Synagogue Layout

An introduction to the parts that make up a synagogue sanctuary.

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The following describes the basic floor-plan of a synagogue. The geography of synagogues varies greatly from place to place, so this article of necessity employs generalities that are often not true for specific synagogues. In addition to the synagogue "parts" described below, one distinguishing factor in Orthodox synagogues is the mehitzah--a curtain or other divider that separates men and women; in some Orthodox synagogues, women sit in an upstairs balcony, so there is no actual mehitzah. Reprinted with permission from The Second Jewish Catalog, edited by Sharon Strassfeld and Michael Strassfeld (Jewish Publication Society).

Looking around the synagogue you will see the eastern wall, where the aron ha-kodesh (the holy ark) is located. The ark is the repository for the Torah scrolls when they are not in use. It also serves as the focus for one's prayers. Above the ark is located the ner tamid--the eternal light--recalling the eternal light in the Temple (Exodus 27:20--21).

Arks can be decorated in innumerable ways and come in many differ­ent sizes, shapes, and materials. The central part of the ark is a cabinet that contains the Torah scrolls. This usually has a parokhet--curtain--covering it. (Many Sephardic shuls do not have a parokhet.) The parokhet is often elaborately designed with many embellishments; some shuls have a spe­cial white parokhet used only for the High Holidays. Because the parokhet is considered holy, it is treated like any holy object--e.g., books, Torah scrolls, etc.--and is never discarded. [Instead, it is buried when no longer used.]

When the parokhet is drawn aside, you will see (in most shuls) the doors to the ark, which are, again, often elaborately decorated. Opening the doors, you will see a cabinet usually lined in velvet where the Sifrei Torah--the Torah scrolls--rest. Many shuls have large numbers of scrolls donated by people to commemorate an event or to memorialize or honor a person, so to accommodate all the Sifrei Torah, the ark will sometimes have more than one "shelf."

The Torah Scrolls

The scrolls themselves are covered by cloth mantles (covers) elabo­rately designed on the front. These mantles are open at the bottom and closed at the top except for the two openings that enclose the rollers. This and the other objects described below are considered holy and, once again, are never discarded when worn out. Often there are a number of other objects decorating the Torah. These can include:

The aron ha-kodesh, holy ark, at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Mass. Photo Credit: Michelle Mason

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.

Sharon M. Strassfeld is co-author of the Jewish Catalog series.