What does the word 'synagogue' mean and how did synagogues come into being?
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i) What does the word 'synagogue' mean and how did synagogues come into being? The word synagogue is derived from a Greek word 'synagein', meaning 'to gather together'. Originally it referred to the assembling of people, and then to the place where they gathered, but today a synagogue is a community centre with several different purposes. The synagogue is a multi-purpose building and so there are various other terms used, including Hebrew Bet Haknesset, meaning 'house of assembly', Bet Hatephilah, meaning 'house of prayer and Bet Hamidrash, meaning 'house of study'. Orthodox Jews often use the word 'shul', derived from the German 'schule' meaning school. This is because a primary function of the synagogue is learning. Many Progressive Jews will use the word 'temple', because they consider all their places of worship to be equivalent to, or representative of, the Temple. However this is offensive to many traditional Jews as they see it as slighting to the Temple. The synagogue has so many functions that it is impossible to define it with just one word, hence the several different names. However the overall purpose of all synagogues is to worship God, though a synagogue cannot contain God, and is not consecrated ground.
The seating will be segregated, with women sitting in an upper gallery, away from the male congregation. This is different to Progressive synagogues, where the bimah will be at the front of the synagogue, and men and women will often sit together. This is a description of an Orthodox synagogue and so will have differences to that of a Progressive synagogue. Externally, synagogues differ vastly, but there is one significant feature that will be present within all Jewish places of worship. All synagogues must have windows, like the Temple, letting light in. This is for two reasons; firstly, their worship should not be set apart from everyday life, as this leads faith to become more introspective than it should be. Religion is not something that should be incorporated into the life of a Jew, but rather should be their way of life, and should not be seen as something separate. Secondly, the windows let light in. The light pouring in represents God's strength, and guidance, and his presence in the synagogue. Often, the windows will be stained glass or etched glass, depicting the Magen David, or Star of David.
The Ark also contains a breastplate, or Hoshen, from the days of the Temple when the high priest wore a breastplate and the Yad, a pointer used for reading the Torah. The words of the Torah are sacred, so it is important to use a Yad, to prevent the words from being smudged by a finger. The letters are only resting on top of the pages, so it is important that they are not scratched. Daily Prayer books, or Siddurim, are also present. Hung in front of the Ark is an embroidered curtain, or Parochet. In the days of the Temple, an embroidered curtain was hung in front of the Holy of Holies, to signify the sanctity of it, and this is what the curtain in front of the Ark indicates. There will often be evidence of Hebrew, as this is the sacred language of the Jews. Jewish children of orthodox background are always taught Hebrew, to ensure it does not die out. (PICTURE - Ark) Above the Ark is the Ner Tamid, the ever-burning light. This, like the light pouring through the windows represents God's strength, power and eternal presence. (PICTURE - Ner Tamid) Though it is common for modern synagogues to use electrical lights, some still use an oil lamp.
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