Places and forms of worship

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What is a synagogue

The Synagogue is Jewish religious place of public worship however the main place of worship for the Jews is the home.

There are three ways of saying synagogue in Hebrew:

  • Bet ha tefilla- house of prayer
  • Bet ha Knesset- house of assembly
  • Bet ha midrash- house of study.

Some people will still call the synagogue a temple after the destruction of the original Jewish building the Temple.

The Synagogue is a building the whole community can come together in to pray, study and meet up. It has been an essential meeting place for diaspora Jews especially since the Holocaust, as it reminds them of their faith and helps them to rebuild their communities and lifes as after the holocaust many Jews lost all faith.

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Origins of the synagogue

Following the destruction of King Solomon's Temple in 586 BCE Jews met in the Bet ha midrash temporarily in order for them to study the scriptures. The first mention of a synagogue appeared in Ezekiel:

"Thus said the Lord G-d: I have indeed removed them far among the nation and have scattered them among the countries, and I have become to them a diminished sanctity (synagogue) in the countries"

The Talmud explains that this verse refers to a small portable synagogue used by the Jews when they were in exile in Babylon. The earliest known synagogue was in Egypt in  the 3rd century BCE. In the first century BCE there were synagogues in Asia, Minor, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Palestine and Rome. However the earliest ruins of a synagogue are in Masada and Herodium from the 1st century CE. In Palestine there is a 1st century BCE Greek inscription mentionioning a synagogue being used for teaching whilst the their priestly representatives were in Jerusalem, and a synagogue in Palestine has a first century inscription saying that Theodotus, son of Vettenos, built the synagogue 'for the reading of the Torah and teaching of the commandments but also built a hospice and chambers and water installations for lodging needy strangers.'

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Origins of a synagogue

King Solomon's Temple was the first built in the 10th century BCE. After its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 rebuilding didn't begin until 520 and in the end it was repaired by Herod the Great in 20 BCE. When the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple again in 70 CE it was no longer possible to make animal sacrafices so these were replaced by prayer. By this time most communities had synagogues to hold prayer services. The synagogue then became the centre of Jewish life and worship. With no more sacrafices priests were no longer needed and the rabbis  (My Master) took their place as community leaders and has been a respected title since 1st century BCE.

Uses of a synagogue

Since the Temples destruction synagogues have continued the traditions of teaching and worship from the Bet ha midrash and Bet ha tefilla but have also been an important part of the community life.

Synagogues also house the cheder (room), a religious school for Jews.

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What does a Synagogue look like?

Many synagogues are very plain buildings on the outside. Often with the only way of knowing it is a synagogue being the symbol of the Magen David (Star of David). Another symbol may be the menorah (seven branched candlestick).

There is no particular reason for the building being plain however it may be because:

  • Tradition shows the synagogue as a secondary structure to the Temple so wouldn't have been as decorative.
  • As in Eastern Europe many synagogues were converted from previous buildings for poorer communites to use, and they would have had very little money to spend on unnecessary features.
  • Also many synagogues will be plain as they don't want to draw attention to themselves incase of anti-Semitic attacks (especially after the holocaust)

Many synagogues will have stain glass windows, but they will not contain pictures of people as teachings of the second commandment forid idol worship.

Exodus: You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.

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Magen David

The earliest findings of the Magan David was in the 7th century BCE in Sindon. Inside the Capernaum synagogue buit in the 2nd/3rd century CE the Magen David is found next to a pentagram and a swastika. These are all forms of decoration.

In the beginning of the 6th century CE the Magen David was called the 'Seal of Solomon', and for a long time it was used as well as the name 'Shield of David'. The first official use of the Magen David was when the holy Roman Emperor Charles IV allowed the Jews in Prague to have their own flag. On it was the Magen David and it was called 'King David's flag'.

In the 21st century we see the Magen David on the flag of Israel but the countries symbol is the seven-branched menorah.


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Inside the synagogue

The inside of all synagogues are very similar. There are no pictures or statues in accordance to the second of the Ten Commandments:

Exodus: You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them, for I am Hashem, your G-d - a jealous G-d.

Often the synagogue will have an enterance hall with the door facing Jerusalum. The synagogue must have windows.

"...Went to the house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God, as he had always done."

The wall of the synagogue that faces Jerusalem is called the mizrach where the Aron Hakodesh, the Holy Ark is located. 

