[sin-uh-gog, -gawg]
synagogue [Gr.,=assembly], in Judaism, a place of assembly for worship, education, and communal affairs. The origins of the institution are unclear. One tradition dates it to the Babylonian exile of the 6th cent. B.C. The returnees may have brought back with them the basic structure that was to be developed by the 1st cent. A.D. into a well-defined institution around which Jewish religious, intellectual, and communal life was to be centered from this earliest period into the present. Other scholars believe the synagogue arose after the Hasmonean revolt (167-164 B.C.) as a Pharisaic alternative to the Temple cult. The destruction of the Temple (A.D. 70) and the Diaspora over the following centuries increased the synagogue's importance. Services in the synagogue were conducted in a simpler manner than in the Temple. There was no officially appointed priest, the services being conducted by a chazan (reader). The role the synagogue played in preserving Judaism intact through the centuries cannot be overestimated, nor can its influence as an intellectual and cultural force. In the modern period, the reform movement restricted its scope to almost purely religious purposes, although among the Orthodox Jews its purview did not diminish. In more recent times the synagogue has again taken on its former functions as a social and communal center. The architectural appearance of the synagogue has usually not differed from that of local non-Jewish forms. The interior includes an ark in which the Torah scrolls are held and a platform from which they are read. In modern times, a pulpit from which to preach has also become common, and in many synagogues the three are combined on one platform. In the United States, the national synagogue associations, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the United Synagogue of America (Conservative), and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) are organized in the Synagogue Council of America.

See U. Kaploun, ed., The Synagogue (1973); A. Eisenberg, The Synagogue through the Ages (1974); C. H. Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe (1987).

A synagogue (from Greek: συναγωγή, transliterated synagogē, "assembly"; בית כנסת beit knesset, "house of assembly"; שול or בית תפילה beit tefila, "house of prayer", shul; אסנוגה, esnoga) is a Jewish house of prayer.

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 Beit midrash — בית מדרש ("House of Study").

Synagogues are not consecrated spaces, nor is a synagogue necessary for collective worship. Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. A synagogue is not in the strictest sense a temple; it does not replace the true, long since destroyed, Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Many Jews in English-speaking countries use the Yiddish term "shul" in everyday speech. Spanish and Portuguese Jews call the synagogue an esnoga. Persian Jews and Karaite Jews use the term Kenesa, which is derived from Aramaic, and some Arab Jews use knis. Reform and some Conservative congregations in the United States sometimes use the word "temple."


Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, communal prayers centered around the korbanot ("sacrificial offerings") brought by the kohanim ("priests") in the Holy Temple. 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 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 saving 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, 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 Jericho. More than a dozen Second Temple era synagogues have been identified by archaeologists.

Throughout Jewish history, synagogues have been constructed by all types of people. They have been constructed by wealthy patrons; by ethnically-bound groups of people (such as the Sephardic synagogues established by Sephardi refugees to large cities that had already established congregations); and by any like-minded group of Jews. Eastern European Jewish communities were characterized by the presence of kloizen (literally, "gathering places") in which worshippers belonging to the same profession prayed together. Thus there was the tailors' kloiz, the water-carriers' kloiz, etc. One kloiz that still bears that name today is the Breslov synagogue in Uman, Ukraine, which accommodates thousands of worshippers at the annual Breslover Rosh Hashana kibbutz (prayer gathering). It is called the "New Kloiz" to distinguish it from the "Old Kloiz", which was built by Nathan of Breslov in 1834.

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 of other local religious buildings can often be seen.

Historically, synagogues were built in the prevailing architectural style of their time and place. Thus, the synagogue in Kaifeng, China 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 mudejar plasterwork. The surviving medieval synagogues in Budapest and Prague 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.

Some synagogues used the swastika as a decorative element, usually without religious significance, before it took on sinister connotations in twentieth-century Nazi Germany.

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

Most synagogues of almost every era and region, however, were modest buildings using the inexpensive vernacular architecture of their era and region. Most still are.

Chabad Lubavitch

Chabad Lubavitch has made a practice of designing some of its Chabad Houses and centers as replicas of or homages to the architecture of 770 Eastern Parkway

Interior elements

Orthodox synagogues

Orthodox synagogues usually contain the following features:

The ark in a synagogue is positioned in such a way that those who face it, face towards Jerusalem. 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 parochet - פרוכת, which hangs outside or inside the ark doors.

  • A large, raised, reader's platform called the bimah (בימה) by Ashkenazim and tebah by Sephardim, where the Torah scroll is read and from where the services are conducted in Sephardi synagogues.
  • A continually-lit lamp or lantern, usually electric, called the ner tamid (נר תמיד), the "Eternal Lamp," used as a reminder of the western lamp of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, which remained miraculously lit always.
  • A candelabrum specifically lit during services commemorating the full Menorah.
  • A pulpit facing the congregation for the use of the rabbi, and a pulpit or amud - עמוד (Hebrew for "post" or "column") facing the Ark where the Hazzan stands while leading the prayer service.
  • A partition (mechitzah) dividing the men's and women's seating areas, or a separate women's section located on a balcony.

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.

Synagogue windows are sometimes curved at the top and squared at the bottom, recalling the popular depiction of the shape of the Tablets of Stone which Moses received from God at Mount Sinai. There is also a tradition to install twelve windows around the main sanctuary to recall the Twelve Tribes of Israel, underscoring the importance of unity and brotherhood as a result of the communal prayers.

