What a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest Needs to Know
This guide explains appropriate synagogue behavior, major sections of the service, the synagogue environment, and service participants.
Unique Features in a Jewish Sanctuary
The following are architectural or symbolic objects that you may notice in a synagogue.
The Pews (Congregational Seating)
Everyone, Jew or gentile, is invited to enter and attend services. Sit wherever you like.
The Bimah (Pulpit)
Bimah literally means "high place." The bimah is the focus of most ritual activities in the synagogue.
The Ark (Aron Hakodesh)
The ark is the repository of the Torah scrolls and is the central object on the bimah. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.
The Eternal Light (Ner Tamid)
Hanging from the top of the ark is an electric light that is never extinguished. This "eternal light" symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Many synagogues have a candelabra on the bimah to commemorate the seven-branched gold candelabra that stood in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and was lit each night to provide light for the priests during their evening duties.
Memorial Plaques and Lights
It is a Jewish custom to secure a memorial plaque for a departed family member, usually on a wall in the sanctuary. The light next to the memorial plaque is illumined each year during the week of the anniversary of a person's passing.
Many American synagogues display two flags in the sanctuary, an American and an Israeli flag. The Israeli flag, adopted at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, represents the entire Jewish people. In the center is the six-sided star traditionally associated with the Jewish people, and the blue stripes above and below the star represent the stripes of the tallit. The Jewish tradition also requires Jews to be loyal to the country in which they live and to pray for its welfare, hence the American flag, representing the loyalty of the American Jewish community.
Participants in the Service
"Rabbi" means teacher. The major function of a rabbi is to instruct and guide in the study and practice of Judaism. A rabbi's authority is based solely on learning.
A cantor has undergone years of study and training in liturgy and sacred music. The cantor leads the congregation in Hebrew prayer.
The "Emissary of the Congregation" (Shaliach Tzibbur)
The shaliach tzibbur is the leader of congregational prayers, be it the cantor or another congregant. Every Jewish prayer service, whether on a weekday, Shabbat, or festival, is chanted in a special musical mode and pattern. The shaliach tzibbur must be skilled in these traditional musical modes and familiar with the prayers. Any member of the congregation above the age of bar/bat mitzvah who is familiar with the prayers and melodies may serve as shaliach tzibbur.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.