individual praying in his or her own way, and there were no standard prayers that were recited.
Johanan ben Zakai, 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 continuity of the Jewish people by maintaining a unique identity and a portable way of worship despite the destruction of the Temple, according to many historians.
Synagogues in the sense of purpose-built spaces for worship, or rooms originally constructed for some other purpose but reserved for formal, communal prayer, however, existed long before the destruction of the Second Temple. The earliest archaeological evidence for the existence of very early synagogues comes from Egypt, where stone synagogue dedication inscriptions dating from the 3rd century BCE prove that synagogues existed by that date. More than a dozen Jewish (and possibly Samaritan) Second Temple era synagogues have been identified by archaeologists in Israel and other countries belonging to the Hellenistic world.
Any Jew or group of Jews can build a synagogue. Synagogues have been constructed by ancient Jewish kings, by wealthy patrons, as part of a wide range of human institutions including secular educational institutions, governments, and hotels, by the entire community of Jews living in a particular place, or by sub-groups of Jews arrayed according to occupation, ethnicity (i.e. the Sephardic, Polish or Persian Jews of a town), style of religious observance (i.e., a Reform or an Orthodox synagogue), or by the followers of a particular rabbi.
It has been theorized that the synagogue became a place of worship in the region upon the destruction of the Second Temple during the First Jewish–Roman War; however, others speculate that there had been places of prayer, apart from the Temple, during the Hellenistic period. The popularization of prayer over sacrifice during the years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE had prepared the Jews for life in the diaspora, where prayer would serve as the focus of Jewish worship.
Despite the possibility of synagogue-like spaces prior to the First Jewish–Roman War, the synagogue emerged as a stronghold for Jewish worship upon the destruction of the Temple. For Jews living in the wake of the Revolt, the synagogue functioned as a “portable system of worship”. Within the synagogue, Jews worshipped by way of prayer rather than sacrifices, which had previously served as the main form of worship within the Second Temple.
Main article: Second Temple Judaism
A number of synagogues have been excavated that pre-date the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70.
- Gamla – a synagogue was discovered near the city gate at Gamla, a site in the Golan northeast of the Sea of Galilee. This city was destroyed by the Roman army in AD 67 and was never rebuilt.
- Masada – a synagogue was discovered on the western side of Masada, just south of the palace complex at the northern end of the site. One of the unique finds at this synagogue was a group of 14 scrolls, which included biblical, sectarian, and apocryphal documents.
- Herodium – a synagogue from the 1st century was discovered in Herod’s palace fortress at Herodium.
- Magdala – also known as the Migdal Synagogue, this synagogue was discovered in 2009. One of the unique features of this synagogue, which is located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, is an intricately carved stone block that was found in the center of the main room.
- Modi’in – Discovered between Modi’in and Latrun is the oldest synagogue within modern Israel that has been found to date, built during the second century BCE. It includes three rooms and a nearby mikve.
Rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides (1138–1204), described the various customs in his day with respect to local synagogues:
Synagogues and houses of study must be treated with respect. They are swept and sprinkled [with water] to lay the dust. In Spain and the Maghreb, in Babylonia and in the Holy Land, it is customary to kindle lamps in the synagogues and to spread mats on the floor upon which the worshippers sit. In the lands of Edom (Christendom), they sit in synagogues upon chairs [or benches].
Name and history
The Samaritan house of worship is also called a synagogue. During the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, during the Hellenistic period, the Greek word used in the Diaspora by Samaritans and Jews was the same: proseucheµ (literally, a place of prayer); a later, 3rd or 4th century CE inscription, uses a similar Greek term: eukteµrion (prayer house). The oldest Samaritan synagogue discovered so far is from Delos in the Aegean Islands, with an inscription dated between 250 and 175 BCE, while most Samaritan synagogues excavated in the wider Land of Israel and ancient Samaria in particular, were built during the 4th-7th centuries, at the very end of the Roman and throughout the Byzantine period.
The elements which distinguish Samaritan synagogues from contemporary Jewish ones are:
- Alphabet: the use of the Samaritan script
- Orthography. When the Samaritan script is used, there are some Hebrew words which would be spelled in a way typical only for the Samaritan Pentateuch, for instance “forever” is written ‘lmw instead of l’lm. When Greek is the language used in inscriptions, typically, Samaritans may contract two Hebrew words into one, such har (mountain) and Gerizim becoming, in Greek, Argarizein.
