The mandatory, thrice-daily Jewish devotional services—Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Maariv (evening)—may be recited privately by any individual in any space uncontaminated by either filth or the presence of idolatrous icons. However, the ideal setting for all religious worship, including the daily prayers, is the synagogue in the presence of a minyan, or minimum quorum, defined by traditional rabbinical Judaism as consisting of ten adult men (adults being those who have undergone the rite of entry into adulthood, known as the Bar Mitzvah, at the age of thirteen). The Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements today have all embraced gender egalitarianism in devotional life, and thus count women as part of the minyan.
While the three essential elements of the traditional liturgy for all daily, Sabbath, and festival services—namely the recitation of Psalms, the Shema Yisrael (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One), and the eighteen benedictions of the Amidah, or silent-standing devotion—are essentially the same whether recited privately or in the presence of a minyan, there are certain rituals and prayers that can only be recited with this required quorum. These include the public reading of the weekly Torah portion—a central feature of Shabbat morning services—and the Kaddish, or mourners' prayer. Therefore, prayer with a minyan, known as tfilah be-tsibur, or communal devotion, is considered preferable, and for mourners it is mandatory.
|First (and most important) words of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4|
|Hebrew: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
English: Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One
|The first portion of the Kaddish|
|May His great name be exalted and sanctified is God's great name
in the world which He created according to His will!
May He establish His kingdom
and may His salvation blossom and His anointed be near.
During your lifetime and during your days
and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel,
speedily and very soon! And say, Amen.
While communal services with a minyan are most commonly held in synagogues (the Greek term for the original Hebrew, beit knesset, or House of Assembly), which are today often referred to as temples by Reform and some liberal Conservative congregations, any "clean" room (i.e., one not defiled by any form of filth or idolatrous images) that contains Torah scrolls and in which a minyan worships attains the status of a Makom Kadosh, literally a Holy Space, suitable for public prayer. There is nothing intrinsically holy about synagogues, beyond the presence of the Torah and the quorum of worshipers using it as a place of religious devotion. This is largely because all traditional synagogues, both in Israel and the Diaspora since the destruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, have been considered but temporary places of worship-in-exile; these will ultimately become entirely superfluous once the Jerusalem Temple is re-built, during the Messianic Era. Reform Judaism initially rejected this traditional messianic outlook, and partly for that reason began to refer to synagogues (a term connoting a utilitarian meeting house, as opposed to a place of intrinsic sanctity) as temples.
It is precisely because it is believed that only the Jerusalem Temple is endowed with essential, or intrinsic, holiness, while synagogues are seen as no more than temporary places in which Jews can assemble for prayer and whose sanctity is entirely utilitarian, that there are only the barest of regulations governing the synagogue architecture and aesthetics. The cardinal rule regarding synagogue aesthetics is the complete ban on the presence of any images, or icons, of either God or humans. Judaism's rigid iconoclasticism can be traced back to the second of the Ten Commandments, which prohibits the creation and worship of any "graven images." This stylistic openness, combined with the worldwide dispersal of the Jewish Diaspora, has resulted in a plethora of architectural styles, most often greatly influenced by the prevailing trends in the surrounding gentile communities. It was not until the rise of the grand Reform Temples in early 19th-century Europe that Jewish houses of worship were obviously designed to emulate the style of Christian Churches, both externally and internally.
Despite this lack of architectural uniformity, all traditional synagogues contain several essential features. The most important and sacred of these is the Aron ha-kodesh, or Holy Ark, that contains the congregation's Torah (parchment scrolls on which the traditional Hebrew, or Masoretic, text of the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, have been inscribed by a specially trained religious calligrapher known as a sofer, or scribe). The Torah scroll is Judaism's supremely sacred religious object and is treated with great veneration. The Holy Ark is covered with a curtain, which when opened during the course of religious services, signals the entire congregation to rise out of deference to the Torah. When the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark for their public reading, members of the congregation customarily rush forward to bow before, or kiss, them.
In addition to the Aron ha-kodesh, modeled after the Holy Ark at the center of the Holy of Holies in the ancient Israelites' desert sanctuary and later in the Jerusalem Temple, and the amud, from which the cantor leads the services, traditional synagogues all feature a central, elevated stage, known as the bimah. The bimah serves primarily as the platform from which the Torah is read, although in many congregations the cantor leads the major Shabbat and festival services from it as well. In the modern period, Reform Temples replaced the central bimah with an altar in the front of the synagogue, from which the cantor chanted services facing the congregation. Aside from the gender-integrated seating, this was among the most controversial changes to synagogue architecture initiated by the Reform movement. The other was the introduction of pipe-organs and choral lofts, all in emulation of the aesthetics of European churches.
Synagogues are required to maintain an "eternal light," a lamp or lantern that typically hangs from the ceiling just above and in front of the Aron ha-kodesh. This ritual object, like many others in the rabbinic tradition, is purely commemorative, symbolizing the eternal light of the seven-pronged candelabra kindled daily by the Israelite priests in the Jerusalem Temple.
Traditional, or Orthodox, synagogues, in which there is strict separation of genders during prayer, typically feature an elevated section, or balcony, usually in the rear or to the sides of the main sanctuary, known as the ezrat nashim, or women's section.
It has been the custom of Jews since the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. to face in the direction of Jerusalem during the recitation of the central Amidah prayer. As a result, whenever possible, synagogues are designed so that the front of the sanctuary, where the Holy Ark is situated, faces Jerusalem. While this custom was abandoned by the Reform movement, the large majority of Orthodox and Conservative congregations in Europe and the United States face east in acknowledgment that the synagogues of the Diaspora are but temporary homes of worship, as Jews await the ingathering of the exiles and restoration of the divine service in the Jerusalem Temple.
1. Does Judaism have prescribed sacred space? Explain.
2. How is ritual an agent of space transformation?
3. Contrast the Temple and synagogues. Why are they understood differently?
4. How are synagogues structured physically? Logistically?