See U. Kaploun, ed., The Synagogue (1973); A. Eisenberg, The Synagogue through the Ages (1974); C. H. Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe (1987).
In Judaism, a community house of worship that also serves as a place for assembly and study. Though their exact origins are uncertain, synagogues flourished side by side with the ancient Temple cult; they existed long before Jewish sacrifice and the established priesthood were terminated with Titus's destruction of the Second Temple (AD 70). Thereafter, synagogues took on even greater importance as the unchallenged focal point of Jewish life. There is no standard synagogue architecture. A typical synagogue contains an ark (where the scrolls of the Law are kept), an “eternal light” burning before the ark, two candelabra, pews, a bimah (see bema), and sometimes a ritual bath (mikvah).
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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."
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.