- Orientation: the facade, or entrance of the Samaritan synagogue, is typically facing towards Mount Gerizim, which is the most holy site to Samaritans, while Jewish synagogues would be oriented towards Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
- Decoration: the mosaic floor and other architectural elements or artifacts are sometimes decorated with typical symbols. As the Samaritans have historically adhered more strictly to the commandment forbidding the creation of any “graven image”, they would not use any depictions of man or beast. Representations of the signs of the zodiac, of human figures or even Greek deities such as the god Helios, as seen in Byzantine-period Jewish synagogues, would be unimaginable in Samaritan buildings of any period.
- A representation of Mount Gerizim is a clear indication of Samaritan identity. On the other hand, although the existence of a Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim is both mentioned by Josephus and confirmed by archaeological excavation at its summit, the temple’s early destruction in the 2nd century BCE led to its memory disappearing from Samaritan tradition, so that no temple-related items would be found in Samaritan synagogue depictions. Religious implements, such as are also known from ancient Jewish synagogue mosaics (menorah, shofar, shewbread table, trumpets, incense shovels, and specifically the facade of what looks like a temple or a Torah shrine) are also present in Samaritan ones, but the objects are always related to the desert Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant within the Tabernacle, or the Torah shrine in the synagogue itself. Samaritans believe that at the end of time the Tabernacle and its utensils will be recovered from the place they were buried on Mount Gerizim and as such play an important role in Samaritan beliefs. Since the same artists, such as mosaicists, worked for all ethno-religious communities of the time, some depictions might be identical in Samaritan and Jewish synagogues, Christian churches and pagan temples, but their significance would differ.
- Missing from Samaritan synagogue floors would be images often found in Jewish ones: the lulav (palm-branch) and etrog (lemon-like fruit) have a different ritual use by Samaritans celebrating Sukkot, and do not appear on mosaic floors.
- Ritual baths near the synagogue after 70 CE: Jews abandoned the habit of building mikva’ot next to their houses of worship after the 70 CE destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but Samaritans continued with the practice.
Ancient Samaritan synagogues are mentioned by literary sources or have been found by archaeologists in the Diaspora, in the wider Holy Land, and specifically in Samaria.
- Delos: a Samaritan inscription has been dated to between 250 and 175 BCE.
- Rome and Tarsus: ancient literature offers hints that Samaritan synagogues may have existed in these cities between the fourth and sixth centuries CE.
- Thessaloniki and Syracuse: short inscriptions found there and using the Samaritan and Greek alphabet may originate from Samaritan synagogues.
The wider Holy Land
- Sha’alvim synagogue, discovered in Judea, northwest of Jerusalem. Probably built in the 4th or 5th century CE and destroyed in the 5th or 6th.
- Tell Qasile synagogue, built at the beginning of the 7th century CE
- Beth Shean, “Synagogue A”. A room added to an existing building in the late 6th or early 7th century CE served as a Samaritan synagogue.
- El-Khirbe synagogue, discovered c. 3 km from Sebaste, was built in the 4th century CE and remained in use into the Early Islamic period, with a break during the late 5th-early 6th century
- Khirbet Samara synagogue, c. 20 km northwest of Nablus and built in the 4th century CE
- Zur Natan synagogue, c. 29 km west of Nablus and built in the 5th century CE
During the first Christian centuries, Jewish-Christians used houses of worship known in academic literature as synagogue-churches. Scholars have claimed to have identified such houses of worship of the Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah in Jerusalem and Nazareth.
There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly. In fact, the influence from other local religious buildings can often be seen in synagogue arches, domes and towers.
Historically, synagogues were built in the prevailing architectural style of their time and place. Thus, the synagogue in Kaifeng, China looked very like Chinese temples of that region and era, with its outer wall and open garden in which several buildings were arranged. The styles of the earliest synagogues resembled the temples of other cults of the Eastern Roman Empire. The surviving synagogues of medieval Spain are embellished with mudéjar plasterwork. The surviving medieval synagogues in Budapest and Prague are typical Gothic structures.
With the emancipation of Jews in Western European countries, which not only enabled Jews to enter fields of enterprise from which they were formerly barred, but gave them the right to build synagogues without needing special permissions, synagogue architecture blossomed. Large Jewish communities wished to show not only their wealth but also their newly acquired status as citizens by constructing magnificent synagogues. These were built across Western Europe and in the United States in all of the historicist or revival styles then in fashion. Thus there were Neoclassical, Neo-Byzantine, Romanesque Revival, Moorish Revival, Gothic Revival, and Greek Revival. There are Egyptian Revival synagogues and even one Mayan Revival synagogue. In the 19th century and early 20th century heyday of historicist architecture, however, most historicist synagogues, even the most magnificent ones, did not attempt a pure style, or even any particular style, and are best described as eclectic.
