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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Synagogue

Republished July 27, 2011

The bimah of the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. has the flavor of a particular place and time. Construction on the synagogue began in 1906 and the architect was Louis Levi. The holy ark is closed (the curtain is behind the doors). A stained-glass window behind the ark features a Star of David and a menorah. There are two menorahs on the sides of the bimah, a ner tamid (eternal light) hanging in front of it, the Ten Commandments above it, and the Hebrew phrase under the ner tamid means "Know before whom you stand." Photo reprinted with the congregation's permission.

Are you nervous because you just received your first invitation to attend services at a synagogue and you have no idea what to expect? Or have you been to a few services over the years, but nobody took the time to explain to you why that Gothic-looking lamp was hanging from the ceiling or why those scary lions were featured so prominently on the wall in plain sight of all the children? This quick guide will give you the basics you need for deciphering the architecture and decorative art in synagogues.

Though they are inanimate buildings, synagogues ("shuls" in Yiddish) are essentially created in the image of their occupants. This means that just as there are many types of Jews, there are also many types of synagogues.

mezuzah photo by Daniel Lobo
A mezuzah on the outer doorframe of a house or synagogue in London. Photo: Flickr/Daniel Lobo.

A dedicated minority of Jews prays in synagogue three times a day and some Orthodox synagogues function mostly as houses of worship. Conservative synagogues and Reform temples (named after the biblical Temple) may host services only on holidays and on Friday evening and Saturday morning for Shabbat. Depending on whether they are full-time prayer spaces, and also on the size of the congregation and the building, some synagogue buildings double as community, educational and cultural centers.

In addition to these denominational differences that affect how a congregation uses its building, you may see different kinds of art and architecture according to the age of the synagogue and what style was popular when it was built. Other factors in synagogue appearance are where the congregants' families came from and the architectural style of the city.

Ner Tamid Havurat Shalom
This ner tamid or eternal light hangs at Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass. Photo: Jesse Edsell-Vetter, used by special permission.

Whatever the Jewish denomination, you will find certain elements in almost every synagogue. When you walk through the door, you may notice a mezuzah attached to the door frame. A mezuzah (Hebrew for "door post," as per Deuteronomy 11:20) generally looks like a rectangular, decorated case, which includes a scroll inside with two texts from Deuteronomy, including the foundational text, the Shema ("hear"). Jewish artists are always reinterpreting the mezuzah, and mezuzot (plural) can have very different colors, shapes, sizes and designs. There is a Jewish folk custom for people reach out and touch the mezuzah and then kiss their fingers. Feel free to do so if you are comfortable, but it is certainly not a mandatory prerequisite to synagogue entry. Many Jews also put mezuzot on the door frames of their own homes, so they are not exclusive to synagogues.

If you have been invited to an Orthodox synagogue, expect to find an architectural feature that you won't see in other synagogues: a mechitzah, from the Hebrew "chetz," or "half", a barrier separating the men's and the women's sections. The barriers are typically made of cloth, wooden planks or glass. In some older synagogues, women may sit up on a balcony, or behind a wall so high that the separation is very dramatic, but I have seen more creative interpretations like rows of small trees. The mechitzah, whatever the material, is meant to both allow worshippers to focus exclusively on their prayers without sexual distraction and to symbolize the different spheres men and women occupy in Orthodox communities. In some synagogues, men and women access the building through separate entrances, while others have only one entrance and men and women simply seat themselves in different parts of the room.

open aron Moroccan synagogue
The aron kodesh (holy ark) at a synagogue in Casablanca, Morocco with the curtain open and Torah scrolls displayed. Photo: Flickr/dlisbona

Reform and many Conservative houses of worship generally have mixed seating, so no mechitzot (plural) are necessary. This does not mean Conservative and Reform Jews would rather be distracted during prayer services, but that they value egalitarianism. Some older synagogue buildings reflect a historical shift in the congregation's ideas about family seating, so there may be a balcony where women used to sit separately where men and women now sit together.

Unlike churches, which often are designed according to certain styles (like Gothic), synagogues can look very different, but once inside, you will notice certain common motifs.

The focal part of the room is the aron kodesh or holy ark, which is essentially a closet that holds the Torah scrolls. A large curtain, called the parochet (named for the curtains that hung in the Tabernacle and the biblical Temple), covers the ark and is often lavishly decorated.

