Signs and Symbols

What should I expect to see if I visit a synagogue?

In many parts of the world, Jewish places of worship have developed architecturally in the context of the local culture. The one architectural feature that sometimes distinguishes synagogues from nearby religious structures is that synagogues often have a central dome. A common decorative item that can mark synagogues externally is the twin tablets of the Law, a reminder of Moses’ reception of the revelation at Sinai. A large Star of David often graces the facade or windows. Synagogues of more contemporary style often place a menorah in front. The menorah is usually of monumental scale, and sometimes even very abstract design.

Synagogues of the various different Jewish communities use their interior spaces in different ways, but the one thing you will invariably see is the Ark. Almost as soon as you enter your eye will be drawn to the back wall. There, a pair of small doors, or perhaps a beautifully embroidered or brocaded cloth, marks the place in which the Torah scrolls are kept. This is the post-Temple version of the Ark of the Covenant. Should you visit during worship ceremonies, you will also see the Torah scroll itself, often cloaked in a beautiful cloth (sometimes tooled silver). Some Torah scrolls are topped with a crown (keter) as a reminder of the kingly, royal status of the divine source. Inside the cloth a binder (mappa) might further protect the scrolls from damage. Many Ashkenazic synagogues in central and eastern Europe also adorn the scroll with a Torah shield (tas). Wealthier synagogues often possess many sets of Torah scrolls, used in rotation for different occasions. In order to keep track of the point in the text at which a given scroll was open, the elaborately tooled silver Torah shield might have interchangeable plates with the word “Sabbath” or the name of a particular holy day.

Many synagogues will have a bimah (“high place,” also called almemar), a platform on which there is a desk to hold the Torah scrolls for reading. Traditional communities place the bimah, which symbolically replaces the Temple altar, in the center of the space facing the Ark. Reform synagogues move it nearer the Ark, elevated on a stage and facing the congregation. A sanctuary lamp is also symbolic of the sacred presence and is usually located near the Ark. One feature that often distinguishes Orthodox synagogues is the provision of separate sections for men and women, with men typically in front and women behind or to the side, either on the main floor or in a gallery above. Like many contemporary mosques, some synagogues separate genders with a partition running front to back down the center of the main floor.

Main synagogue of Florence, Italy (1882), showing the central dome that has historically been a feature of countless synagogues


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