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The Jewish Synagogue

A Guide to the Synagogue

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Temple Emanuel

Temple Emanuel in New York City

Barry Winiker/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The synagogue contains many features that are unique to the Jewish religion. Below is a guide to some of the more commonly seen features within synagogue main sanctuaries.

Bimah

The bimah is the raised platform at the front of the sanctuary. Generally this is located on the eastern side of the building because Jews usually face east, towards Israel and Jerusalem while praying. The majority of the prayer service takes place on the bimah. This is usually where both the rabbi and cantor stand, where the ark is located, and where the Torah reading takes place. In some congregations, particularly more Orthodox synagogues, the rabbi and cantor may instead use a raised platform in the center of the congregation.

Ark

The ark (aron kodesh in Hebrew) is the central feature of the sanctuary. Contained within the ark will be the congregation's Torah scroll(s). Above the ark is the Ner Tamid (Hebrew for "Eternal Flame"), which is a light that remains lit constantly, even when the sanctuary is not in use. The Ner Tamid symbolizes the menorah in the ancient biblical Temple in Jerusalem. The ark doors and curtain are often decorated with Jewish motifs such as the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, stylized representations of the Ten Commandments, crowns representing the crown of the Torah, biblical passages in Hebrew and more. Sometimes the ark is also heavily decorated with similar themes.

Torah Scrolls

Contained within the ark, the Torah scrolls are enshrined in the place of greatest honor within the sanctuary. A Torah scroll contains the Hebrew text of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Similar to the ark mentioned above, the scroll itself is often decorated with Jewish symbols. A cloth mantle covers the scroll and draped over the mantlethere may be a silver or decorative breastplate with silver crowns over the scroll posts (although in many congregations the breastplate and crowns are not regularly used, or used at all). Draped over the breastplate will be a pointer (called a yad, the Hebrew word for “hand”) used by the reader to follow his/her place in the scroll.

Artwork

Many sanctuaries will be decorated with artwork or stained glass windows. The artwork and motifs will vary widely from congregation to congregation.

Memorial Boards

Many sanctuaries have Yarhzeit or memorial boards. These usually contain plaques with names of people who have passed on, along with the Hebrew and English dates of their death. This is usually a light for each name. Depending on the congregation, these lights are lit either on the actual anniversary of the individual’s death according to the Hebrew calendar (the Yahrzeit) or during the week of the Yahrzeit.

Rabbi, Cantor and Gabbi

The rabbi is the spiritual leader of the congregation and leads the congregation in prayer.

The cantor is also a member of the clergy and is responsible for the musical elements during the service, leading the congregation in chanting and singing prayers. Often he/she will be responsible for other parts of the service, such as chanting the weekly Torah and Haftarah portions.  Not all congregations have a cantor.

The gabbai is usually a lay leader within the congregation who assists the rabbi and cantor during the Torah service.

Siddur

The siddur is the main prayer book of the congregation containing the Hebrew liturgy read during the prayer service. Most prayer books will also contain translations of the prayers and many also provide transliterations of the Hebrew to assist those who cannot read Hebrew text.

Chumash

A chumash is a copy of the Torah in Hebrew. It usually contains an English translation of the Torah, as well as the Hebrew and English text of the Haftarot read after the weekly Torah portion. Congregants use the chumash to follow along with the Torah and Haftarah readings during the prayer service.

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