What is a synagogue?
In the Jewish religion, worship services take place at a synagogue, a building for prayer and the study of God, which replaces the ancient Temple.
The original center for Jewish ritual and worship was the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Jewish beliefs, the Temple was first built by King Solomon to house the Ark of the Covenant. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, but rebuilt on a smaller scale but more lavishly by Herod in the 1st century BC. In 70 AD, Herod's Temple was destroyed by the Romans and has yet to be rebuilt. The whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, which disappeared after the destruction of the First Temple, is one of history's greatest mysteries.
The Western Wall is all that remains of Herod's Temple today, and it is not actually a part of the temple itself - it is the western retaining wall built around the temple area. Nevertheless, it is the holiest site in Judaism, and an important place for pilgrimage, gathering and prayer. The Western Wall, or Kotel in Hebrew, is better known as the "Wailing Wall" for the lamentation of the Temple's destruction that occurs there.
Purpose of the Synagogue
The primary purpose of the synagogue is as a house of prayer (beit tefilah). Although much prayer takes place outside of the synagogue, group prayer is extremely important in Judaism. Certain prayers may only be said in the presence of a minyan, or a group of at least 10 adults (10 men in Orthodox shuls).
As suggested by the Orthodox term shul, another of the synagogue's primary functions is as a house of study (beit midrash). It is the place where Jewish children receive their religious education. But education does not end with the bar or bat mitzvah - adult study is supported by the library of sacred texts housed within many synagogues.
Finally, like the houses of worship of most faiths, the synagogue often functions as a social gathering place, a town hall for community events and a headquarters for social and charity work.
See Jewish Worship and Prayer for more information on the content of synagogue services.
Although "synagogue" is the most common term for the Jewish place of assembly, not all Jews use this term. Reform Jews refer to it as "the temple," which reflects their view that the synagogue is a permanent replacement for the Temple. They believe that even if it were possible, there would be no need to rebuild the Temple or resume sacrifices, so the synagogue is the only "temple" that will ever be needed. But many non-Reform Jews find this term offensive, feeling that it lacks reverence for the true Temple.
In Orthodox Judaism, the house of worship is called the shul, a Yiddish word derived from the German for "school." Conservative Jews use the word "synagogue" (from the Greek sunagoge, "assembly," the same root as "synod"). When in doubt, "synagogue" is the best term to use, as it is the least offensive and most widely understood.
More Information - Synagogues, Shuls and Temples - Judaism 101
- Synagogues of the World - Sacred Destinations
- Temple Mount, Jerusalem - Sacred Destinations
- Western Wall, Jerusalem - Sacred Destinations