House of Assembly, House of Study, House of Prayer
The Hebrew name for a synagogue is "Beit Knesset" which means House of Assembly. It also goes by the names "Beit Midrash" (House of Study) and "Beit Tefilah" (House of Prayer). The three terms refer to the three fundament functions of the synagogue:
- House of Assembly: The synagogue is a meeting place for Jews, where they share the important facets of their lives with one another and achieve a sense of community. Judaism is a communal religion; the most important events take place in the presence of other people. Priority is given to the community and its needs and it is incumbent upon the individual to make the needs of the community his/her priority. What is more, individuals are supported by the community, and this happens most effectively when people come together with one another. The synagogue is the place where people meet to pray, study, celebrate, mourn, and socialize. Today, the synagogue is the hub of the Jewish community, the place where Jews come to be together for a variety of reasons, ranging from prayer and study to socializing.
- House of Study: The chief function of the synagogue is to serve as a study house. The study of Torah and other sacred books is the backbone of Jewish observance. Study is a form of worship. It is through study that we come to know ourselves, God, and plumb the depths of our relationship with God. It is important that people study with other people, because when we study in groups, more ideas are generated and exchanged, new interpretations are born, and learning increases far beyond what any of us could accomplish sitting alone and study by ourselves. Educational programs for Jews of all ages -- from infants to the elderly -- abound in synagogues today because learning is a lifelong Jewish commitment.
- House of Prayer: Another function of the synagogue is to serve as the locus where people meet for prayer. Judaism mandates prayer three times each day. A minyan (quorum of 10 adults) is required to hold a full prayer service because the priority of community is so strong in Judaism. Hence a central meeting place facilitates communal prayer services. Prayer, like study, are a mode of worship, a way to serve God. Prayer also binds the community together, and serves the individual's spiritual needs. Today, the synagogue is the locus for most prayer services, with the exception of shiva minyanim (prayer services convened in the home of someone who is sitting shiva -- the first seven days of mourning following the death of a loved one). Since prayer services incorporate study and celebration, the three functions of the synagogue reflected in the three names, come together.
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