The idea of a public place for ritual and worship is as old as humanity, with the remains of ancient altars and temples found throughout the world. The modern synagogue combines in its physical structure and in its prayers and ceremonies, the memory of such places in the history of Judaism.

One of the earliest centres of Jewish public ritual was the Tabernacle, a large portable tent-like structure carried by the people as they wandered in the desert for forty years, and described in precise detail in the book of Exodus. The Tabernacle housed the Ark of the Covenant in its Holy of Holies, as well as the ‘menorah’, the seven branched golden candelabrum, which appears on the home page of this website as a symbol of Judaism.

The Tabernacle continued to serve as the spiritual focal point for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel for another 440 years. It stood for 14 years in Gilgal, for 369 years at the “threshing floor of Shiloh” (presently a West Bank “settlement”), and for 57 years in Nob and Gibeon.

In about 1,000 BCE, Jewish life in the Land reached a peak of achievement with the Kingdoms of David and Solomon and the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Judaism now celebrated festivals of national pilgrimage, and a liturgy comprising the inspired poetry of the Psalms was sung in a Temple administered by hereditary priests and scribes and musicians. (The word ‘cohen’ means ‘priest’ – Jews today with the family names Cohen/Cohn/Kahn/etc. are descendents of those priests. Jews named Levi/Levy/Levine/etc are descendants of the scribes and musicians.)

The Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian army of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, and the Jewish leadership was exiled, many into slavery in Babylon. When the re-building of the Temple began in 515 BCE, after the return to Jerusalem, Ezra the scribe instituted the public reading of the Law, which is now a centrepiece of the synagogue service.

In 70 CE the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Rome celebrated its victory by building the Arch of Titus, which still stands in the Forum there. The facade of the Arch shows the Roman legion in its triumphal procession in Rome, bearing the sacred objects of the Temple including the menorah, which has never since been found.

The Arch of Titus and detail showing the Romans carrying off the golden Temple menorah.

As the ritual of Temple worship came to an end, synagogues and synagogue services evolved, with an order of prayer established by the sages. Their idea was that the ritual of the Temple sacrifice would be replaced by formal worship. These sages came to be known as ‘rabbis’ (The word ‘rabbi literally means ‘my teacher’.)

The word “synagogue” is simply a Greek translation of the Hebrew ‘Beit Knesset’, meaning ‘House of Assembly’. Other Hebrew terms, less frequently used, describe the synagogue as a ‘House of Study’, or a ‘House of Prayer’. A synagogue is the social, intellectual and spiritual centre of its Jewish community’s life.

The earliest origins of the synagogue are unclear. The Jewish tradition is that special places of worship were established during the Babylonian exile, and there are also controversial first century archeological finds in Israel. However there is no doubt that synagogues were established by the first century by communities outside Israel, certainly in the great trading centres of Alexandria in Egypt, the Greek island of Delos, and Ostia near Rome, before the destruction of the Second Temple. There are undoubted archeological remains of synagogues in Israel by the second century.

The ancient synagogue at Capernaum, Israel and its remains today:

All synagogues face Jerusalem, which is to the north-west in Australia. At the Jerusalem end stands the Ark, which recalls the Ark of the Covenant, and which houses the Torah Scrolls, parchment scrolls of the first five books of the Bible, handwritten by a scribe in an ornamented Hebrew script. Above the Ark are the Hebrew words, “Know before Whom you Stand”, above that there are tablets bearing the first words of each of the Ten Commandments, and in front of the Ark hangs an eternal light in memory of the eternal light in the Temple. There is also a menorah standing on one side.

In the centre of the synagogue there is a raised platform called the ‘bimah’, with a reading desk, and this is the place from which the service is led, and the reading from the Torah takes place, with the reader facing the Ark.

At morning services men wear a prayer shawl with fringes at the four corners in conformity with the Biblical commandment to remind themselves of the Divine by wearing fringes at the corners of their garments.

In Orthodox synagogues men and women are seated separately, with the women traditionally in an upstairs gallery. (The reason given is that the presence of women distracts men from praying.) More recently this arrangement is often replaced by a symbolic dividing structure between men and women sitting at the same level. Men and women sit together in Conservative and Progressive synagogues.

Some prayers are quietly recited, and others are chanted and sung in traditional melodies by the reader and by the congregation. Any person may lead the prayers. In smaller synagogues this may be a member of the congregation, the rabbi, or a minister without rabbinical qualification. Larger synagogues may employ a ‘chazan’, or cantor, distinguished for his voice and knowledge of sacred music.

All synagogues have services three times a day (with a further ‘Musaf’ – additional service – after the morning service) on the Sabbath and on fasts and festivals, and on Monday and Thursday mornings; and many also have services every morning.

In addition, observant Jews seek to pray in formal worship services three times a day. Such services need not take place in a synagogue; they merely require a quorum (‘minyan’) of at least ten men over 13 years of age (in Orthodoxy – ten men or women in Progressive Judaism) to gather for morning, afternoon and evening prayers. On a long flight on an Israeli airline, a passenger will often find himself invited to join such a service at the back of the plane. There are also such services to be seen on most mornings all over Israel, for example on the beach at Tel Aviv – as well as an array of different service gatherings at the Western Wall under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Jewish prayers are usually recited in Hebrew. However they can be recited in any language, and much of the Progressive temple service in Australia is in English.