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Religious dress

There are five main parts of Jewish clothing worn by men:

  • Kippah, yamulkah, or capel- A skull cap worn all the time by Orthodox Jews as a reminder that God is omnipresent. All Jews wear it in prayer or study.
  • tefillin- In accordance with Exodus on weekdays in morning prayers (not the sabbath) men "lay tefillin". Tefillin are two small black boxes with thongs, the hand tefillah shel yad and the head-tefillah shel rosh. They both contain copies of the Shema. The shel yad is put on first with the box on the biceps of the left arm (right if you are left handed) the strap is wound around the arm seven times. Then the shel rosh is tied on the forehead above and between the eyes with a knot at the nape of the neck. the strap of the shel yad is the tied around the hand.
  • tzizit or tallit katan- This is an undergarment shaped like a tabard with fringes on it- it is visible under a shirt. Hasidic Jews wear them as outer garment.
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More male religious dress

  • tallit- the tallit is also known as the prayer shawl is worn every day at morning in prayer. It is a long fringed shawl (usually white) with black or blue stripes down it. There are fringes that make up eight strands with five knots in each corner. These fringes are called tzizit and are equal to 600 in the Hebrew numbering system:

600+8 (strands) + 5 (knots) = 613

These reppresent the 613 laws in the Torah. The tallit must be worn on Yom Kippur. It is also worn when a jewish man dies as he is buried in his tallit- the tassels are cut of to show he no longer is bound to the mitzvot.

  • kittel- A plain white robe worn on Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah and is also used in a persons buriel (it is a simple garment showing equality in death). Some Jewish communities the men will wear it at their weddings.
  • Hair- Because of the commandment not to cut the corners of their hair many Jews allow their hair to grow in front of their ears to grow down into pyres.
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Torah teachings on men's clothes

Deuteronomy 22:12 - You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.

Leviticus 19:27 - You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side growth of your beard.

Exodus 13:9 - And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead- in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth- that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 - Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our G-d, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which i charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Numbers 15:37-41 - The Lord said to Mose as follows: “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a  cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord, and observe them, so that you do not follow your hearts and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all my commandments and to be holy to your G-d. I the Lord am your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d. I, am the Lord your God.’”


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Woman's clothing

There are no particular dress requirements for women other than to dress modestly. However some Orthadox women wear a sheitel to cover their hair. This may be a scarf or a hat but in recent times people wear wigs.

Meah Shearim

Meah Shearim is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in west Jerusalem, etablished since 1874. The population is mainly Orthodox. Traditions in dress include black frock coats and on Sabbaths, festivals and special occasions such as weddings (kiddushin) black or fur-trimmed hats for men. Women wear long-sleeved modst clothing and some wear thick black stockings all year around. Married women wear headscaves.

 "To women and girls who pass through our neighbourhood. We beg you with all our hearts. Please do not pass through our neighbourhood in immodest clothes. Modest clothes include: closed blouse, with long sleeves, Long skirt, no trousers, no tight fitting clothes. Please do not disturb the sanctity of our neighbourhood. And our way of life as Jews commited to G-d and his Torah."

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The Aron Hakodesh

The Aron Hakodesh is the holy ark. It represtents the holy ark that the Israelities built at G-d's instruction to contain the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments. When the Israelites returned to the the promised land the ark was put in the Jerusalem Temple, in the Holy of Holies (Kadosh Hakadashim) the inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple at the west end of the building that is kept dark and is only entered on Yom Kippur by the High Priest.

The Ark now:

  • Contains the Sefer Torah (Torah scrolls).
  • Above and infront of it burns the Ner Tamid (the eternal light), this represents the burning lamp in the Jerusalem Temple. 
  • The front of it is covered by parochet (curtain)
  • Above or to the sides of the ark are two tablets with the Ten commandments on them.
  • On of above the parochet are the lions of Judah.
  • The Torah scrolls are wound onto two wooden rollers called the Etz Chaim (Trees of life), and are decorated with velvet covers and ornate breastplates (tas) which represtent the clothing of the High priest of the Jerusalem Temple. On top of the rollers are silver crowns and bells called rimmonim.
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Aron Hakodesh biblical teachings

Exodus: “They shall make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, overlay it inside and out - and make upon it a gold molding round about. Cast four gold rings for it, to be attached to its four feet, two rings on one of its side walls and two on the other. Make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold; Then insert the poles into the rings on the side walls of the ark, for carrying the ark. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it. And deposit in the Ark (the tablets of) the Pact which I will give you.

“You shall make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Make two cherubim of gold - Make the hammered work - at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub on the other end; of one piece with the cover you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim are being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Pact that I will give you. There, I will meet with you, and I will impart to you -  from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact - all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

Genesis: Judah is a lion's whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouche, lies down like a lion, Like the King of beasts, who dare rouse him?

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Inside the synagogue

On the ark covering there is often a seven branched candlestick embroidered on it called the menorah. This represents the candlestick in the Jerusalem Temple. The seven branched menorah is different to the nine branched one used on Hanukkah  which  is called a Hanukiah.

The readers desk (shulchan) is straight in front of the Ark, as in the Talmud, the prayer leader is called the 'yored lifnei ha-tevah' he who goes down before the ark. The Torah itself is read from the Bimah a raised platform in the middle of the synagogue (so the entire congregation can hear them speak) it is surrounded by safety rails. 

