Visiting a Synagogue

What will you see when you visit a synagogue? How is it appropriate to behave? Many people ask these questions because they are nervous about their first visit to a synagogue. I don't want you to feel nervous, scared, or uncomfortable. A synagogue is a house of God, a place to feel God's presence, worship, and join a community in prayer. The following guide is intended to help you feel comfortable when you visit a synagogue. Customs and traditions vary from congregation to congregation, so I will keep the comments general.

Here are the rules, quick and easy:

What You'll See

When you enter the synagogue, you will see the Ark on the eastern wall. It contains the Sifrei Torah, parchment scrolls on which the Torah (Five Books of Moses, also known as the Chumash or Pentateuch) is written. The Ark has a curtain and often doors, as well.

Suspended over the Ark is our Ner Tamid (eternal light). Its flame recalls the pillar of fire which accompanied our ancestors in their travels through the Wilderness of Sinai on their way to the Land of Israel. An eternal light stood outside our ancestors' Temple to God in Jerusalem, signifying the eternal nature of the Jewish Covenant with God. You will find a Ner Tamid burning perpetually in front of every Ark in every synagogue throughout the world.

Also over the Ark will be a symbolic representation of the Tablets of the Covenant which tradition teaches that Moses brought down Mount Sinai.

The raised platform from which the Torah is read is called the bima (meaning "high place"). According to tradition, we read the Torah from an elevated platform to signify our respect for its holiness.

You will most likely be given two books. The first is called a siddur (prayer book) and it contains the liturgy which will be used. The siddur includes both Hebrew and English. Most siddurim (plural of siddur) open from right to left, the correct direction for Hebrew. The rabbi will announce the\ pages as the service progresses. Many of the prayers are sung, for music is a natural human language for prayer. Some prayers are recited privately and silently, others communally. For some prayers we stand, because of their importance, and for some we sit. The rabbi will announce these things as the service progresses. It is appropriate for all visitors to stand when the congregation stands, and sit when the congregation sits.

What People Wear

In most synagogues, it is customary for people to cover their heads as a sign of respect for God and acknowledgement that there is something "above" us in the universe. Head coverings, called kippot, are available in the back of the sanctuary. Those who are over the age of 13 often wear a tallit (prayer shawl) which has special ritual fringes (called tzitzit) on the corners. The Torah commands Jews to wear fringes on the corners of their garments as a reminder of God's commandments. Wearing the tallit helps the worshiper concentrate better on prayer. Non-Jewish visitors do not wear the tallit.

About the Torah Service

Every Jewish prayer service contains a study segment. For Jews, study is a form of worship. On Shabbat, our study includes reading from the Torah in public. The Torah is divided into sections (called Torah portions), with one or two assigned to each week of the year. In this way, we cycle through the entire Torah in a year. Each Torah portion is approximately three or four biblical chapters long. A number of people will be honored by being called to the Torah for an aliyah to bless the Torah while it is being read. When the reading is completed, the congregation will be asked to stand as the Torah is lifted for everyone to see the section which has just been read. The Torah reading is followed by a Haftarah reading. The Haftarah portions are passages from the books of the prophets which are chosen because they are thematically related to the Torah portion. There is a Haftarah portion assigned to each Torah portion. Following the Torah and Haftarah readings, we have a D'var Torah, when the Rabbi or Bar/Bat Mitzvah gives an explanation or commentary on the Torah.

About Children in the Synagogue

Children are welcome in the synagogue. They should not be expected to sit for hours throughout a long service. It is perfectly acceptable for them to walk out to stretch their legs now and then and talk with friends. Many synagogues provide babysitting for young children and have playgrounds. I have found that books and quiet toys (puzzles, lego) are excellent for keeping young children amused and engaged in synagogue. Every now and then you will run into someone from the "children should be seen and not heard" school. If your child is behaving properly, don't let such people bother you.


A nosh will be served after the service. On Friday evenings, it is called Oneg Shabbat (the joy of Shabbat) and on Saturday there will be a Kiddush, which might be a snack or a luncheon. Please wait until the blessings are recited before eating, and then help yourself and enjoy!

Recommended Reading

"How to Be a Perfect Stranger"(volume 1) edited by Arthur J. Magida (Jewish Lights Publishing Company).

Who's Who
What's What and Some Hows
Books Used in the Synagogue
Liturgical (Prayer) Tunes
History of the Synagogue
The Torah Scroll and its Ornaments
Structure of the Synagogue Service
What are Some of the Things That Happen in a Synagogue?
How to Have an Aliyah to the Torah
Visiting a Synagogue
What Does the Sanctuary Look Like?
Photo Gallery of Bimas and Arks
Jonah's Picture of the Ark
Click-Me Tour of the Synagogue