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Prayer services are normally performed in a "sanctuary" (although some congregations use a general meeting room, which is configured as a sanctuary). Synagogues are generally arranged so that the front of the sanctuary is facing Jerusalem, which is the direction Jews face when reciting certain prayers (probably because the original Temple was in Jerusalem).
The most important feature of the sanctuary is the Ark, which is an acrostic of the words "Aron Kodesh," ("holy cabinet"). The Ark holds the Torah scrolls, and is generally placed in the front of the room, on the side towards Jerusalem. These Scrolls contain the first five books of the Bible. The Ark is in place of the Ark that had at one time been in the most Holy place of the Temple (which was in the Eastern part). In the Bible we are told that the tablets of the Ten Commandments had been placed in this Ark, hence we place the Torah Scroll in an ark on the Eastern side of the shul.
The Ark has doors as well as an inner curtain called a "parokhet", which is in imitation of the curtain in the Sanctuary in The Temple., and is named for it. During certain prayers, the doors and/or curtain of the Ark may be opened or closed. Opening or closing the doors or curtain is performed by a member of the congregation, and is considered an honor. One stands when the doors of the Ark are open.
In front of and slightly above the Ark, you will find the ner tamid, the Eternal Lamp. This lamp symbolizes the commandment to keep a light burning in the Tabernacle outside of the curtain surrounding the Ark of the Covenant. (Ex. 27:20-21).
Many synagoguges have a menorah (candelabrum), symbolizing the menorah in the Temple. The menorah in the synagogue will generally have six or eight branches instead of the Temple menorah's seven, because exact duplication of the Temple's ritual items is improper. Note the distinction between a menorah, which has seven branches, and a chanukiah, which is used on Chanukkah and has nine branches.
In the center of the room or in the front, is a pedestal or lectern called the bimah. The bimah holds the Torah scrolls when they are read, as well as serving as a podium for leading services. There is an additional, lower lectern in some synagogues called an amud. The tables/seats surrounding the bimah are facing towards Jerusalem. This is based on Jewish law, but also appears in the Bible. (1 Kings 8 where King Solomon instructed to pray towards the place of the Holy Temple)
In traditional synagogues, you will also find a separate section where the women sit. This may be on an upper floor balcony, or in the back of the room, or on the side of the room, separated from the men's section by a wall or curtain called a mechitzah. Traditionally, men are not permitted to pray in the presence of women, because they are supposed to have their minds on their prayers. The source for this is ancient. In the holy temple that was in Jerusalem, they seperated men from women during prayer and services to reduce frivolity.
People going to a synagogue dress in a manner as to show respect for G-d, that is nicely, formally, and modestly. Men should wear a kippah if that is the custom of that congregation; such congregatins often make them available by the door. Men also often wear Tallit; these are often also available by the door (these should not be worn by non-Jews). In progressive congregations, women also wear kippahs and tallit. In some synagogues, married women also wear a head covering, such as a piece of lace. If you are in an traditional synagogue, be careful to sit in the right section: men and women are seated separately.
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.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>