Before the scrolls are read they're removed from the Ark processed around the synagogue and the undressed and placed on the platform. While reading the scroll the reader uses a yad (a silver pointer shaped like a hand) to follow the script, this is to avoid the scrolls being touched. When the Torah reading is finished it is redressed (hanging the yad over the top of the rollers) and returned directly to the Ark.

In Orthodox synagogues men and woman sit apart there is a mehitzah (partition) which separates their areas. Sometimes woman will sit upstairs in the Weibershul. This is because of the Talmud teachings of men and woman sitting separately for festivals. Woman do not take part in the service so they are upstairs just watching and listening. Most Progressive Jews will now sit together and share roles in the service.

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Beyond the prayer hall

As well as the prayer hall there is also other rooms as not only is a synagogue a Bet ha tefilla (house of prayer) but also a Bet ha midrash- study and Bet ha knesset- assembly. There will be:

  • Offices
  • Meeting rooms
  • A kitchen
  • A cheder room
  • Orthodox synagogues have mikveh (ritual baths)

A cheder room is where Jewish children are taughton Sunday mornings and evenings. They shall learn about Jewish historyand beliefs and will learn to read in Hebrew (especially in Bar Mitzvah preparations).

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Worship in a synagogue

  • The service is printed in a book called the Siddur. 
  • Each Shabbat the sermon is given by a rabbi (a Jewish teacher) he isn't a priest as there have been none since the Temples destruction. A rabbis is chosen by the local community to lead them. A group of rabbis form the Beth Din (Jewish court) for the area. The Beth Din are incharge of issues with Jewish law (mainly food) it also plays a part in divorce and conversion.
  • The service will have a chazan incharge of readings and singing, he is an official of the synagogue. 
  • For a service to take place 10 adult males are needed to form the minyan
  • The congregation will pray, sing and they may also be called up to read part of the scrolls (a great honour)

Synagogue services are one of the greatest strengths of Judaism. Particularly in areas where there are very few Jews, it provides them with an opportunity for the community to come together (at least once a week) and gives them a chance to worship and strengthen and teach their beliefs.

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Practices and beliefs of the synagogue service

  • Talliot are wornonly on the evening service of Yom Kippur.
  • Orthodox synagogue will speak almost entirly in Hebrew however Reform and Liberal Progressive will speak parts in English.
  • Mainly Prayers and Torah readings (all of which is read at sabbath services throughout the year)
  • Services held also on Mondays and Thursdays with Torah readings

Shabbat service mornings:

  • Morning blessings of thanksgiving
  • Blessings and psalms, ending with the Song of Moses
  • The Shema 
  • Amidah or standing prayer
  •  Torah service- scrolls are taken out processed and the weekly reading is read followed by the reading from the Prophets the Haftarah.
  • Musaf- additional service for the Sabbath
  • Aleynu - praises to G-d, then psalms and hymns
  • (Some communities) Kiddush a blessing the congregation say over wine and challot which are then shared.
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Worship in the home

The Jewish home is very important and the centre of Jewish worship. Friday evening shabbat ceremonies take place at home as does Havdalah.Many festivals take place at home (pesach and sukkot) and the Jewish home has constant reminders of their faith.

  • The Kitchen will been a Kosher kitchen  
  • A small cylinder called the mezuzah shall be on the doorposts of every room (except the bathroom) which has the shema written on it. As they pass they will touch the mezuzah and put their fingers to their lips
  • There will be candlesticks 
  • A kiddush cup for Shabbat
  • Many Jews will have an undeccorated unfinished peice of wall to represent the destruction of the Jerusalum Temple
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All male Jews are required to pray three times a day:

  • evening: ma-ariv
  • afternoon:mincha
  • early morning: shacharit

All prayers are said facing east towards Jerusalem. Not all prayers shall be formal some shall be spontaneous to thank G-d.

Jews will study the Tenakh at home individually as well as to teach their children and discuss with each other, and passages from siddur are read before and after each meal.

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Purity and the mikveh

The laws of Niddah play a huge role in the Jewish life.

Mikveh are ritual baths, every synagogue should have them. It is a pool of natural water in which people can bathe to be ritually pure.

There may also be a seperate mikveh when cooking pots must be made pure for kosher cooking. 

Each mikveh should contain at lest 40 se'ah (between 250 and 1000 litres) of natural water- could be stream or rain water.

Woman must visit the Mikveh at the end of their peoriod to clean themselves before they are allowed to have a sexual relationship. It is also used at Yom kippur and to convert people.

"Then i shall sprinkle pure water upon you, that you may become cleansed."

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Miss KHP


If your exam board covers Judaism, these are really detailed notes to help you understand it better. Nice and clearly laid out.

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