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A synagogue or synagog (from Greek συναγωγη, transliterated sunagoge, "place of assembly" literally "meeting, assembly") is a Jewish house of prayer and study. The Hebrew term for synagogue is Beit Knesset (House of Assembly) or Beit Tefila (House of Prayer). There are usually separate rooms for prayer (the main sanctuary) and smaller rooms for study. Rooms set aside for study are referred to as a "Beth midrash" (Hebrew, House of Study.)

Art Nouveau style synagogue
Art Nouveau style synagogue

Communal prayer is an important feature of Judaism. Though prayers can be said anywhere (except in unhygienic or immodest environments), according to halakha Jews should—and men must—pray three times a day, ideally in a minyan, and a synagogue's primary purpose is typically to accommodate such communal prayer.

Synagogues are not used only for prayer, but also for communal activities, adult education and Hebrew schools for school-age children, hence the common Yiddish term shul for synagogue, which comes from the Middle High German word for school. Portuguese Jews call it esnoga, which derives from "synagogue". Karaites tend to use the term Kenesa, which is derived from Aramaic. Further conveying the "town hall" etymology of the word is the Hebrew translation Beit Knesset בית כנסת (not to be confused with the Knesset) literally means "House of Assembly."

Typically a synagogue (especially in North America and in Europe) will have a dual leadership: a lay leadership comprising a committee and a president (or chairperson) who may be elected by all members, and a spiritual guide, a rabbi, usually appointed by the lay leadership. A rabbi is not essential and indeed many synagogues do not have one.



The Temple Beth-El, the oldest synagogue in Florida, built in Art Deco design.
The Temple Beth-El, the oldest synagogue in Florida, built in Art Deco design.

Most Conservative and many Orthodox Jews refer to their houses of worship as synagogues; many Orthodox Jews use the Yiddish term shul (meaning "school"), and a few use the Hebrew term Beit Knesset (meaning "house of assembly"), or, amongst some Sephardim, the Spanish and Portuguese term esnoga. In the United States, most Reform and some Conservative Jews use the term "Temple" to describe their house of worship; but traditional Jews reject this term, because Judaism historically only had one Temple, the Temple in Jerusalem.

Many Conservative and most Orthodox synagogues have prayer services every day: a morning service, and a combined afternoon-evening service. Larger (particularly Orthodox) synagogues may have multiple morning, afternoon, and evening services at different times, to accommodate the schedules of their congregants. There are special services on Shabbat (the Sabbath) and on the Jewish holidays; again, larger (particularly Orthodox) synagogues may have multiple simultaneous or overlapping services in different rooms, geared to different groups (e.g. early risers, families, children, young adults). Many Reform Temples only have prayer services once or twice a week.

Many Jews have a regular place of worship that is not a synagogue by the usual definition of the term. Many Haredi Jews worship in shteiblekh (Yiddish: "little houses"), rooms in private houses or places of business set aside for the express purpose of prayer. Shteiblekh (or "shteibls") may or may not offer the communal services of a synagogue, and many, particular those in business locations, are for prayer services alone. Many non-Orthodox Jews have formed chavurot (prayer fellowships) which meet at a regular place and time, usually in someone's house or apartment.

Blueprint for synagogues

It is a myth that synagogues are based on the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly. Other local religious buildings and national culture usually influence synagogue architecture. The myth may have arisen because synagogues have been referred to in the Rabbinical Literature as Little Temples and indeed their popularity originated with the destruction of the original Temple as an alternative to the central worship in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the Divine Presence can be found wherever there is a minyan (a quorum of ten—in Orthodox Judaism, defined as ten Jewish men aged 13 or over).

A synagogue may contain any (or none) of these features:

  • an ark (called aron ha-kodesh by Ashkenazim and hekhal by Sephardim) where the Torah scrolls are kept (the ark is often closed with an ornate curtain (parokhet) outside or inside the ark doors);
  • a large elevated reader's platform (called bimah by Ashkenazim and tebah by Sephardim), where the Torah is read (and from where the services are conducted in Sephardi synagogues);
  • an Eternal Light (ner tamid), a continually-lit lamp or lantern used as a reminder of the constantly lit menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem; and,
  • (mainly in Ashkenazi synagogues) a pulpit facing the congregation to preach from and a pulpit or amud (Hebrew for "post" or "column") facing the Ark for the Hazzan (reader) to lead the prayers from.

A synagogue may have artworks, especially ornamentation of the main interior features; but normally not three-dimensional artwork (sculpture) depicting naturally occurring objects, as these are considered to be like idolatry. Rabbis have suggested that a synagogue should have twelve windows, plain or depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel, to remind participants that their prayers are not individual but communal, i.e., for all the people of Israel, present or not. This particular suggestion, however, is honored far more in the breach than in the observance.

The synagogue (or if it is a multi-purpose building, the prayer sanctuaries within the synagogue) should face towards Jerusalem. Thus, sanctuaries in the Western world generally face east, while those east of Israel face west. Sanctuaries in Israel face towards Jerusalem. But this orientation need not be exact, and occasionally synagogues face other directions for structural reasons, in which case the community may face Jerusalem when standing for prayers.

Famous synagogues

Lesko synagogue, Poland
Lesko synagogue, Poland

Old New Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic, is the oldest synagogue in Europe dating from the 13th century. (1574 synagogues were damaged or destroyed on Kristallnacht by Nazis in Germany and Austria, including many of the greatest synagogues of Europe.)

The Paradesi Synagogue in the old city of Kochi, Kerala State, India, dates from 1568.

The Bevis Marks Synagogue, in the City of London, is the oldest continually functioning synagogue in the world. Founded by Sephardi Jews in 1701, it has functioned 'without let or hindrance' ever since.

The Snoa Synagogue in Willemstad, Curaçao, Netherland Antilles is the oldest synagogue still standing and in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. It was originally built by the Sephardic Congregation Mikvé Israel in 1692 and was reconstructed in 1732.

The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island is the oldest Jewish house of worship in North America. It was built in 1759 for the Jeshuat Israel congregation, which had existed since 1658.

In Israel and regions of the Diaspora there are many archaeological ruins of synagogues from thousands of years ago. The small ruined synagogue at Masada is one of the most well documented that dates from the time of the Second Temple, though synagogues were discovered in Egypt and on the island of Delos which predate the synagogue at Masada.

Great Synagogue of Plzeň
Great Synagogue of Plzeň

The largest synagogue in the world is Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, New York City, USA with an area of 3,523 sq m. Other large synagogues are the Great Synagogues on King George Street, Jerusalem, Israel; Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary; and the Great Synagogue in Plzeň, Czech Republic.

See also

External links

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