The Synagogue

What is a Synagogue?

Synagogue is based on a Greek word that means “assembly”- which makes sense once one knows that Synagogue refers to the Jewish house of prayer.

What is the layout of a Synagogue?

The layout of a Synagogue varies from Synagogue to Synagogue but on the whole there will be a large hall for prayer that in Orthodox Synagogues will be divided up in to men’s and women’s sections. Sometimes there will be smaller rooms too where people study Jewish texts. In some Synagogues, there will be an event hall too and even offices. There are Synagogues that have a specially-assigned separate room for Torah study called a “Bet Midrash”, which translates to mean “House of Study”.

What is the purpose of the Synagogue?

The Synagogue is a specially consecrated space that is used for prayer. Having said that, as far as Jewish law is concerned, communal prayers can be carried out in any place where there is a quorum of ten men. Men are obligated to pray three communal prayers a day at set times whereas women can pray the same prayers alone; she doesn’t need to be in a communal setting. Personal prayers can be prayed by men and women at any time in any place.

What are other names for the Synagogue?

• “Bet Knesset” in Modern Hebrew, used by Israeli Jews.
• “Shul” in Yiddish, used mainly by Jews of Ashkenazi descent.
• “Esnoga” used by Spanish and Portuguese Jews.
• “Kenesa” used by Persian and Karaite Jews- the word is a derivative of Aramaic.
• “Knis” used by some Arabic-speaking Jews.
• “Temple” used by Reform and Conservative Jews.

What are the origins of the Synagogue?

In the days of the Temple, communal worshipped was centered around the daily sacrifices. Even before the Temple was destroyed, Synagogues existed but they were simply not the focus of communal life.
In the time of the Babylonian captivity, the Men of the Great Assembly (the “Sanhedrin”) compiled the Jewish prayer book. Before that, people would pray individually as they saw fit, with no standardized prayer.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai suggested the idea of houses of worship wherever Jews lived. This would also contribute to Jewish continuity as this would ensure the maintenance of a unique identity and a portable way of worship that meant a Jew could pray with others no matter where may find himself.

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