1. A Synagogue Is a Place for Prayer

The primary function of the synagogue is to serve as a place for prayer. Although you can speak to G‑d in private, praying in the synagogue is considered preferable, and prayers said as part of a congregation are more readily heard on high.

Read: What Is Jewish Prayer?

2. It is Also Known as a Beit Knesset, Shul, or Shtiebel

Praying on Shabbat in a shtiebel in Kfar Chabad, Israel © Zalman Kleinman
Praying on Shabbat in a shtiebel in Kfar Chabad, Israel © Zalman Kleinman

The original Hebrew term for synagogue is beit knesset, which means“house of gathering.” (The word “synagogue” is the Greek parallel to this Hebrew term.) In Yiddish, a synagogue is commonly called “shul,” from the German word schule, “school.” A shtiebel, the Yiddish diminutive form for shtub (“house”), commonly refers to a small, informal house of prayer.

Read: What Is a Shtiebel?

3. They Are Open on Shabbat—and Throughout the Week

Three daily prayers are held in the synagogue. On Shabbat and festivals, a fourth prayer is added, while on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the number is hiked up to five.

In larger communities, many synagogues hold daily prayer services, while in smaller communities, services are often limited to Shabbat and festivals. However, many synagogues are open throughout the week for other functions (see next fact).

Find friendly synagogue services near you

4. They Are Centers of Jewish Life

A first-grader displays his project after learning how and where a Torah is kept.
A first-grader displays his project after learning how and where a Torah is kept.

In addition to housing a sanctuary for services, synagogues (most notably Chabad centers) serve as a centerpoint of Jewish life. Walk through the door and chances are you’ll find a rabbi giving an engaging Torah class, a family celebrating a brit milah or bar mitzvah, or even just a group of people taking the opportunity to socialize. Many synagogues also host afternoon and Sunday Hebrew schools for children.

Read: What Is a Synagogue?

5. It Is a “Miniature Sanctuary”

The Talmud refers to the synagogue as a “miniature sanctuary,” a replica of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.1 It is a place where G‑d’s presence can be most felt, and where we can best connect to Him. The synagogue should therefore be treated with the proper respect and awe, even when services are not underway.

Read: Synagogue Etiquette

6. Synagogue Prayers Are Best Said with Ten Jews

Jews during hearfelt prayers, joined in a minyan, a quorom of 10 Jewish men.
Jews during hearfelt prayers, joined in a minyan, a quorom of 10 Jewish men.

Certain prayers and rituals—such as Kaddish and the reading of the Torah—can only take place in the presence of 10 males, 13 years of age or older. This is known as a minyan.

To be counted as part of a minyan, no additional criteria are needed. A group of nine outstanding scholars do not constitute a minyan; enter a tenth man, no matter his background and intellectual prowess, and a minyan is formed. Never underestimate the spiritual power of an individual Jew!

Read: Minyan: The Prayer Quorum

7. The ‘Aron’ Houses the Torah

One of the most imposing features in the synagogue is the aron kodesh (“holy ark”) at the front of the sanctuary.

The aron can take on a variety of forms. It can be a basic cabinet or an architectural masterpiece. It can be freestanding or built into the wall. It can be modest in size or colossal.

No matter the style, however, every aron 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.

Read: The Holy Ark: The Aron Hakodesh

8. The Aron Faces Jerusalem

Traditionally, Jews in the diaspora face toward the Holy Land when praying, and those in Israel face Jerusalem, as we are told that our prayers ascend to heaven via the Temple Mount.

There is a prevalent misconception that we face east when praying. This is because the cradle of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures, France and Spain respectively, are roughly west of Israel. Therefore, in most areas the aron is built on the synagogue’s eastern wall. However, if you enter a synagogue east of Israel, you will find the aron on the western wall. Similarly, in Israeli cities north or south of Jerusalem, the aron is on the southern or northern wall.

Read: Why Do We Face East When Praying?

9. The Torah Is Read from the Bimah

The bimah, used for the reading of the Torah.
The bimah, used for the reading of the Torah.

In the center of the sanctuary 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. In addition to being the place from which the Torah is read, it might also be the spot from which lectures and sermons are given.

Read: The Bimah: The Synagogue Platform

10. Men and Women Sit Apart

In this historic synagogue in Budapest’s 7th district, the mechitzah takes the form of two layers of balconies for women. (Credit: Wiki Commons)
In this historic synagogue in Budapest’s 7th district, the mechitzah takes the form of two layers of balconies for women. (Credit: Wiki Commons)

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?

11. Congregants Pray with a Siddur

The most commonly used book in the synagogue is the siddur (“prayer book”). The siddur contains the full text of the prayers for weekdays, Shabbat, and festivals. Many synagogues today (especially Chabad centers) have a large selection of siddurs translated into English and accompanied by clear, simple instructions, so that even newcomers can feel right at home.

Read: The Prayer Book

12. A Rabbi Leads the Congregation

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.

Don’t be scared by the rabbi’s beard; your local synagogue rabbi is sure to be kind, perceptive, and down-to-earth. Chances are he is humorous as well.

Read: What Is a Rabbi?

13. The Chazan Leads the Services

A chazzan praying before the congregation
A chazzan praying before the congregation

Most prayers are led by a member of the congregation known as a chazan. The congregation’s prayers ascend through the chazan, so leading the prayers is an awesome responsibility and privilege.

In some congregations, there is a specially designated cantor hired by the synagogue who leads the prayers on Shabbat and holidays. However, more often than not, the chazan is simply a member of the congregation who volunteers to lead his fellow congregants in prayer.

Read: The Cantor: Chazan (Hazzan)

14. Synagogues Were Invented in the Fourth Century BCE

Surprisingly, there is no mention of the synagogue in the Five Books of Moses.

From Moses’ times until the restoration of the Second Temple, we fulfilled the obligation to pray daily by composing our own prayers and praying privately. We also made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to experience the public services that were conducted in the Holy Temple.

After the restoration of the Second Temple in 352 BCE, the Men of the Great Assembly instituted the text of the prayers, as well as the obligation for individuals to participate in these services. There arose both in Israel and the Diaspora places set aside to pray communally, and that is when the synagogue was born.

Read: Who Invented the Synagogue?

15. Some Synagogues Are Tourist Attractions

The "Small Synagogue" of St. Petersburg's gold-covered bimah, uniquely patterned ceiling and wooden floors exemplify the architectural glory of the synagogue.
The "Small Synagogue" of St. Petersburg's gold-covered bimah, uniquely patterned ceiling and wooden floors exemplify the architectural glory of the synagogue.

A number of synagogues throughout the world are famous for their history, architecture, or importance. Some well-known synagogues frequented as tourist attractions include the Altneuschul (“Old-New Synagogue”) of Prague, the Grand Choral Synagogue of S. Petersburg, and Lubavitch Headquarters (“770”) in Brooklyn. However, every synagogue is most meaningful for what it does best—to serve as a place where any Jew can feel at home, connect to G‑d, and pour out his or her heart in prayer.