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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 9.7:
What is a synagogue?


A synagogue is a Jewish place of assembly for worship, education, and communal affairs. One tradition dates synagogues back to the Babylonian exile of the 6th cent. BCE, when the returnees may have brought back with them the basic structure that was to be developed by the 1st cent. CE into a well-defined institution around which Jewish religious, intellectual, and communal life was to be centered. Other scholars believe the synagogue arose after the Hasmonean revolt (167–164 BCE) as a Pharisaic alternative to the Temple cult. In any case, the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) and the Diaspora over the following centuries increased the synagogue’s importance.

Services in the synagogue were conducted in a simpler manner than in the historic Temple. Services were conducted by a chazzan (reader), as opposed to a formally appointed priest. Some congregations today continue to use a chazzan, but in most, services are led by a rabbi.

The place of Jewish worship has many names. The Hebrew term is beit k'nesset (literally, House of Assembly). Many people use the word "shul," which is a Yiddish word derived from a German word meaning "school" (which demonstrates the synagogue's role as a place of study). "Synagogue" is a Greek translation of Beit K'nesset and also means "place of assembly" (related to "synod"). Progressive Jews often use the word "temple," because they consider every one of their meeting places to be equivalent to, or a replacement for, the Temple (this usage offends some traditional Jews, because they believe there was only one Temple). Lastly, some Jews just use the term "Congregation".

Note that the word "Temple" is often used to refer to the place in Jerusalem that was the center of Jewish religion from the time of Solomon to its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. According to tradition, this is the one and only place where sacrifices and certain other religious rituals were performed. It was partially destroyed at the time of the Babylonian Exile and rebuilt ("the Second Temple"). The "Wailing Wall" is the western retaining wall of that Temple, and is as close to the site of the original Sanctuary as Jews can go today. Traditional Jews believe that The Temple will be rebuilt when the Moshiach (Messiah) comes.

Also, note that a synagogue serves many purposes. It is a house of prayer, of course, because people go there to pray in group prayer. It is a house of assembly, because people assemble there for social events, such as dinners, fundraisers, and other non-religious activities. It is a house of study because life-long learning is a part of Judaism: we teach our children there, and we teach ourselves there through adult education.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at

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© (c) 1993-2004 Daniel P. Faigin <>