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Definition: synagogue from Philip's Encyclopedia

Place of assembly for Jewish worship, education and cultural development. Synagogues serve as communal centres, under the leadership of a rabbi, and house the Ark of the Covenant. The first synagogue buildings date from the 3rd century bc but may go back to the destruction (586 BC) of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.


Summary Article: synagogue from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide
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Image from: Interior of a Jewish Synagogue in The Bridgeman Art Library Archive

In Judaism, a place of worship, study, and gathering; in the USA a synagogue is also called a temple by the non-Orthodox. As an institution it dates from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, though it had been developing from the time of the Babylonian exile as a substitute for the Temple. In antiquity it was a public meeting hall where the Torah was also read, but today it is used primarily for prayer and services. A service requires a quorum (minyan) of ten adult Jewish men.

A synagogue will not have any statues or pictures, because these may be seen as graven images. The holy ark (aron hakodesh) is a sacred ornamented cupboard or enclosure, containing the Sefer Torahs (elaborately dressed Torah scrolls handwritten in the original Hebrew). It faces the Temple in Jerusalem, which housed the original Ark. The synagogue contains a raised platform (bimah) from which the service is conducted, with pews or seats for the high priests; those who approach the bimah are said to ‘go up’ to the Torah. There is a pulpit for sermons. The rest of the congregation sits or stands facing the ark and bimah. Two tablets above the ark are inscribed with the Ten Commandments. In Orthodox synagogues women are segregated, either in a balcony or behind the men, as a reminder that women sat in their own courtyard in the Temple.

A synagogue may have several, beautifully adorned Sefer Torahs kept in its ark. The ark is closed with an ornately decorated parochet (curtain) of satin or velvet. Above the ark hangs the ner tamid (eternal light) which never goes out, symbolizing God's eternal presence, the guiding light of the Torah, and the light that burned in the Temple. Nearby will be the menorah, a seven-branched candlestick; the nine-branched hanukkiah is used during the festival of Hanukkah.

The synagogue will be used as a community centre and place of study. Prayers take place every morning to begin the day with God, in the afternoon to stop one's involvement with work and return to God, and in the evening to thank God for the day. There are special services for the Sabbath (Shabbat), on new moons, and at holy festivals. Men wear their kapel (skull cap) and say a berachah prayer before putting on their tallit (prayer shawl); women cover their heads with a hat or scarf.

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The Synagogue

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man with Torah

synagogue, Tbilisi

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