The synagogue

Synagogue comes from a Greek word meaning ‘assembly’. A synagogue is a Jewish place of communal worship. It is also a place to learn about the Jewish faith, and is often used as a community centre.

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

Key features inside the synagogue

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

The aron hakodesh is the holiest part of the synagogue and holds the Torah

  • Aron hakodesh - All synagogues have a large cupboard facing Jerusalem called the aron hakodesh, which symbolises the Ark of the Covenant that held the tablets of stone with 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 27:21).
  • 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

Worship and community

curriculum-key-fact
A synagogue is a space for worship and prayer. The main prayers in the synagogue happen in the prayer hall, which is usually rectangular in shape with seats on three sides facing inwards.

Worship in the synagogue includes both daily services and the celebration of religious festivals. Rituals associated with particular rites of passage are also performed in the synagogue. Many Jews believe that it is good to bring the community together to pray, and there must be a minimum of ten people present for certain prayers to be said. This is called a minyan.

Differences between Orthodox and Reform synagogues

In Orthodox Jewish synagogues, men and women sit separately, while Reform Jews of different genders sit together to worship.

In most Orthodox synagogues, only men can be counted in the minyan, whereas in Reform synagogues women are included, too.

Orthodox Jews refer to a synagogue as ‘shul’, which means school, and Reform Jews sometimes refer to the synagogue as a ‘temple’.

The synagogue’s social and educational function

The synagogue is an important centre for Jewish communities where meetings take place and social gatherings happen.

It is a place of education with classes where people can learn Hebrew. Synagogues often hold charity events and have various activities for young people, such as youth clubs.

Question

Why are there no images of God or people in synagogues?

This is because in the Ten Commandments, it is forbidden to make idols or worship in front of them.