Synagogue Architecture and Interior Design

Synagogues share certain functional interior furnishings, but there is no architectural design or artistic style that characterizes a synagogue.

Print this page Print this page

Still, there were synagogues that dared compete with the dominant faith. They achieved their humble victory by building downward so that the synagogue was "taller" than the church within the structure. Building the synagogue partly below the ground also fulfilled the words of the psalmist: "Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord" (Psalm 130:1). This principle also found expression in having the spot where the reader stood somewhat below the synagogue floor, so that he could literally cry out to God "out of the depths."

Windows--Prescribed, But Sometimes Foregone

The Talmud also requires that synagogues always have windows (BT Berakhot 31a). The rabbis based this ruling on the example of Daniel's place of prayer in which, the Bible says, "his windows were open in his upper chamber" (Daniel 6:11). A modern interpretation of this rabbinic requirement was given by the late Rabbi Kook. The windows in the synagogue, said Rabbi Kook, are to teach us that during our prayers we must be aware of the outside world. A Jew must not withdraw from the world and pray only for his own needs. But this architectural pattern, too, was not always followed. Windows at times were a liability because the prayers might be heard without and be considered an affront to the sensibilities of the non-Jews.

The Synagogue Interior--Functional, with Symbols

The interior of the synagogue was relatively simple and functional. It was devoid of such bold religious symbols as statues, crosses, crucifixes, icons, censers, fonts, relics, or reliquaries. In comparison with some houses of worship, the synagogue was simplicity itself. But it was not lacking in meaningful symbols.

Functionally the synagogue was well adapted to the usages of the tradition. This became evident the moment one crossed the synagogue threshold. The most striking object, located in the center of the synagogue, was the bimah, the raised platform on which the Torah was read. This boldly emphasized the central role of Torah in the synagogue worship. In the modern American synagogue the bimah has all but vanished. The platform in front of the synagogue has replaced the bimah, and the symbol of the Torah's centrality has been obliterated.

The second prominent fixture of the synagogue interior was the aron ha-kodesh, the holy ark, wherein the Torah scrolls were kept. Originally there was only a chest with several shelves on which the scrolls were kept in a lying position. The chest was in a side room, and a curtain set it off from the congregation. During the talmudic period the chest was moved to the center of the east wall and made into a fixed part of the synagogue structure. The scrolls were appropriately adorned and were arranged in a standing position so that they could be seen when the ark was opened. The doors of the ark, too, were ornamented with lions and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The curtain in front of the ark, known as the parokhet, became an essential adjunct of the ark in imitation of the tabernacle built in the desert. The Bible tells us that Moses "put up the curtain ... and screened off the Ark" (Exodus 40:21). In the Jerusalem Temple, too, the Bible informs us that Solomon "made the veil" for the ark (2 Chronicles. 3:14).

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Abraham Ezra Millgram (1900-1998) served as a congregational rabbi, a Hillel director, and from 1945 to 1961, Educational Director of the Commission on Jewish Education of the United Synagogue of America. During several decades of active retirement in Jerusalem, he published a number of books, including Jerusalem Curiosities (Jewish Publication Society) and A Short History of Jerusalem (Jason Aronson).