A Beginner’s Guide to Our Synagogue

A synagogue is a place where Jewish people meet for religious services, education and communal activities, including social gatherings and charitable work.


Synagogue buildings are not consecrated. Any sanctity attaching to them arises from the activities of the persons present.

There is no characteristic architectural style, interior or exterior, for a synagogue. Some synagogues are purpose built, others are converted spaces. In places where the Jewish community is small the meeting place may be a room used occasionally and temporarily as a synagogue.

Most synagogues, whether purpose-built permanent buildings or spaces adapted for Jewish services, will have typical features. These include:



A place in which Torah Scrolls are kept. The Ark is simply a cupboard, though it may be elaborately or beautifully decorated. The Ark is normally built into the wall of the synagogue which faces Jerusalem. In the absence of an Ark, Torah Scrolls may simply be laid on a table and covered with a cloth or a tallit.

Torah Scrolls

In ancient times all books were in the format of a scroll, i.e. pages were joined at both sides creating a long roll, then wound up to close them. Longer scrolls might have wooden rollers to facilitate handling. This format of book has been retained for Torah Scrolls (and some others).  Made of parchment, they are hand written by Scribes. Each scroll contains the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the ‘Books of Moses’.

Ner Tamid

This Hebrew term means ‘perpetual light’. In the synagogue it is customary to place a light in front of the Ark. The light is kept on at all times. The practice is a reminder of the large seven-branched oil lamp which was lit in the inner part of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (destroyed in the year 70 of the present era). The symbolism of the Ner Tamid is both a reminder of the Divine Presence (as in the Temple) and of the ‘light’ or enlightenment gained from the words of the Torah housed in the Ark.


When a Torah Scroll is removed from the Ark to be read from in a service, the reading normally takes place from a raised platform (Hebrew: Bimah). This reflects the practice of Ezra the Scribe described in chapter 8 of the Biblical book of Nehemiah. He read to the assembled people from a Torah Scroll while standing on a raised platform. The raised height is both practical and symbolic, suggested the elevated status of Torah.

Ten Commandments

Many synagogues display a version of the ten commandments depicted on two ‘tablets’ each bearing the initial words of five of the commandments.


Other Jewish Symbols which you might see in the synagogue, for example on the decorative cloth covers or silverware of a Torah Scroll, include:



This is the seven-branched light (originally an oil light) which stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the symbol of the Jewish religion. The Star of David is not originally or uniquely Jewish, even though many people regard it as a purely Jewish symbol.


These are frequently found as a motif on Torah covers and ornaments. This represents one of the aspirations of a devout person, to achieve a goal or ‘crown’, in this case, being well-versed in the teachings of Torah. Other ‘crowns’ to be achieved include a good reputation. The crown may also remind us of the ideal Davidic kingship.


Related to the ideal kingship of David, is the kingdom which his descendants ruled from Jerusalem, Judah. The symbol of the ancient tribe of Judah, and the later kingdom of the same name, is the lion.


(Hebrew: Rimonim). The wooden staves of Torah Scrolls may be decorated with removable ornaments partly spherical in shape, usually of silver. These represent pomegranates, one of the fruits native to the Land of Israel. Pomegranate flowers are often used as embroidered decorations on Torah covers just as the garments of the High Priest in the Temple were decorated with these flowers.

Hebrew Letters

One often sees the letters aleph and tav on Torah covers. These are the first and last letters of the alphabet. Their presence signifies eternity, from beginning to end.


At a synagogue service you will see that Jewish men, and often women, will wear a head covering of some kind. This is called a kippah (a Hebrew word) or a yarmulke (a Yiddish word). Some say that the covering of the head is to remind one of what is above (i.e. God, heaven). It may simply be that, historically and culturally speaking, there are societies in which one removes head coverings as a sign of respect, while in other societies one covers the head as a sign of respect. A variety of practices have been observed in Jewish communities at different times and places, though today covering one’s head in synagogue is the norm.


tallit is the fringed garment with tassles at the corners which is worn during daytime (morning and afternoon) services but not evening services with the exception of the evening of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Orthodox synagogues, only adult males wear a tallit. In more modern synagogues, e.g. Reform or Liberal, women may also wear a tallit.

Prayer Books

Synagogues use an order of services published in prayer books. The books used for daily and Shabbat services are known as Siddur (Hebrew: ‘Ordered’); books for major festivals are known as Machzor (Hebrew: ‘Cycle’). In our synagogue prayer books have an English translation with the Hebrew texts and helpful explanations about our prayers and practices.

Synagogue ‘Officials’

An important point to note is that, in practice, the role of priests in Judaism has diminished almost to nothing. In traditionally-minded communities, those of priestly status (Cohen and Levi), retain just a few privileges and duties. In Reform, Liberal and other modern Jewish movements the status of priest is not recognized. Today, the Rabbi is the main ‘professional’ of Judaism. Modern Rabbis are, as one would expect, extensively educated in Jewish religious culture and most are also trained to act in pastoral and community governance roles. Many Rabbis have high levels of secular academic qualifications. Another ‘professional’ role in synagogues is Cantor (Hebrew Chazzan) a musically-trained leader of services. Both men and women serve as Rabbis and Cantors in communities which are not Orthodox. There are other, less formal, roles in the synagogue taken by members on a voluntary basis, usually to do with organizing the running of services, social and charitable events and community governance.


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