The Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark) is what makes the worship space a synagogue. Most any room can be used for prayer, and Jew frequently pray in the study hall or someone's home (as in the case of a shiva minyan, held to enable a mourner to recite Kaddish). A room with a permanent Ark is a synagogue. The Ark contains at least one Torah scroll, a handwritten scroll containing the Five Books of Moses (called in Hebrew the Chumash; also known as the Pentateuch in English). Many congregations own several scrolls. It is a great honor to be able to give the synagogue a Torah scroll as a gift. The presence of the Ark renders the room sacred space. Often, other objects will be stored in the ark, as well, including a Megillah (the Scroll of Esther read on Purim), perhaps a Havdalah set (including the candle and spice box used for the ceremony concluding Shabbat) and occasionally a shofar (the ram's horn blown on Rosh Hashanah). Storing these items in the Ark is a matter of convenience. The essential thing is the Sefer Torah (scroll of Torah).

The Ark is a reminder of the Ark which housed the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai and which was housed first in the temporary, portable wilderness Tabernacle, and later installed in the Kodesh Kodashim (the Holy of Holies) in the Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon, the son of King David. The first ark held the original stone tablets inscribed by God; a synagogue ark houses the handwritten parchment scrolls on which the Torah is carefully and lovingly inscribed by a human scribe in reverence for God.

Whenever the ark is opened, the congregation is expected to stand. The congregation prays facing the ark; the ark faces Jerusalem. Thus, all Jews face Jerusalem when they pray. For Jews, Jerusalem is the spiritual center of the universe. Historically, the Land of Israel is the locus of our life as a people and the site where the Temple of Solomon (destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.), and the subsequent Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. stood. Jerusalem continues to be the spiritual center of the Jewish world.

Ner Tamid (eternal light hanging above the ark)

An Eternal Light (Ner Tamid) hangs above the ark in every synagogue. It is often associated with the menorah, the seven-branched lampstand which stood in front of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also associated with the continuously-burning incense altar which stood in front of the ark (see First Kings, chapter 6). Our sages interpreted the Ner Tamid as a symbol of God's eternal and imminent Presence in our communities and in our lives. It is also symbolic of our eternal covenant with God; for Jews, the covenant is fulfilled throughout eternity by passing tradition along to the next generation so the next generation can continue the covenant.

Where once the Ner Tamid was an oil lamp, as was the menorah which stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem, today most are fueled by either gas or electric light bulbs. They are never extinguished or turned off.

To see a photo of a lovely 19th century Czechoslovakian Ner Tamid, click here.

Religious School and Jewish Learning

A school for children is an essential feature of any synagogue community, for the Torah makes clear that love and loyalty to God involves passing the tradition along to the next generations: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your being. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them to your children and speak of them when you are at home and away from home, [from the time] you arise in the morning [until] you lay down at night..." [Deuteronomy, chapter 6] Jews have always approached the task of educating children in the traditions of Torah with the utmost seriousness and have always highly prized education of all kinds. The ability to think is a gift from God, and using that gift is a sacred responsibility. Children are educated from the time they are very young to read Hebrew, understand Torah, and absorb the many other aspects of Jewish tradition. There is a long-held tradition that when young children begin their formal religious education, their teacher puts honey on their schoolbook, which they lick off. This practice conveys to young children the sweetness of learning, which the book offers them. Most synagogues sponsor after-school and Sunday classes for children. In some communities children may attend all-day programs which incorporate both Jewish studies and secular studies. In recent years, many innovative school programs have begun to include parents in the educational process and have developed family-oriented education programs because a great many parents feel the need to learn along with their children. Torah study is for every Jew, from birth and throughout life. Among the milestones of Jewish study are reaching bar/bat mitzvah (when the youngster is considered an adult in the eyes of the community) and Confirmation.

For Jews, study of Torah is a form of worship, as important as prayer. Pirke Avot, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, teaches, "The world depends upon three things: Upon Torah study, upon worship, and upon acts of loving kindness." For Jews, these are the three modes of serving God: study, prayer, deeds of kindness. Study is considered especially important, even more important than performing mitzvot (commandments) because study leads to the performance of mitzvot.

According to tradition, the proper way to study is with a partner because the relationship formed enhances the learning for both people. When two study together, they are more likely to increase their learning, because together they generate more ideas and discussion, questioning and challenging one another, and extending the range of their inquiry through their interaction. What is more, two who study together are more likely to study, because being dependent upon one another, they cannot decide that something "more urgent" has come up and put off study.

Meeting Rooms

The proper Hebrew term for a synagogue is a Beit Knesset which means "House of Meeting." It is an apt description of a synagogue, which is far more than a House of Prayer, or a House of Study. While study and prayer are important and crucial components of the life of the community, there are many reasons for Jews to gather, and the synagogue is the central gathering place for the community. When there is an issue of importance to discuss, a social action program to plan or launch, or organizational meetings to be held, the synagogue is the natural place for these to take place. When there is a simchah (happy event) to celebrate, or reason to mourn, people will often gather in the synagogue. The synagogue is the hub of Jewish life.


"Rabbi" means "teacher" and, through preaching from the pulpit, teaching classes, and individual counseling, teaching is the primary duty of a rabbi. In addition, many rabbis serve as administrators of their synagogues, represent the congregation to the community, officiate at life-cycle events, and serve as Jewish legal decisors (that is, they render decisions concerning Jewish legal matters that come before them). Each of the Jewish movements in America sponsors a seminary for the training of rabbis, which is a lengthy program.

