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.

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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.

Candelabra

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.

The Flags

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.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.