Until the 19th century all synagogue interiors were laid out with both a spiritual and a communal focus. In an Ashkenazi synagogue, all seats faced the aron kodesh (Ark) in which the Torah scrolls were housed. In a Sephardi synagogue, seats were arranged around the perimeter of the sanctuary, but when the worshippers stood up to pray, everyone faced the Ark. The Torah was read on a reader's table located in the exact center of each sanctuary, echoing the manner in which the Children of Israel stood around Mount Sinai when they received the Torah. The leader of the prayer service, the Hazzan, stood at his own lectern or table, facing the Ark.

The United States has well over 1200 Orthodox congregations, including over 1000 affiliated with the Orthodox Union (OU), and 150 with the National Council of Young Israel, as well as many associated with Agudath Yisrael, a widespread movement often identified with Orthodox Judaism, especially Chassidim.

Reform synagogues and temples

The German 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 Hamburg 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.

Conservative synagogues

The Conservative movement, which also developed in Europe and America in the 1800s, rejected Reform as being too liberal and Orthodoxy as being too outdated. However, like other varieties of Judaism, its synagogue design is not consistent. Some Conservative synagogues resemble Reform temples, complete with organ Others resemble Orthodox synagogues, but usually without a mechitza, the dividing barrier between men and women. There are approximately 750 Conservative synagogues in the United States today.

Reconstructionist synagogues

The Reconstructionist movement, which arose in America in the latter half of the 20th century, counts fewer than 100 synagogues worldwide. In keeping with a Reconstructionist Jewish spirit of liberalism, the movement's synagogues are not as traditionalist in design as are synagogues of Conservative Judaism, and do not use the mechitza. The congregation decides communally how much traditional Judaic imagery and symbols are appropriate. Reconstructionist Jews generally do not call their houses of worship "temples".

Synagogue as community center

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

Synagogue offshoots

A related place of worship is the {lang|yi-Latn|[shtiebel]} (שטיבל, pl. shtiebelekh or shtiebels, Yiddish for "little house") that is frequently used by and preferred by Hasidic and Haredi Jews. A shtiebel may sometimes be a room in the private home of a Hasidic Rebbe, or a place of business which is set aside for the express purpose of prayer. It may or may not offer the communal services of a synagogue.

Another type of communal prayer group, favored by some non-Orthodox Jews, is the chavura (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.

Orthodox Jews, who must collect a minyan or quorum of ten men before certain communal prayers can be recited, do not require a consecrated space and commonly assemble at pre-arranged times in offices, living rooms, or other spaces when these are more convenient than formal synagogue buildings.

World's largest synagogues

Ranked by number of seats:

World's oldest synagogues

  • The oldest Samaritan synagogue dates from at 150 to 128 BCE, or earlier and is located on the island of Delos.
  • The oldest securely dated mainstream Jewish synagogue in the world was built between 70 and 50 BCE at a royal winter palace near Jericho.
  • The oldest synagogue fragments are stone synagogue dedication inscriptions stones found in middle and lower Egypt and dating from the third century BCE.

In Israel

  • In Israel and regions of the Jewish diaspora archaeologists have uncovered many ruins of synagogues from thousands of years ago. The small ruined synagogue at Masada is one of the most well-documented; it dates from the time of the Second Temple.
  • The oldest synagogue in Israel which is currently in use is probably the Ari in Safed, which dates from the 16th century. There were synagogues in the Old City that are older, but, like the Rashi Shul, they were razed by anti-Semites and the present buildings are reconstructions.
  • The Ramban Synagogue, founded by Nahmanides in 1267 and rebuilt after 1967, is the oldest active synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. The present building is a reconstruction on foundations of the ancient building destroyed during the Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem. See also: Synagogues in Jerusalem.

In Europe

  • The oldest synagogue in Europe uncovered in an archaeological dig to date is in the ancient Roman port of Ostia. The present building, of which partial walls and pillars set upright by archaeolgists remain, dates from the fourth century CE. However, excavation revealed that it is on the site of an earlier synagogue dating from the middle of the first century CE, that is, from before the destruction of the Temple.
  • The oldest synagogue building in Europe still standing is Santa María la Blanca, built in Toledo, Spain in 1190. It was consecrated as a church upon the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century, but no major renovations were done. While still a consecrated church, it is no longer used for worship and is open as a museum.
  • The oldest active synagogue building in Europe is the Alteneushul (Old-New Synagogue) in Prague, Czech Republic, which dates from the 13th century. The Altneushul was the pulpit of the great Rabbi Yehuda Loew, (the Maharal), and his creation, the golem of Prague, is rumored to be hidden within the synagogue.

In Asia

  • The third century CE Dura-Europos synagogue (in today's Syria) is better preserved than other, older synagogues that have emerged from archaeological digs. It is often called the world's oldest preserved Jewish synagogue.
  • In Kochi, the South Indian State of Kerala, Paradesi Synagogue is believed to be built in 1568. It is the oldest Jewish synagogue in India.

In the Americas

  • The Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in Recife, Brazil, was the first Jewish synagogue erected in the Americas, in 1636. Its foundations have been recently discovered, and the twentieth century buildings on the site have been altered to resemble a 17th century Spanish and Portuguese synagogue.
  • The Curaçao synagogue, Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, built in 1732 is the oldest still standing synagogue building in the Western Hemisphere.

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.

Selected images of synagogues

See also




  • Levine, Lee (2005). The Ancient Synagogue - The First Thousand Years. 2nd. ed., New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10628-9.

External links

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