Features of the synagogue

The Star of David is a recognised symbol of Judaism and is often found outside synagogues

Synagogue means ‘assembly’. A synagogue is a place of worship for Jews. It is also an important centre for Jewish communities where meetings take place and social gatherings happen.

On the outside of the building there is a Star of David and often a menorah.

There are certain features that appear in all synagogues, regardless of whether they are Orthodox or Reform.

Key features of a synagogue

There are no images of God or people in a synagogue, as the Ten Commandments forbid making and worshipping idols.

  • Aron hakodesh - All synagogues have a large cupboard facing Jerusalem called the aron hakodesh. It symbolises the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets of stone on which were carved the Ten Commandments received by Moses. It is the centrepiece of the synagogue and holds the Torah scrolls. The aron hakodesh is thought of as the holiest part of the synagogue.
  • Sefer Torah - The Sefer Torah is a scroll kept inside the aron hakodesh. Handwritten by a scribe, it is covered with a mantle or cloth that is ornately decorated.
  • Ner tamid - A light above the aron hakodesh that never goes out: Keep the lamps burning before the Lord (Exodus 27:20)
  • Bimah - A raised platform with a reading desk. From here, the Sefer Torah is read. The bimah is often placed in the centre of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, whereas Reform Jewish synagogues often have the bimah close to the aron hakodesh. The bimah represents the altar in the Temple.

There are no images of God or people in a synagogue, as the second of the Ten Commandments forbids idolatry:

quote
Do not represent [such] gods by any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land. Do not bow down to [such gods] or worship them. I am God your Lord, a God who demands exclusive worship.Exodus 20:4–5

A day in the life of Jess, a young Progressive (Reformed) Jew

A day in the life of Nachi, a young Orthodox Jew

Mikveh

The mikveh may be found in a synagogue and is a large bath where Jewish purification rituals take place. The water must be non-flowing and from a natural source such as a lake, sea or rain water. Jewish women are required to bathe in the mikveh before marriage. Being fully submerged in the mikveh is an important part of converting to Judaism for many Jewish communities.

The Temple

Until around AD70, temple worship was a central feature of Judaism. The Jews built two temples, both of which were destroyed by their enemies. In the temples, Jews made animal sacrifices to please God. This was done on a sacrificial altar. The bimah in the synagogue reminds Jews of this.

Wherever possible, synagogues face the city of Jerusalem, where the Temple once stood. For synagogues in the UK, this means that they face east. Jews ensure they are facing Jerusalem when they are praying.

Question

How does the aron hakodesh remind Jews of the Temple?

The aron hakodesh is the cupboard that houses the Torah scrolls. The cupboard resembles the Ark in which the stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments were kept in the Temple.