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  1. Plural of synagogue

Extensive Definition

A synagogue (from Greek: , transliterated synagogē, "assembly"; beit knesset, "house of assembly"; or beit tefila, "house of prayer", shul; , 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 — ("House of Study").
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. 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.
The destruction of Solomon's Temple, and later the Second Temple, and the dispersion of the Jews into the Jewish diaspora, threatened the nation's focus and unity. At the time of the Babylonian captivity the Men of the Great Assembly began the process of formalizing and standardizing Jewish services and prayers that would 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, according to many historians. Under Orthodox Jewish law whenever any group of ten men comes together, they form a minyan, and are eligible to conduct public prayer services—usually, but not necessarily, in a synagogue. Note that a synagogue is not in the strictest sense a temple; it does not replace the true, long since destroyed, Solomon's Temple. A synagogue is not necessary for collective worship.
In Eastern Europe synagogues were established by like-minded groups of people. Such a synagogue was known as a kloiz, and was often delineated by the professions of its worshippers: e.g. "the tailors' kloiz," the "water-carriers' kloiz," etc. One kloiz that still bears that name today is the Breslov kloiz built by Nathan of Breslov in the city of Uman, Ukraine in 1834. Today, this kloiz has been supplanted by a "new kloiz" built to accommodate the thousands of worshippers at the annual Breslover Rosh Hashana kibbutz (prayer gathering).

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 loooked very like Chinese temples of that region and era, with its outer wall and open garden in which several buildings weere 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 even Egyptian Revival synagogues. 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 were always modest buildings using the inexpensive vernacular architecture of their era and region, and 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 contains the following features:
  • An ark – called the Aron Kodesh – ארון קודש, the Holy Ark by Ashkenazim and heikhal – היכל [temple] by Sephardim – where the Torah scrolls are kept.
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 - , 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 read and from where the services are conducted in Sephardi synagogues.
  • A continually-lit lamp or lantern, usually electric, called the (), 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 - (Hebrew for "post" or "column") facing the Ark where the Hazzan stands while leading the prayer service.
  • A partition () 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, the synagogue interior was laid out with both a spiritual and a communal focus. In an Ashkenazi synagogue, all seats faced the (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 , 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 less than 100 synagogues worldwide. In keeping with a Reconstructionist Jewish spirit of liberalism, Reconstructionist synagogues are not as traditionalist as Conservative Judaism in the design of the synagogue 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 (, pl. or , Yiddish for "little house") that is frequently used by and preferred by Hasidic and Haredi Jews. A 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 chabura (חבורה, pl. chaburot, 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 chaburot and dined together to ensure that none of the food was unfit for consumption.

World's largest synagogues

  • The largest synagogue in the world is the New Beit Midrash of Ger in Jerusalem, Israel. The main sanctuary seats over 8,500.
  • The second largest synagogue in the world is the Belz World Center, also in Jerusalem, Israel, whose main Sanctuary seats 6,000. Construction took 16 years.

Famous synagogues

  • 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. Synagogues have also been discovered in Egypt and on the island of Delos which predate the synagogue at Masada.
  • The oldest active synagogue 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. During Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis in Germany and Austria destroyed or significantly damaged 1,574 synagogues, which included many of the greatest synagogues of Europe. Many were also destroyed or fell into disrepair during the Nazis' conquest of Europe, during which many Jewish communities were wiped out.
  • The Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in Recife, Brazil, was the first Jewish temple erected in the Americas, in 1636. Its foundations have been recently discovered, and the temple was entirely recovered. The synagogue appeared during the government of Dutch John Maurice of Nassau in Northeastern Brazil and it was built by Portuguese Jews that came from Europe with him. They used to live in Holland since they were ordered to leave the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain by the end of the 15th century. A few decades after their arrival in Recife, the Portuguese Inquisition started a new era of persecutions against Jews, who had to leave again. Those people were among the ones who founded the city of New Amsterdam, in North America, later called New York.
  • The Bialystoker Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side, 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.

Selected images of synagogues

Amsterdam Esnoga Synagogue in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. image:Istanbul_Ashkenazi_Sinagogue_Interior.JPG|The Ashkenazi Synagogue of Istanbul, Turkey. The synagogue was founded in the year 1900. Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, New York City, United States of America.


  • The Ancient Synagogue - The First Thousand Years
synagogues in Tosk Albanian: Synagoge
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synagogues in Simple English: Synagogue
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