Friday, March 16, 2018

A Synagogue Tour

Throughout history, synagogue architecture has been as varied as the latest styles and the laws of the land (for instance, many cultures prohibited building synagogues taller than churches). Whether a synagogue is a soaring tribute to the spirit or a simple house of prayer, there are certain items that are found in almost all of them:

The Platform: Commonly referred to as the bimah, it is also known as the almemor or the tevah in Sephardi communities. While it is often a raised platform set either in the center (traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardi) or at the front of the congregation (modern architecture), the term also refers to the angled reading desk (for the Torah reading, although in some congregations the table is referred to as the shulchan) that may or may not be on the raised platform. The reading desk is usually draped with a cloth. On Shavuot, it is often decorated with flowers.

The Ark: Known among Ashkenazim as the aron or the aron kodesh and among Sephardim as the heichal, the ark is the cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept. It is usually built into or placed long the wall closest to Jerusalem, the direction in which it is customary to pray. The ark is considered holy and is treated with respect. Its doors are opened at different times during the services and holidays.

The Covering Curtain: The ark is traditionally covered by a cloth curtain called a parochet, named after the curtain that separated the ark chamber in the Tabernacle and Temple. Ashkenazi and Mizrachi congregations hang the parochet in front of the ark doors. Spanish-Portuguese and Moroccan congregations hang it inside the ark, behind the doors. A special white parochet is often used during the High Holidays. Both the ark and the parochet are often decorated (carved or embroidered respectively) with meaningful Torah verses.

The Eternal Lamp: The ner tamid, as it is called in Hebrew, usually hangs in front of the ark. It is reminiscent of both the Menorah and the incense lamp from the Tabernacle and the Temple, and is a reminder of the holiness that permanently dwells among the congregation. Historically, the ner tamid was an oil lamp, but in modern times electric (and now LED) lights are built into the design.

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