In the post-war era, synagogue architecture abandoned historicist styles for modernism.
All synagogues contain a Bimah, a large, raised, reader’s platform (called teḇah (reading dais) by Sephardim), where the Torah scroll is placed to be read. In Sephardi synagogues it is also used as the prayer leader’s reading desk.
Table or lectern
In Ashkenazi synagogues, the Torah was read on a reader’s table located in the center of the room, while the leader of the prayer service, the hazzan, stood at his own lectern or table, facing the Ark. In Sephardic synagogues, the table for reading the Torah (reading dais) was commonly placed at the opposite side of the room from the Torah Ark, leaving the center of the floor empty for the use of a ceremonial procession carrying the Torah between the Ark and the reading table. Most contemporary synagogues feature a lectern for the rabbi.
The Torah Ark, called in Hebrew ארון קודש Aron Kodesh or ‘holy chest’, and alternatively called the heikhal—היכל or ‘temple’ by Sephardic Jews, is a cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept.
The ark in a synagogue is almost always positioned in such a way such that those who face it are facing 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 held the tablets inscribed with the 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 parochet פרוכת, which hangs outside or inside the ark doors.
Other traditional features include a continually lit lamp or lantern, usually electric in contemporary synagogues, called the ner tamid (נר תמיד), the “Eternal Light”, used as a way to honor the Divine Presence.
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.
Originally, synagogues were made devoid of much furniture, the Jewish congregants in Spain, the Maghreb (North Africa), Babylonia, the Land of Israel and Yemen having a custom to sit upon the floor, which had been strewn with mats and cushions, rather than upon chairs or benches. In other European towns and cities, however, Jewish congregants would sit upon chairs and benches. Today, the custom has spread in all places to sit upon chairs and benches.
Until the 19th century, in an Ashkenazi synagogue, all seats most often faced the Torah Ark. In a Sephardic synagogue, seats were usually arranged around the perimeter of the sanctuary, but when the worshipers stood up to pray, everyone faced the Ark.
Many current synagogues have an elaborate chair named for the prophet Elijah, which is only sat upon during the ceremony of Brit milah.
In ancient synagogues, a special chair placed on the wall facing Jerusalem and next to the Torah Shrine was reserved for the prominent members of the congregation and for important guests. Such a stone-carved and inscribed seat was discovered at archaeological excavations in the synagogue at Chorazin in Galilee and dates from the 4th–6th century; another one was discovered at the Delos Synagogue, complete with a footstool.
Rules for attendees
Removing one’s shoes
In Yemen, the Jewish custom was to remove one’s shoes immediately prior to entering the synagogue, a custom that had been observed by Jews in other places in earlier times. The same practice of removing one’s shoes before entering the synagogue was also largely observed among Jews in Morocco in the early 20th-century. Today, the custom of removing one’s shoes is no longer practiced in Israel.
Main article: mechitza
In Orthodox synagogues, men and women do not sit together. The synagogue features a partition (mechitza) dividing the men’s and women’s seating areas, or a separate women’s section located on a balcony.
Main article: Reform Judaism
The German-Jewish Reform movement, which arose in the early 19th century, made many changes to the traditional look of the synagogue, keeping with its desire to simultaneously stay Jewish yet be accepted by the surrounding culture.
The first Reform synagogue, which opened in Hamburg in 1811, introduced 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.
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.
Gender separation was also removed.
Synagogue as community center
Synagogues often take on a broader role in modern Jewish communities and may include additional facilities such as a catering hall, kosher kitchen, religious school, library, day care center and a smaller chapel for daily services.
Since many Orthodox and some non-Orthodox Jews prefer to collect a minyan (a quorum of ten) rather than pray alone, they commonly assemble at pre-arranged times in offices, living rooms, or other spaces when these are more convenient than formal synagogue buildings. A room or building that is used this way can become a dedicated small synagogue or prayer room. Among Ashkenazi Jews they are traditionally called shtiebel (שטיבל, pl. shtiebelekh or shtiebels, Yiddish for “little house”), and are found in Orthodox communities worldwide.
Another type of communal prayer group, favored by some contemporary Jews, is the Chavurah (חבורה, pl. chavurot, חבורות), or prayer fellowship. These groups meet at a regular place and time, either in a private home or in a synagogue or other institutional space. In antiquity, the Pharisees lived near each other in chavurot and dined together to ensure that none of the food was unfit for consumption.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia