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A synagogue (from Greek: , transliterated synagogē, "assembly"; beyt knesset, "house of assembly"; or beyt t'fila, "house of prayer", shul; , esnoga) is a Jewish house of prayer.

Synagogue is commonly spoken of as a "shul" by Orthodox, "synagogue" by Conservative, and "Temple" by Reform. "Synagogue" is a good all-around word to cover the preceding three possibilities.

Synagogues usually have a large hall for prayer (the main sanctuary), smaller rooms for study and sometimes a social hall and offices. Some have a separate room for Torah study, called the beth midrash— ("House of Study").

Synagogues are not consecrated spaces, nor is a synagogue necessary for worship. Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. Worship can also be carried out alone or with fewer than ten people assembled together. A synagogue is not in the strictest sense a temple; it does not replace the long-since destroyed Templemarker in Jerusalemmarker.

In colloquial speech, Israelis use the term Bet knesset (assembly house). Jews of Ashkenazi descent have traditionally used the Yiddish term "shul" (cognate with the German schule, school) in everyday speech. Spanish and Portuguese Jews calles the synagogue an esnoga. Persian Jews and Karaite Jews use the term Kenesa, which is derived from Aramaic, and some Arabic-speaking Jews use knis. Some Reform and Conservative Jews use the word "temple".


Although synagogues existed well before the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE, communal worship in the time while the Temple still stood centered around the korbanot ("sacrificial offerings") brought by the kohanim ("priests") in the Holy Templemarker. The all-day Yom Kippur service, in fact, was an event in which the congregation both observed the movements of the kohen gadol ("the high priest") as he offered the day's sacrifices and prayed for his success.

During the Babylonian captivity (586-537 BCE) the Men of the Great Assembly began the process of formalizing and standardizing Jewish services and prayers that did not depend on the functioning of the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, one of the leaders at the end of the Second Temple era, promulgated the idea of creating individual houses of worship in whatever locale Jews found themselves. This contributed to the continuity of the Jewish people by maintaining a unique identity and a portable way of worship despite the destruction of the Temple, according to many historians.

Synagogues in the sense of purpose-built spaces for worship, or rooms originally constructed for some other purpose but reserved for formal, communal prayer, however, existed long before the destruction of Solomon's Temple. The earliest archaeological evidence for the existence of very early synagogues comes from Egypt, where stone synagogue dedication inscriptions dating from the third century BCE prove that synagogues existed by that date. A synagogue dating from between 75 and 50 BCE has been uncovered at a Hasmonean-era winter palace near Jerichomarker. More than a dozen Second Temple era synagogues have been identified by archaeologists.

Any Jew or group of Jews can build a synagogue. Synagogues have been constructed by ancient Jewish kings, by wealthy patrons, as part of a wide range of human institutions including secular educational institutions, governments, and hotels, by the entire community of Jews living in a particular place, or by sub-groups of Jews arrayed according to occupation, ethnicity (I.e. the Sephardic, Polish or Persian Jews of a town,) style of religious observance (i.e., a Reform or an Orthodox synagogue,) or by the followers of a particular rabbi.

Architectural design

There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes as well as interior designs of synagogues vary greatly. In fact, the influence from other local religious buildings can often be seen in synagogue arches, domes and towers.

Historically, synagogues were built in the prevailing architectural style of their time and place. Thus, the synagogue in Kaifeng, Chinamarker looked very like Chinese temples of that region and era, with its outer wall and open garden in which several buildings were arranged. The styles of the earliest synagogues resembled the temples of other sects of the eastern Roman Empire. The surviving synagogues of medieval Spain are embellished with mudéjar plasterwork. The surviving medieval synagogues in Budapestmarker and Praguemarker are typical Gothic structures.

The emancipation of Jews in European countries not only enabled Jews to enter fields of enterprise from which they were formerly barred, but gave them the right to build synagogues without needing special permissions, synagogue architecture blossomed. Large Jewish communities wished to show not only their wealth but also their newly acquired status as citizens by constructing magnificent synagogues. These were built across Europe and in the United States in all of the historicist or revival styles then in fashion. Thus there were Neoclassical, Neo-Byzantine, Romanesque Revival Moorish Revival, Gothic Revival, and Greek Revival. There are Egyptian Revival synagogues and even one Mayan Revival synagogue. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century heyday of historicist architecture, however, most historicist synagogues, even the most magnificent ones, did not attempt a pure style, or even any particular style, and are best described as eclectic.

In the post-war era, synagogue architecture abandoned historicist styles for modernism.

Interior elements

All synagogues contain a Torah Ark, a table from which the Torah is read, and a desk for the prayer leader.

The Torah Ark, (Hebrew: Aron Kodesh—ארון קודש) (called the heikhal—היכל [temple] by Sephardim) is a cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept.

The ark in a synagogue is positioned in almost always such a way that those who face it, face towards Jerusalemmarker. Thus, sanctuary seating plans in the Western world generally face east, while those east of Israel face west. Sanctuaries in Israel face towards Jerusalem. Occasionally synagogues face other directions for structural reasons; in such cases, some individuals might turn to face Jerusalem when standing for prayers, but the congregation as a whole does not.

The ark is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. This is the holiest spot in a synagogue, equivalent to the Holy of Holies. The ark is often closed with an ornate curtain, the , which hangs outside or inside the ark doors.

A large, raised, reader's platform called the ( ) by Ashkenazim and by Sephardim, where the Torah scroll is placed to be read. Is a feature of all synagogues. In Sephardi synagogues it is also used as the prayer leader's reading desk.

Other traditional features include a continually-lit lamp or lantern, usually electric in contemporary synagogues, called the ( ), the "Eternal Light," used as a reminder of the western lamp of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalemmarker, which remained miraculously lit always. Many have an elaborate chair named for the prophet Elijah and only sat upon during the ceremony of Brit milah. Many synagogues have a large seven-branched candelabrum commemorating the full Menorah. Most contemporary synagogues also feature a lectern for the rabbi.

A synagogue may be decorated with artwork, but in the Rabbinic and Orthodox tradition, three-dimensional sculptures and depictions of the human body are not allowed, as these are considered akin to idolatry.

Until the 19th century, an Ashkenazi synagogue, all seats most often faced the 'Torah Ark. In a Sephardi synagogue, seats were usually arranged around the perimeter of the sanctuary, but when the worshippers stood up to pray, everyone faced the Ark. In Ashkenazi synagogues The Torah was read on a reader's table located in the center of the room, while the leader of the prayer service, the , stood at his own lectern or table, facing the Ark. In Sephardic synagogues, the table for reading the Torah was commonly placed at the opposite side of the room form the Torah Ark, leaving the center of the floor empty for the use of a ceremonial procession carrying the Torah between the Ark and the reading table.

Denominational differences

Orthodox synagogues feature a partition ( ) dividing the men's and women's seating areas, or a separate women's section located on a balcony.

The Germanmarker Reform movement which arose in the early 1800s made many changes to the traditional look of the synagogue, keeping with its desire to simultaneously stay Jewish yet be accepted by the host culture.

The first Reform synagogue, which opened in Hamburgmarker in 1811, introduced changes that made the synagogue look more like a church. These included: the installation of an organ to accompany the prayers (even on Shabbat, when musical instruments are proscribed by halakha, a choir to accompany the Hazzan, and vestments for the synagogue rabbi to wear.

In following decades, the central reader's table, the bimah, was moved to the front of the Reform sanctuary—previously unheard-of in Orthodox synagogues. The rabbi now delivered his sermon from the front, much as the Christian ministers delivered their sermons in a church. The synagogue was renamed a "temple", to emphasize that the movement no longer looked forward to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Synagogue as community center

Synagogues often take on a broader role in modern Jewish communities and may include additional facilities such as a catering hall, kosher kitchen, religious school, library, day care center and a smaller chapel for daily services.

Synagogue offshoots

Since Orthodox Jews prefer to collect a minyan (a quorum of ten) rather than pray alone, they commonly assemble at pre-arranged times in offices, living rooms, or other spaces when these are more convenient than formal synagogue buildings. A room or building that is used this way can become a dedicated small synagogues and prayer room. Among Ashkenazi Jews they are traditionally called ( , pl. or , Yiddish for "little house". and are found in Orthodox communities worldwide.

Another type of communal prayer group, favored by some contemporary Jews, is the Chavurah (חבורה, pl. chavurot, חבורות), or prayer fellowship. These groups meet at a regular place and time, usually in a private home. In antiquity, the Pharisees lived near each other in chavurot and dined together to ensure that none of the food was unfit for consumption.

Great synagogues

During the 19th and early 20th century, it was fairly common for Jewish communities, particularly in Europe, to construct very large, showpiece synagogues. These edifices were intended not simply to accommodate worshipers, but to serve as emblems of Jewish participation in modern society. For this purpose, they were built to be not merely large, but architecturally impressive. Even small cities had elaborate synagogues of this type, albeit smaller than the synagogues of Vienna and New York. They are often designated as The Great Synagogue of..., or, in Russia, The Choral Synagogue. These notable synagogues include; the Great Synagogue of Romemarker, the New Synagogue marker, the Leopoldstädter Tempelmarker, the Grand Choral Synagoguemarker, the Great Synagogue marker, the Moscow Choral Synagoguemarker, the Great Synagogue of Florencemarker, the Great Synagogue, Plzenmarker, the Great Synagogue marker, the Košice Orthodox Synagogue, the Novi Sad Synagogue, the Szeged Synagogue, the Sofia Synagoguemarker and the Great Synagogue of Oran.

World's largest synagogues

World's oldest synagogues

  • The oldest Samaritan synagogue, the Delos Synagogue dates from between 150 and 128 BCE, or earlier and is located on the island of Delosmarker.
  • The Jericho Synagogue, the oldest, securely dated, mainstream Jewish synagogue in the world was built between 70 and 50 BCE at a royal winter palace near Jerichomarker.
  • The oldest synagogue fragments are stone synagogue dedication inscriptions stones found in middle and lower Egyptmarker and dating from the third century BCE.
  • The Paradesi Synagoguemarker is the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations, located in Kochi, Keralamarker, in India. It was built in 1568 by the Malabar Yehudan people or Cochin Jewish community in the Kingdom of Cochin. Paradesi is a word used in several Indian languages, and the literal meaning of the term is "foreigners", applied to the synagogue because it was historically used by "White Jews", a mixture of Jews from Cranganore, the Middle East, and European exiles. It is also referred to as the Cochin Jewish Synagogue or the Mattancherry Synagogue. The synagogue is located in the quarter of Old Cochin known as Jew Town and is the only one of the seven synagogues in the area still in use.

Oldest synagogues in the United States

Other famous synagogues

  • The Rashi Shul, built in 1175 and razed on Kristallnacht in 1938, was painstakingly reconstructed using many of the original stones. It is still in use as a synagogue.
  • The Synagogue of El Transito of Toledo, Spainmarker, was built in 1356 by Samuel HaLevi, treasurer of King Pedro I of Castile. This is one of the best examples of mudejar architecture in Spain. The design of the synagogue recalls the Nasrid style of architecture that was employed during the same period in the decorations of the Alhambramarker palace in Granada as well as the Mosque of Cordobamarker. Since 1964, this site has hosted a Sephardi museum.
  • The Hurva Synagoguemarker, located in the Jewish Quartermarker of the Old Citymarker of Jerusalemmarker, was Jerusalem's main Ashkenazi synagogue from the 16th century until 1948, when it was destroyed by the Arab Legion several days after the conquest of the city. After the Six-Day War, an arch was built to mark the spot where the synagogue stood. A complete reconstruction is now underway in keeping with plans drawn up by architect Nahum Meltzer.
  • The Great Synagogue of Oran.
  • The Barbadosmarker Nidhe Israel Synagogue ("Bridgetown Synagogue"), located in the capital city of Bridgetownmarker, was first built in 1654. It was destroyed in the hurricane of 1831 and reconstructed in 1833.
  • The Amsterdam Esnogamarker is a Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdammarker built on pilings. It was founded by ex-Marranos (Portuguese Crypto-Jews) in 1675.
  • The Snoa in Willemstad, Curaçaomarker, Netherlands Antillesmarker was built by Sephardic Portuguese Jews from Amsterdam and Recife, Brazil. It is modeled after the Esnoga in Amsterdam. Congregation Mikvé Israel built this synagogue in 1692; it was reconstructed in 1732.
  • The Bialystoker Synagoguemarker on New York's Lower East Sidemarker, is located in a landmark building dating from 1826 that was originally a Methodist Episcopal Church. The building is made of quarry stone mined locally on Pitt Street, Manhattan. It is an example of Federalist architecture. The ceilings and walls are hand-painted with zodiac frescos, and the sanctuary is illuminated by stained glass windows. The bimah and floor-to-ceiling ark are handcarved.
  • The Great Synagogue of Florencemarker, Tempio Maggiore, Florence, 1874–82, is an example of the magnificent, cathedral-like synagogues built in almost every major European city in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Image:Caravan shul interior.jpg|Interior of a "caravan shul" (synagogue housed in a trailer-type facility) in Neve Yaakovmarker, Jerusalemmarker, Israelmarker.Image:GerardDoustraatSynagogue.jpg|The Synagogue in the Gerard Doustraat in Amsterdammarker, The Netherlandsmarker.Image:Berlin Neue Synagoge 2005.jpg|The New Synagogue in Berlinmarker, Germanymarker.Image:Moscow Choral Synagogue.jpg|The Choral Synagoguemarker in Moscowmarker, Russiamarker.Image:SynagogueSantiago.jpg|The Great Synagogue of Santiagomarker, Chilemarker.Image:EsnogaAmsterdam.jpg|The Amsterdam Esnogamarker Synagogue in Amsterdammarker, The Netherlandsmarker.Image:Synagogue - Budapest.jpg|The Dohány Street Synagoguemarker in Budapestmarker, Hungarymarker.Image:Great Synagogue Plzen CZ general view.JPG|The Great Synagogue of Plzeňmarker, Czech Republicmarker.Image:Frankfurt Hauptsynagoge 1885.jpg|The main synagogue of the city of Frankfurt am Mainmarker (Germanymarker) before the Kristallnacht.Image:Köln synagoge pano.jpg|The Roonstrasse Synagoguemarker in Cologne, Germanymarker.Image:Lesko synagoga.jpg|The Lesko Synagogue in Leskomarker, Polandmarker.Image:Synagoga w Bobowej.JPG|The Bobowa Synagogue in Bobowamarker, Polandmarker.Image:Besht Shul1 Medzhibozh.jpg|The Baal Shem Tov's shul in Medzhybizhmarker, Ukrainemarker (c. 1915). The shul no longer exists.Image:Belz hasidic synagogue.jpg|The Belzermarker synagogue of Belzmarker, Ukrainemarker. The synagogue no longer exists.Image:Synagoge auf Gelaende der Universtaet Tel Aviv.jpg|The Cymbalista Synagogue and Jewish Heritage Centermarker at Tel Aviv Universitymarker.Image:Kherson-Synagogue01.jpg|The synagogue of Khersonmarker, Ukrainemarker.Image:Hurva synagogue.jpg|The dome of the Hurva Synagogue dominated the skyline of the Jewish Quartermarker of Jerusalemmarker for centuries.Image:Hakhurba-synagogue01m.jpg|The remains of the Hurva Synagoguemarker as they appeared from 1977 to 2003. The synagogue is currently being reconstructed.image:Istanbul_Ashkenazi_Sinagogue_Interior.JPG|The Ashkenazi Synagogue of Istanbul, Turkeymarker. The synagogue was founded in the year 1900.Image:Duraeuropa-1-.gif|Scenes from the Book of Esther from the Dura-Europos synagoguemarker (244 CE).Image:Karaite_synagogue_cali.jpg|The interior of a Karaite synagogue (kenesa).Image:Centralsynoglex.JPG|The Central Synagoguemarker on Lexington Avenuemarker in Manhattanmarker, New York Citymarker, United States of Americamarker.Image:Templebethel.jpg|Temple Beth-El, the oldest synagogue in Floridamarker, which was built in Art Deco style.Image:SynaStPersburgExt.JPG|The Grand Choral Synagoguemarker of St. Petersburgmarker, RussiamarkerImage:Jewish_synagouge_kochi_india.jpg| The Paradesi Synagoguemarker in Kochi , Keralamarker , IndiaImage:Kiev34.jpg| The Synagogue in Podol district, Kievmarker, Ukrainemarker

See also


  2. Second Temple Synagogues
  3., Egypt
  4., Israel's Oldest Synagogue
  6. Rabbi Ken Spiro., "Crash Course in Jewish History Part 54 - Reform Movement"
  7. Alan F. Segal, Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World, Harvard University Press, 1986, 125.
  8. 1340 seats, the synagogue is 48 meters long, 35 meters wide and 48.6 meters high,
  9. Jewish Professionals Institute (JPI) - Holocaust Thesis Chapter 7
  10. Delos
  11. Jericho

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