A synagogue is a place of Jewish worship. In addition to housing a sanctuary for services, synagogues often serve as the centerpoint of Jewish life.

What Does Synagogue Mean?

The word “synagogue” is the Greek parallel to the Hebrew term beit knesset, “house of gathering.” It is also referred to as a shul, a Yiddish word related to the English word “school,” thus named since Torah is studied there as well. Synagogues can be found virtually wherever there are Jews and have been in use since the Babylonian exile.

Find a synagogue service near you.

What Does a Synagogue Look Like?

The exact dimensions of a synagogue vary, reflecting the culture, needs, means and tastes of those who built it and use it. However, you can generally expect it to have chairs (or pews) arranged in such a way that the worshipers are facing toward Jerusalem, once the site of the Holy Temple, and the place through which all prayers ascend to G‑d.

Learn an in-depth article on the laws of building a synagogue.

The Ark

In the front of the sanctuary is a cabinet called the aron kodesh (“holy ark”), which contains the Torah scrolls, the most sacred objects in Judaism. Handwritten in Hebrew letters on parchment, each scroll contains the Five Books of Moses. The scrolls are stored in the ark and are removed only to be read during services or on other special occasions.

The exact size and look of arks vary greatly, however, most of them have doors as well as an ornate curtain (parochet), which are opened at key points during the prayer.

Learn more about the ark.

The Ner Tamid (Eternal Light)

In many synagogues there is an eternal light (ner tamid), situated above the ark. The flame (or light bulb) is a symbol of the “western lamp,” which continually shone in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Learn more about the ner tamid.

The Bimah

Traditionally placed in the center of the sanctuary and facing toward the front of the room is the bimah (“platform”), the table from which the Torah is read. It is often (but by no means always) covered by a cloth and placed on a raised stage.

Learn more about the bimah.

The Amud

The prayers are led from the front of the room. There is generally a lectern, called an amud (lit. “pillar”) on which the leader (who also faces the front) can place his prayerbook.

The curtain of the ark, as well as the cloth coverings of the bimah and amud can be any color. However, during the High Holidays white coverings are generally used, reflecting sanctity, purity and forgiveness, all themes of the season.

Learn more about the amud.

The Mechitzah

In Jewish tradition, men and women sit separately during prayers. In many (older) synagogues, seating for women is in a gallery above the sanctuary. It is more common, however, for men and women to both be seated on the same level with a mechitzah (“partition”) between them.

Read: What’s Wrong With Mixed Services?

Who’s Who in the Synagogue?

The Rabbi: A synagogue rabbi is the spiritual guide of the congregation. In many communities, the rabbi also delivers a sermon on Shabbat and holiday mornings and on other special occasions.

Read: What Is a Rabbi?

The Rebbetzin: In many congregations, the wife of the rabbi takes on a quasi-official leadership role, guiding, teaching and leading.

The Chazzan (Cantor): Most prayers are led by a member of the congregation. It is considered an honor to lead the congregation in prayer. In many congregations there is a specially designated cantor who leads the prayers on Shabbat and holidays.

Read: What Is a Chazzan?

The Gabbai: Often translated as “warden,” the gabbai (or gabba’im plural) helps keep things organized and running smoothly. During the Torah reading, the gabba’im call up people to the bimah for the readings (aliyahs) and distribute other honors.

Read: What Is a Gabbai?

You: That’s right. Every single Jew is important, and we all contribute to the whole. Whether you can read Hebrew or not, you are an integral part of the congregation.

When Do People Attend Synagogue?

Jewish prayer takes place three times a day: morning, afternoon and evening. The afternoon and evening services are often held back to back. On Shabbat the services are somewhat longer, and often better attended.

Read: The Three Daily Prayers.

Many people attend synagogue for other important lifecycle events, such as:

  1. A circumcision, also known as a brit (or bris), is often held in a synagogue. Read: What to Expect a Brit Milah.
  2. A bar mitzvah, celebrating a Jewish male’s 13th birthday. Read: What to Expect at a Bar Mitzvah.
  3. An aufruf, celebrating the Shabbat before a wedding. Read: What to Expect at an Aufruf.
  4. Following the passing of a loved one, mourners attend synagogue to recite Kaddish for the first 11 months, and then subsequent year on the anniversary of passing. Learn about Kaddish here.

