Entering a Synagogue

Tips for the novice shul-goer.

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Synagogues differ greatly from community to community in many respects: how people dress, where they sit, the level of decorum expected, and the extent to which they observe--and expect members and visitors to observe--traditional Jewish law. In addition to the tips listed below, it is important also to remember that in Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately--and often enter the sanctuary through separate entrances--so visitors need to find the appropriate sections and entrances for each gender. Reprinted with permission from The Second Jewish Catalog, edited by Sharon Strassfeld and Michael Strassfeld (Jewish Publication Society).

1. When you enter a traditional synagogue, put on a kippah [yarmulke] if you are a male (supplies are kept in almost every shul), and keep it on--even during the Kiddush and/or meal that follows the service. [In some liberal congregations, women cover their hair as well, while Orthodox women generally cover their hair if they are married. See #6 below for more information.]

2. In traditional synagogues it is forbidden, even after the service, to smoke on Shabbat (ask if you're not aware of synagogue policy).

3. On some occasions, following the Kiddush there will be a lunch to which guests of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah are invited. [Kiddush is the blessing of sanctification of Shabbat over a cup of wine, but in this context, it used more broadly to include also the snacks or light meal provided after the blessing is said.] Don't automatically as­sume that if you've been to services, you are invited to the lunch. However, you are usually invited for Kiddush.

4. It is bad form to take a Bar/Bat Mitzvah gift with you when you go to a traditional synagogue on Shabbat. Carrying is prohibited on Shabbat, and most traditional synagogues treat this prohibition seriously. Taking a mone­tary gift with you even in envelopes is especially offensive, since this not only ignores the prohibition against carrying, it also ignores the prohibition against handling money (and things representing money, such as checks, bonds, etc.) on Shabbat.

entering a synagogue5. The no-carry principle in a traditional synagogue on Shabbat is also, by extension the don't-bring-a-pocketbook (handbag, suitcase briefcase, etc.) dictum.

6. An extension of the no-money principle is the "don't jangle the change in your pocket if you're bored" rule.

7. In traditional synagogues, women commonly cover their hair during the service. Frequently, lace nets are provided for women who forget to wear a hat or scarf.

8. In traditional Judaism, writing is prohibited on Shabbat and holi­days, so needless to say, don't go to synagogue with your Bic sticking out of your breast pocket (or with cigars sticking out either--see no. 2 above).

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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.