Synagogue Architecture and Interior Design

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

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Another symbol that was transferred from the ancient tabernacle and from the Jerusalem Temple was the eternal light. Here, too, the Bible records that one of the priestly duties was to keep the candelabrum lit "before the Lord [to burn] regularly" (Lev. 24:4). In the synagogue the eternal light (made of gold, silver, or burnished brass, depending on the opulence of the donor) hung in front of the ark and burned constantly. It symbolized the spiritual enlightenment which is forever emanating from the Torah.

Synagogue Art--The Ancients Had More

No permanent place of worship is devoid of some form of artistic expression. The synagogue was no exception. In addition to the adornments of the scrolls of the Torah and the ark, there were also decorations on the walls and floors. A number of ancient synagogues going back to the talmudic period have recently been excavated, among them the sixth century synagogue at Bet Alpha [in Northern Israel], with its beautiful mosaics depicting birds, animals, and human figures.

The most important of synagogue excavations was that of the Dura-Europos synagogue, which was erected in [Syria in] 245 C.E. This discovery revealed an ancient synagogue art of surprising beauty and originality. The frescoes and mosaics contain symbols of the zodiac, biblical scenes, and geometric figures. The murals are the earliest representations of biblical scenes on so large a scale, and they are regarded as the prototypes of Christian art. Among the panels are a number of colorful scenes from the Bible, such as the prophet Samuel in the Tabernacle of Shiloh (1 Samuel 3) and the three youths in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3). Apparently the Jews of the talmudic period did not refrain from adorning their synagogues with pictures of human beings, at least not in the third century C.E., when the Dura synagogue was erected.

In later centuries, however, the bias against human forms as synagogue decorations grew and in time prevailed. Such decorations came to be regarded as contrary to the second commandment: "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth" (Exodus 20:4). But the religious authorities were not consistent. Lions and eagles as synagogue decorations were to be found everywhere.

The restriction on synagogue art resulted in an increasing reliance on Hebrew inscriptions for decorative purposes. These inscriptions served a dual purpose: they embellished the synagogue and edified the congregation. As an adornment Hebrew script, like Arabic, is an exquisite art form. As edification, the quotations utilized were mostly biblical verses suitable for creating a proper mood for prayer. The most frequent inscription was "Know before whom you stand" (Berachot 28b). Others were "How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts" (Psalms 84:2); "0 give thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name" (Psalms 105:1); "O Lord, hear my prayer" (Psalms 102:2); and many similar quotations.

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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).