Here are some of the key points in the year when many first-timers might find themselves in a synagogue:

  1. Shabbat morning. Read: What to expect at Shabbat Morning Synagogue Services.
  2. Rosh Hashanah services, marking the start of the High Holidays. Read: What to Expect at Rosh Hashanah Services.
  3. Simchat Torah. Read: What to Expect at Simchat Torah Services.

Endnote

All of above is just the basic intro the synagogue, but remember that the best way to get to know the synagogue is to visit the synagogue. The natives are friendly, and so are the rabbis, so just feel free to drop in and make yourself at home!

Synagogue FAQ

What does “synagogue” mean?

A synagogue is where Jews pray. The term “synagogue” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew beit knesset, which means “house of gathering.” It is also referred to as a shul, Yiddish for “school,” as Torah study also takes place there.

Read: The Synagogue (Shul)

When do people attend synagogue?

Jewish prayer takes place in the synagogue three times every day—morning, afternoon and evening—as well as on Shabbat and holidays.

Lifecycle events typically take place in the synagogue, including brit milah (circumcision), bar mitzvah and aufruf. And following the passing of a loved one, mourners attend to recite the Kaddish for the first 11 months.

Read: What to Expect at the Synagogue

What do synagogues look like?

Synagogues vary in dimension, reflecting the culture, needs, means, and tastes of the communities that build and use them. Generally, the chairs or pews face the direction of Jerusalem, the site of the Holy Temple. The front of the sanctuary contains the aron kodesh or “holy ark,” which holds the sacred Torah scrolls.

Additionally, the synagogue typically has a bimah, a raised platform from which the Torah is read, as well as an amud, a lectern for the prayer leader.

Read: What’s In a Synagogue?

What is inside the aron kodesh?

The aron kodesh (holy ark) contains Torah scrolls, which are handwritten in Hebrew on parchment. Each scroll contains the Five Books of Moses. The Torah scrolls are stored in the ark and are only taken out during services or special occasions.

Read: The Holy Ark: Aron Hakodesh

What is synagogue etiquette?

Synagogue etiquette includes showing respect, refraining from running or shouting, men wearing a head covering (also known as kippah), avoiding idle talk and gossip, refraining from eating, reading newspapers, or using cell phones, and maintaining cleanliness.

Read: Synagogue Etiquette

How are men and women seated during prayers?

In Jewish tradition, men and women sit separately during prayers. Older synagogues may have a women's gallery above the sanctuary, while others are side by side with a mechitzah, a partition, separating the seating areas.

Read: Separation in the Synagogue

Who are the key figures in a synagogue?

The synagogue rabbi serves as the spiritual guide of the congregation and often delivers sermons. The rabbi's wife, known as the rebbetzin, also plays a leadership role. Prayers are usually led by a member of the congregation, although some synagogues have a designated cantor. The gabbai, often translated as “warden,” helps with organizing and running the synagogue.

Read: What is the role and function of the synagogue rabbi?

What is a Minyan?

A minyan refers to a quorum of 10 Jewish males over the age of 13. In order to conduct public prayer services, such as reading from the Torah or reciting certain blessings, a minyan is needed.

Read: Minyan: The Prayer Quorum

What is the primary book used in synagogues?

A siddur, “prayer book” contains the complete text of the prayers for weekdays, Shabbat, and festivals. Many synagogues, including most Chabad centers, provide siddurim with English translation and clear instructions, allowing even newcomers to feel comfortable participating in the prayers.

Read: The Prayer Book

What else are synagogues used for?

In addition to being a place of worship, synagogues, especially Chabad centers, serve as vibrant hubs of Jewish life. Upon entering, one may encounter a rabbi delivering an engaging Torah class, families celebrating a brit milah (circumcision) or bar mitzvah, or groups of people socializing. Many synagogues also host afternoon and Sunday Hebrew schools for children, providing educational opportunities alongside the religious services.

How can I get more familiar with the synagogue?

The best way to become acquainted with a synagogue is by visiting. Synagogue communities are welcoming, and both the congregants and the rabbis are friendly. If you’re shy, tell the rabbi or a congregant that it’s your first time and they’ll be sure to guide you.

Read: Chabad-Locator