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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Rabbi Millgram's speaks about pre-modern  synagogue buildings But his description of the features of synagogue interiors is as accurate for present-day structures as for pre-modern ones, and could just as well have been expressed in the present tense, with a few exceptions. One is the last paragraph below, about windows. Contemporary synagogues feature many windows, often very large, both for light and for aesthetic and spiritual effect. Another is the observation that synagogue architecture is "simplicity itself," since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen the construction of many ornate and elaborate synagogue buildings. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

In respect to its architecture the synagogue has at no time reflected any uniquely Jewish style. Being aliens everywhere, the Jews did not build with an eye to permanence.

Diaspora Conditions Often Dictated Modesty

Historians have characterized the medieval Jewish economy as one of liquid cash. The Jew never knew when he would have to pack up and wander forth to a new temporary home. Architectural style was therefore not a primary consideration. In addition, the vast majority of Jews were very poor, this despite their supposed wealth. Unless there was a wealthy patron, the general poverty of the community dictated extreme economy.

An added reason for not developing a uniquely Jewish style of architecture was the dispersal of the Jews among many nations, where they were always a small minority of the population. And the prevailing disabilities resulted in a lack of skills in the plastic arts--the Jews produced many scholars but few architects. Hence they usually relied on non-Jewish architects to interpret the Jewish tradition of synagogue practice.

Because there were some countries where Jews were not permitted to own land, synagogues were held by non-Jewish trustees or were leased on short terms. Under such conditions elaborate architectural structures were not prudent, and the development of a definitive architectural style was unlikely. Modesty to the point of drabness was the prevailing policy.

Unlike the cruciform of the church, the architectural shape of the synagogue lacked symbolic meaning. The synagogue was usually oblong or square, and its external appearance was usually unobtrusive. Especially in medieval Europe, anonymity and concealment were the better part of wisdom.

Conditions Permitting, Tall Was Good

In the Eastern lands the situation of the Jews was more stable. The Babylonian Talmud [BT] therefore specifies that the synagogue be the tallest building in town--and starkly admonishes that any city in which the roofs are higher than the synagogue will eventually be destroyed (Shabbat 11a). This provision, however, was seldom possible of execution, especially in the Christian countries where the Church appropriated this prerogative for itself. Woe to the Jewish community that dared build a synagogue taller than the local church.

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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).