Daily prayers are collected in a book called a ‘siddur’, which derives from the Hebrew root meaning ‘order’, because the siddur sets out the order of the prayers. The origin of the order of service is traditionally ascribed to the ‘Men of the Great Assembly’, a gathering of 120 sages which provided leadership for the returning exiles from Babylon for about one hundred years after 515 BCE, when the rebuilding of the Temple began. However prayers and melodies have been incorporated into the liturgy over a long period of time as part of a continuing process, with much of the liturgical poetry and music originating in medieval Spain and the Rhineland.

These are some of the features of the synagogue service:

The attributes of God

The service begins and ends with the singing of Hebrew poetry rejoicing in the attributes of God.


A central form of Jewish worship is the blessing to be said in God’s praise as each occasion arises. For example there are blessings of gratitude for each different type of food, for the opportunity to fulfil a particular commandment, when witnessing a falling star, when hearing the clap of thunder in the clouds, when seeing a rainbow, when noticing the first bud of spring on the branch of a tree, and for “keeping us alive and sustaining us and bringing us” to any joyous occasion. The preliminary morning service includes a number of these blessings, each of which begins with words “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who…”, and blessings in this form appear throughout the service.

The Shema

A central point of the service is the recitation of the Shema (“Hear!”), Deuteronomy 6:4, which is regarded as the central statement of Jewish belief:

“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”.

The idea of the Shema, and the commandments for teaching and remembering it, are assembled in a recitation comprising Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21, and Num. 15:37-41. Since the first paragraph commands us to speak of these matters “when you lie down and when you rise up”, the commandment is fulfilled by reciting the Shema twice a day, morning and night.


The next main section of the service consists of Psalms, which originally formed part of the Temple services, and of prayers which are assembled from extracts from the Psalms.

The Amidah

The word ‘Amidah’, meaning ‘standing’, refers to the silent standing prayer also known as the ‘Eighteen Blessings’, although the blessings in it now number nineteen. In effect these are petitions by the Jewish people in the form of paragraphs ending with blessings, such as “Blessed are you O Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem”. The Amidah ends with a personal concluding prayer: “O my God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile; and to such as curse me let my soul be dumb…”.

After being recited by each member of the congregation, the Amidah is repeated as a chant by the reader, with various additions, including the verse from Isaiah repeated by the reader and the congregation: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole world is full of His glory!”

The Reading of the Torah

One of the essential elements of the service is the reading of the Torah, which takes place in the synagogue on the Sabbath, on festivals, and at the morning service on every Monday and Thursday.

On every Sabbath, to the accompaniment of the congregation singing the appropriate psalm, a Torah scroll is taken from the Ark, paraded in a procession around the synagogue, and taken to the reading desk on the bimah. Ten men, and women or couples in Conservative and Progressive congregations, come in turn to the bimah, and each has a portion of the weekly reading from the Torah made in his or her name. After that comes the Haftarah, a reading from another part of the Bible, which is chanted in a different melody from the bimah by a member of the congregation.

If there is a Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue on that Sabbath then the Bar Mitzvah boy usually sings the last portion of the Torah, and the Haftarah. A bridegroom is called to the Torah on the Sabbath before his wedding. The birth of girl babies is celebrated and they are named by their fathers on days when the Torah is read. After the Torah reading is also an occasion to give prayers for the sick.

A prayer for the congregation is then followed by the traditional prayer for the government of the country, which in Australia is represented by a prayer for the Royal Family and the Governor-General.

The Torah scrolls are then ceremonially returned to the Ark to the accompaniment of another psalm, and a soaring melody sung by the congregation to conclude the morning service.

The Sermon

There is usually a sermon between the morning service and the additional service which takes place on Sabbaths, fasts and festivals. Traditionally this takes the form of a commentary drawing moral lessons from the Torah or Haftarah reading.

The Additional Service (‘Musaf’ in Hebrew)

This takes the form of a repeat of the Amidah with additions for the particular Sabbath or Festival. This is followed by the Kaddish (‘Sanctification’) prayer read by mourners, recitations recalling the rituals of the Temple, and hymns celebrating the attributes of God.

The Priests’ Blessing

This ceremony is performed by those members of the congregation who are hereditary Priests (see section about Jewish family names above). This ceremony is performed daily in Sephardi synagogues, and in Ashkenazi synagogues on particular festivals and fasts not falling on the Sabbath. The text of the blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you” etc. originates in Numbers 6. It is chanted by the priests with elaborations, shrouded under their prayer shawls and standing on the platform in front of the Ark.

Kiddush – Blessing over wine
After the Sabbath service it is customary to hold a party in the synagogue hall in order to make the Sabbath Blessing over wine.

It will be appreciated that this article represents only a short outline of some of the central features of a service, and also that each festival has its own special ceremonies.

©Ian Lacey AM 2007