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Sample Guide to Sanctuary and Customs #1

Return to Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ideas and Primer for Interfaith Families.


Unique Features in a Jewish Sanctuary

The following are architectural or symbolic objects that you may notice in a synagogue.

The Pews (Congregational Seating)

Everyone, Jew or gentile, is invited to enter and attend services. Sit wherever you like.

The Bima (Pulpit)

Bima literally means "high place." The bima is the focus of most ritual activities in the synagogue.

The Ark (Aron Hakodesh)

The ark is the repository of the Torah scrolls and is the central object on the bima. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.

The Eternal Light (Ner Tamid)

Hanging from the top of the ark is an electric light that is never extinguished. This "eternal light" symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.


Many synagogues have a candelabra on the bima to commemorate the seven-branched gold candelabra that stood in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and was lit each night to provide light for the priests during their evening duties.

Memorial Plaques and Lights

It is a Jewish custom to secure a memorial plaque for a departed family member, often on a wall in the sanctuary. The light next to the memorial plaque is illuminated each year during the week of the anniversary of a person's passing.

The Flags

Many American synagogues display two flags in the sanctuary, an American and an Israeli flag. The Israeli flag, adopted at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, represents the entire Jewish people. In the center is the six-sided star traditionally associated with the Jewish people, and the blue stripes above and below the star represent the stripes of the tallit. The Jewish tradition also requires Jews to be loyal to the country in which they live and to pray for its welfare, hence the American flag, representing the loyalty of the American Jewish community.

Participants in the Service

The Rabbi

"Rabbi" means teacher. The major function of a rabbi is to instruct and guide in the study and practice of Judaism. A rabbi's authority is based solely on learning.

The Cantor

A cantor has undergone years of study and training in liturgy and sacred music. The cantor leads the congregation in Hebrew prayer.

The "Emissary of the Congregation" (Shaliach Tzibbur)

The shaliach tzibbur is the leader of congregational prayers, be it the cantor or another congregant. Every Jewish prayer service, whether on a weekday, Shabbat, or festival, is chanted in a special musical mode and pattern. The shaliach tzibbur must be skilled in these traditional musical modes and familiar with the prayers. Any member of the congregation above the age of bar/bat mitzvah who is familiar with the prayers and melodies may serve as shaliach tzibbur.

The Gabbai

The gabbai, or sexton, attends to the details of organizing the worship service. The gabbai finds a shaliach tzibbur, assigns aliyot, and ensures that the Torah is read correctly.

The Laity

Members of the congregation may participate in all synagogue functions and leadership roles. Any knowledgeable Jew is permitted and encouraged to lead the prayers, receive an aliyah, read from the Torah, and chant the Haftarah.

Excerpted from What a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest Needs to Know, by Rabbi Daniel Kohn. Reprinted with permission from


The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ideas and Primer for Interfaith Families is also available as a PDF document.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") The plural version of the Hebrew word "aliyah." Meaning "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Is a Hebrew word, sometimes used interchangeably with the Hebrew word "shamash," used to describe a person who assists in the running of synagogue services in some way. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "cupboard" or "closet," it usually refers to the ark, a structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn is Rabbi-in-Residence at Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, California, a proud father and author of Kinesethic Kabbalah: Spiritual Practices from Martial Arts and Jewish Mysticism.

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