“Build a Sanctuary for me, and I will dwell amongst them.” This verse serves as the basis for the mitzvah of building the Tabernacle and the Holy Temple. The Zohar tells us that also included in this mitzvah is the obligation to build synagogues. In a similar vein, the Talmud states that synagogues and study halls in the Diaspora are considered “miniature sanctuaries.” For this reason, we find that some of the physical characteristics of the Holy Temple are to be incorporated into the building of a synagogue. Many of the laws dictating our respect for the Holy Temple also apply to how we must respect a synagogue. This article illustrates several examples of these similarities, as well as some of the other laws that apply to the building and structure of a synagogue.
A Communal Obligation
The funding for building a synagogue should come from the community members The responsibility of building a synagogue rests collectively on all members of a Jewish community. The obligation devolves on a community when there are ten adult Jewish men of bar mitzvah age. The funding for building a synagogue should come from the community members, and should be collected on the basis of each individual’s financial means. If the community can’t afford to purchase or build a synagogue, they must rent a space for prayer. Conversely, if they can afford to buy or build a synagogue, they should not suffice with renting.
Structure of the Building
- As appropriate for a home devoted to worshipping G‑d, the synagogue should be built in a very beautiful manner.
- Technically, the synagogue should be the tallest building in the city. In modern cities, however, this is not practical. As such, it is permitted for one to build one’s house taller than the synagogue—though it is preferable to refrain from doing so when possible.
- The synagogue should have windows that face Jerusalem. Ideally, there should be (at least) twelve windows, but it is not necessary for all of them to face Jerusalem.
- A room or hallway should separate the door to the street from the door to the actual sanctuary. This allows the congregants the opportunity to compose themselves before entering the sanctuary.
- The entrance to the sanctuary should be on the opposite side of the direction in which people pray (e.g., in countries west of Israel, in which people pray facing east, the entrance to the synagogue should be in the west).
The Sanctuary should include an ark (known as the Holy Ark, or aron kodesh) which houses the Torah scrolls. The Ark should be on the side towards which people pray.
The Ark should have a door as well as a curtain (parochet). Preferably, the curtain should hang outside the door of the Ark. This resembles the Ark in the Temple, which had a curtain hanging outside of it, screening the entrance into the Holy of Holies.
Preferably, the Holy Ark should be on a higher level than the rest of the sanctuary, with a step or steps leading up to it. The priests stand on this platform when reciting the priestly blessing.
Some of the characteristics of the Holy Temple are to be incorporated into the building of a synagogueThe bimah is the table which is used for the Torah reading. The bimah should be in the center of the sanctuary. This is similar to the way it was in the Holy Temple, where the altar was in the center of the courtyard. If the bimah can’t be placed in the center, there must be at least one row of seats between it and the Holy Ark.
Preferably, there should be some steps, but no more than six, leading up to the bimah.
The chazzan (leader of the services) should stand at a lectern, which is referred to as the amud. The amud should face the Holy Ark, but should not be directly in front of it. Customarily, it is placed slightly to the right of the Ark.
In the Sephardic tradition, the chazzan leads services while standing at the bimah.
There should be a partition between the men’s and women’s sections. This allows for concentration in prayer without distraction. This partition is called a mechitzah. This resembles the Holy Temple, in which there were separate sections for men and women when large groups of people were in attendance.
The mechitzah should be high enough to prevent the men from seeing the women. Some authorities are more lenient and allow a mechitzah that is shoulder height. According to all opinions, however, the mechitzah should ideally be at least the height of an average person. (Click here for more on this topic.)
The inside of the sanctuary should not have pictures or paintings in it. This prevents the worshipers from being distracted during their prayers. See Preparing for Prayer for more information.
Every Jewish community is obligated to have a Torah library. This should include a Tanach (Bible), Talmud, Code of Jewish Law, and other essential Torah books. Often, this library is housed in the synagogue.