The Synagogue

The principal Jewish place of worship is the home but the central place for community worship is the synagogue. In Hebrew a synagogue is called: Beth ha-tefilla (house of prayer), Beth ha-knesset (house of assembly), Beth ha-midrash (house of study). Synagogue is a Greek word (a meeting or an assembly). The Yiddish word shul (German Schule, ‘school’) is also used for a synagogue.

A synagogue is an assembly house for communal prayer, study, and meeting; and is the centre of the community. Synagogues are generally plain buildings often with no more decoration outside than the Magen David (Shield or Star of David) to show their use.

The synagogue must have windows:

When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God, as he had always done (Daniel 6:11).

There are no pictures or statues in a synagogue in accordance with the second commandment.

In the eastern wall – mizrach (the wall facing Jerusalem) is the Aron Ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark.

Above, or to the sides of the ark are two tablets bearing the first two words of each of the Ten Commandments. Above the ark is the Ner Tamid, the everlasting light which represents the lamp which burnt in the Jerusalem Temple. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately. There is a mejizah – a partition screen, separating the women’s and men’s areas. Sometimes the women sit in an upstairs gallery (Weibershul). In most Progressive synagogues, men and women sit together.

Mikveh: Every synagogue should have a ritual bath or mikveh which is a pool of natural water in which people can bathe to be ritually pure. The mikveh must contain at least 40 se’ah, (between 250-1,000 litres) of natural water. Women must visit the mikveh after the end of the monthly period to cleanse themselves before they can resume normal sexual relations with their husbands. Some Orthodox men also use it as Yom Kippur and converts are required to immerse themselves in it.

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