Synagogue Symbolism

Bimah and Ark

Symbolism in the Synagogue

THE ARK (Aron HaKodesh)

The repository of the sacred scrolls of the Torah (The Five Books of Moses). Though the Holy of Holies in the Temple in ancient Jerusalem was out of bounds to everyone, except the high priest on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), the synagogue Ark is accessible to all.

Members of the congregation are called upon to open and close the parochet (decorative curtain) and to take out and replace the scroll/s designated for reading. During prayer the congregation face the Ark, which is built facing Jerusalem. Knowledge of God's word is a duty for every Jew. The Torah is "our life and the length of our days". No part of Judaism is locked away; the synagogue makes Jewish knowledge available to everybody. Hence the Torah reading was originally shared amongst the congregation, but to avoid embarrassing those whose Hebrew is poor, the reading is now carried out by an expert with members of the congregation standing by. Facing Jerusalem during prayer unites Jewish congregations and emphasizes the centrality of Israel in Jewish thought.

Torah Scroll processionTHE TORAH SCROLLS

All the scrolls are identical in content. Written by hand on parchment by a sofer (expert scribe), each scroll is in square Hebrew letters without vowels or punctuation, so that reading it is an art. Depending on custom, each scroll has a protective fabric cover or wooden or metal case, together with a yad (pointer) and usually an ornamental breastplate, and is topped with bells or a crown. Scrolls and all religious books containing God's name, are treated with great respect. If they become illegible or otherwise unusable, they are given respectful burial. If a Torah scroll is accidentally dropped it is a tragedy and is atoned for by a fast.

Bimah and Ner Tamid

THE BIMAH (reading platform)

Sometimes called almemar (from the Arabic for "platform"), the bimah was, at one period, used only for the Torah readings, with the prayers being recited from a lectern on a lower level (Psalm 130:1 says, "Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord"). The bimah is elevated and is traditionally located near the center of the synagogue to allow the congregation to hear clearly. In some congregations the bimah is like a stage near the Ark. Every member of the congregation must focus on the Scriptural readings. The central location of the bimah recalls the centrality of the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai (when the Israelites were on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land), when the people surrounded the Sanctuary. Grouping the congregation around the bimah emphasises the democracy of Judaism. The Torah belongs to every Jew.

 

THE NER TAMID (eternal light)

Light is a religious symbol: Suspended above the Ark is the Ner Tamid which recalls the light that burned in the Temple. * God is our light (Psalm 27:1) *His commands are our lamp (Proverbs 6:23) *Israel is called a light to the nations (Isaiah 43:6)

INSCRIPTIONS

Synagogues have an abbreviated Hebrew version of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21) in a prominent position near the Ark. Other Hebrew inscriptions generally include the following: *"I have set the Lord before me always" (Psalm 16:8) *"Know before whom you stand" (Talmud) There are usually also boards giving details of the week's readings and of special features of the service. From the synagogue, worshippers take out into the world the moral principles by which human beings should live. Both in the synagogue and wherever they go, Jews must remember they are in God's presence and act accordingly.

THE PULPIT

Sermons in the vernacular (sometimes in a Jewish language like Yiddish or Ladino) have been part of Judaism from ancient times. They expound the Torah readings and apply Jewish insights to contemporary problems. The rabbi, who is not a priest or spiritually superior to any other Jew, is the community's scholar in residence, whose main task is to expound the tradition.

Chanukiah in front of bimah

THE LIGHTS

In some synagogues, the form of lighting is historic - e.g. candelabra in the Bevis Marks Synagogue built in London in 1701. Sometimes the light fittings recall Jewish symbols, e.g. the 7-branched menorah (lamp stand) in the Temple. Every synagogue has at least one chanukiah, a 9-branched candelabrum or oil lamp used for the festival of Chanukkah. Synagogues must be well lit to enable the congregation to read the prayer book and Scriptures. The lighting, like all the synagogue decor, helps to create an atmosphere of joy and devotion.

THE CHOIR ROOM OR GALLERY

Orthodox synagogues do not use instrumental music on Sabbaths and festivals, but there may be a choir to lead the congregational singing. Few traces remain of ancient Jewish melody, but over the centuries prayer modes have developed for every occasion in the year. Choral singing uses the works of many modern composers. Music arouses the heart and soul to spiritual emotions. The absence of instrumental music, though it was allowed in the Temple, is a reminder that the Temple has not yet been rebuilt.

THE SEATING

Special seats are usually designated for the rabbi and cantor, and for the elected lay leaders. In orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately, with a mechitzah (division) between them. In many places there is a women's gallery. Orthodox services are conducted by men, with acknowledgement of the spirituality of women. Men and women are equal in the sight of God but men tend to have synagogal roles while women have religious responsibilities with the home and family. Most synagogues have fixed seating with nameplates identifying the person whose seat it is. Jewish law requires a person to have a regular place of prayer. This identifies the worshipper as a member of the congregation and assists concentration on the service by creating a sense of familiarity with one's section of the synagogue.

CLEANLINESS

The synagogue must be kept clean and tidy. Books and religious appurtenances must not be left lying around. Worshippers must dress neatly and wash their hands before prayer. Respect for the place of worship symbolizes respect for God and religion. Psalm 24:3 says "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place? He that has clean hands and a pure heart."

Crotchet KippahHEAD COVERING AND PRAYER SHAWL

Men and boys cover their heads usually with a kippah (skull cap) during worship. Married women also cover their hair. Men (and in many places, boys also) wear a tallit (fringed prayer shawl) at morning services, as commanded in Numbers 15:37-41. Headcovering is a mark of humility and modesty. The tallit is like a uniform; every Jew (despite different colours and sizes of their tallit) is of equal religious rank.

DECORATIONS

There are no images, icons or statues, and no representation of God or the human form in the synagogue. Occasionally there will be decorations based on Jewish religious motifs (the Ten Commandments, menorah, etc.). Lions may possibly figure on the Ark curtain or Torah ornaments, since the lion is the badge of the tribe of Judah, from which come the names Jews and Judaism. God has no physical form. Jews do not accord Divine status to any human being. Religious motifs intensify the congregation's loyalty to the tradition. Synagogues often have 12 windows representing the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. The windows of the synagogue symbolically allow the light of faith to shine on the world outside.