The aron stands on an elevated platform called a bimah (perhaps from the Hebrew bamah or "elevated altar"), which is often where the rabbi and synagogue leaders sit. Bimot (plural) might also support poles with the local country's flag and an Israeli flag. A ner tamid ("eternal flame,"), which symbolizes the eternal fire on the Tabernacle's altar per Leviticus 6:6, hangs down beside or in front of the ark. In many synagogues the bimah is like a stage, but in some, the bimah is in the middle of the room, which is where the chazzan or cantor reads the Torah.

tablet with lions
Two lions of Judah holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments on the outside of Congregation Shaare Zion, a synagogue in Montreal. Photo: Flickr/Colin Rose.

The Torah itself, as an object, is the focus of the synagogue services in which it is read. The scroll is still handwritten in Hebrew letters on parchment from a kosher animal as it has been for centuries. Many Torah scrolls are wrapped in heavily decorated mantles, which often contain the same sorts of design elements as the parochet. They also have silver crowns and other adornments, including the yad (Hebrew for "hand"), which is a pointer that the Torah reader uses to follow along while they read since the scroll itself is holy and should not be handled directly. Sephardic synagogues have an entirely different tradition of Torah design, and their Torah scrolls are contained in heavily decorated cases rather than mantles.

Many first-time synagogue visitors might be surprised to see so much representational art in the synagogue, since popular misconception holds that Jews consider naturalistic forms to be idolatrous. This is not a new development; some of the earliest synagogues in existence have been found to have figural art. The third century synagogue Dura-Europos, located in present day Syria, and the sixth century synagogue Beit Alpha are heavily illuminated, even with depictions of the Zodiac symbols.

Stained glass windows with tribe symbols designed by Arthur Szyk in Tifereth Israel/The Temple Cleveland. Photo: Flickr/Stu Spivak.

Many of the symbols that appear in today's synagogues and temples have biblical relevance, connecting the present-day synagogue experience with the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, current Jews with the Twelve Tribes of Israel or the experience of reading the weekly Torah portion with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The aron and the parcochet are often adorned with lions, which symbolize the regal tribe of Judah, whose emblem was the lion cub. Other images that might appear are crowns (the so-called keter Torah or crown of the Torah), pillars (from Solomon's temple, or artistic symbols of fortitude), olive branches (for peace) or the six-pointed-star, the Magen David (literally, "shield of David," but also the Star of David).

Some modern synagogues have artwork that looks like flames to symbolize either the burning bush or the eternal light. Another element that might appear is a tree, which is the etz chaim ("tree of life") from the Garden of Eden. The Torah is sometimes called a tree of life in Jewish liturgy.

Another popular Jewish symbol that synagogue designers often place on or over the ark is a form like an elongated McDonald's logo representing the two tablets of the 10 Commandments which Moses received on Mount Sinai. The tablet shape may have the Hebrew letters beginning each of the commandments, or abstract forms.

Another design element in many synagogues is the emblems of the 12 tribes, the 12 sons of Jacob. These may be on twelve windows or twelve embroideries. Each tribe mentioned in the Torah has symbols associated with it:

  1. Reuven (Reuben): a flower (a fertility plant that the eldest son brought to his mother Leah)
  2. Shimon (Simeon): a fortress (the city of Shechem, which Shimon conquered with Levi)
  3. Levi: a breastplate with precious stones (worn by Levi's descendants, the priests), or the menorah (the seven-branch candelabrum lit by Levi's children)
  4. Judah: a lion (which symbolizes Judah's royal descendants)
  5. Yissachar (Issachar): a donkey (which bears the heavy burden of the Torah, like Yissachar's children who were teachers)
  6. Zebulun: a boat (for merchants)
  7. Dan: a balance (dan means "judgment")
  8. Naftali: a deer (for its speed)
  9. Gad: a tent (of a military platoon)
  10. Asher: an olive tree (for Asher's portion in Israel was fertile)
  11. Yosef (Joseph): a bundle of wheat (part of Joseph's first dream)
  12. Binyamin (Benjamin): a wolf (for its fierceness)


There are some variations to this formula, and some artists swap symbols. Dan, for example, could be a snake (for his military role attacking the enemy's flanks like a snake bites people's ankles), and Joseph is sometimes split between his two sons Menashe and Ephraim, each of which carries its own emblems. The tribal symbols could appear in stained-glass windows or banners; the most famous ones are Marc Chagall's glass windows in the chapel at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. Hebrew for "holy cupboard" or "holy closet," a name for the ark, a structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue. Hebrew for "shield of David," it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. A divider (such as a curtain or barrier) that separates men and women at prayer. Hebrew for "cantor," a member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Plural form of "mezuzah" (Hebrew for "doorpost"), it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. 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 "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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. 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. Hebrew for "hear," the first word and name of the central Jewish prayer and statement of faith. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker is a Washington, D.C.-based writer (mwecker@gmail.com) and blogs on religion and art at http://Iconia.canonist.com.

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