Cantor (Chazan)

Traditionally, a Jewish prayer service is chanted. The leader is called the shaliach tzibbur (the representative of the community) who recites the prayers on behalf of the people. Some prayers are said by everyone, and some are recited aloud by the shaliach tzibbur, to which the congregation responds "Amen." The chazan (cantor) is specially trained in the art of Jewish music and liturgy for this role. In many congregations, the cantor is professionally trained and studies a broad pallet of Jewish subjects in addition to those mentioned above, and does a good deal of teaching, counseling, and life-cycle officiation in addition to leading the community in prayer.


If you attend services on a day when the Torah is read publicly, you will see two people standing on either side of the reading table while the Torah is read, who conduct the Torah service and assist the reader(s) to make sure that the Torah Service runs smoothly. These people are the gabbaim. It is their job to call people to the Torah for their aliyot, assist the reader, provide correction if a mistake is made (since the text must be conveyed accurately to the congregation), recite the Mi Shebeirach for those who have had an aliyah, and see to the mechanics of covering and uncovering the Torah scroll at the appropriate times. Usually, the gabbaim are congregants who possess the skills to fulfill these tasks.

Baal Koreh (Torah reader)

The Baal Koreh is the Torah reader. Anyone who is at least 13 years old and possesses the skill to chant the Torah competently may serve in this capacity. Some congregations engage a professional Baal Koreh, and many others draw on their own members to serve in this capacity.

Tallit (prayer shawl)

The prayer shawl is worn for morning prayers (with exception of Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av, when it is worn throughout the day) in order to fulfill the commandment in the Book of Numbers to attach special fringes called tzitzit to the corners of all four-cornered garments. The tzitzit are the serve as a reminder of the commandments: When one sees the tzitzit one is reminded to fulfill the commandments. Since we seldom wear genuine four-cornered garments, the tallit was created to permit the fulfillment of this commandment. There is much more to say about the tallit, and you can learn more by clicking here.

Kippah (head covering, also called a yarmulke)

In most synagogues, one wears a head-covering to demonstrate respect for the sanctity of the place: the kippah expresses the understanding that there is something above us. Kippot (the plural of kippah) are usually provided at the entrance. Men will be requested to don one; it is usually optional for women. For more information and a history of head-covering in Judaism, click here.

Books (Siddur and Chumash)

Two books are used extensively in a synagogue service, and many more in Jewish study. The two used in the synagogue prayer service are: (1) the siddur (prayerbook) which contains the liturgy; and (2) the Chumash (containing a printed version of the Torah, along with commentaries and most often the accompanying Haftarah portions, as well (the Haftarah portions are drawn from the books of the prophets). For Jews, there are a great many holy books, most of which were written after the Bible was completed and canonized. To learn more about Jewish holy books, including the Siddur and Chumash, click here.

Jewish prayer services follow a prescribed order, established long ago. The basic outline follows: (1) warm-up prayers and songs to help the worshiper get in the mood for prayer and focus on his/her prayers; (2) communal affirmations of values and views that the community holds in common and which unite the community; (3) Torah study (on certain days); (4) concluding prayers.

Since study is a form of worship, study is included in most services in several ways: Sometimes passages from the Bible are included in the liturgy. On Shabbat and festivals, the Torah is removed from the ark and read publicly; the Chumash is used by the congregation to follow the Torah reading. In addition, when the Torah is read, an accompanying selection from one of the Books of the Prophets is read, as well; this is called the Haftarah. Most often, a d'var Torah (lesson concerning the Torah portion, or sermon) follows the readings; this too is a form of study.

The Sages long debated the proper balance of kevah (fixed structure of the prayer service and fixed wording of the prayers) and kavannah (private intention and the freedom of the individual to utter his/her own prayers). It is a difficult balance to maintain. There is value to communal prayers which people say together and thereby are brought together as a community, but there is also value to expressing what is in one's heart. The Sages taught that while one should say the prayers that are in the siddur, one should also add prayers from one's heart to those of the siddur.

Congregation (minyan)

Judaism places a premium on community and is structured to encourage people to gather together for prayer, study, celebration, and even in grief to support those who mourn. In order to hold a complete prayer service, a quorum of ten adults (those who are 13 years or older) is required. The quorum is called a minyan.

I am frequently asked whether communal worship is an essential part of Judaism. The answer is yes. Certainly people can pray by themselves, but collective worship is also essential at regular intervals because it brings the community together as a community and that is important. Judaism is not a religion of the individual. It is more than a faith. It is a family-centered and community-based culture and civilization. It fosters interdependence and relationships with others.

If you fly abroad on El Al Airlines, you will notice that a minyan forms at the back of the airplane when it is time to pray. A minyan is held at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, after fifth inning. Wherever Jews are, they can gather to pray together in a minyan.

Here is one further example of the power and purpose of communal prayer in Judaism: When someone dies, the mourners are obligated to recite a prayer called Kaddish each day for eleven months. In order to recite the prayer, they need a minyan (the quorum required for public prayer). The result is that the community assembles in their home while they are in mourning to enable the mourners to say Kaddish and thereby are able to provide support and consolation. Once the period of mourning is completed (7 days), then the mourners need to come to the synagogue to join the minyan there in order to say Kaddish. The result again is that they cannot isolated themselves in their grief, but must come back to the world and back to the community, where they will be supported and nurtured as they work through their grief.

Are there times when one may pray alone? Yes, certainly, but that cannot function as the mainstay in the life of a Jew. Jews need to come together to accomplish the many-faceted aspects of worship: prayer, study, celebration. All these things require the presence of other people; all are enhanced by the presence of other people. Hence collective worship is very important -- indeed essential -- for Jews.