The Hebrew word for synagogue says a lot about what a synagogue is for: beit ha-knesset means ‘house of assembly’ or ‘house of meeting’. It is a place for Israelites and Godfearers to assemble to study, worship, and give praise and thanks to God, all centred around the reading and exposition of the Torah.
One has to look for the origins of the synagogue at the city gate. In early Israelite cities, this was a place where the elders of the city gathered to read Torah, make announcements and pass rulings based on their interpretation of Torah.
In Jer 39:8, mention is made of the beyt ha-`am in Jerusalem around the time of the Babylonian exile. The NIV translates the verse as “The Babylonians set fire to the royal palace and the houses of the people and broke down the walls of Jerusalem.” However, the Hebrew term translated as ‘houses of the people’, is actually in the singular, ‘house of the people’, and very likely refers to the pre-exilic synagogue at the city gate. The verse should therefore read, “The Babylonians set fire to the royal palace and the House of the People and broke down the walls of Jerusalem.”
Before the destruction of the Temple, synagogues were merely like large houses where people of like mind could go to discuss Torah and pray together. It acted as the school, the court of law, city hall, and gradually evolved into a place of prayer.
Layout of a Talmidi synagogue
The design of the synagogue changed in the 2nd century CE. Since Talmidi culture is based on that of the late Second Temple Period, Talmidi synagogue design is based on the earlier synagogues, like those of Jericho, Gamla and Matsadah. In short, this means firstly, that instead of worship directed towards the ark containing the scrolls of Torah, it is directed towards a curtain which indicates the direction of Jerusalem; and secondly, that the seating follows round the side and back walls of the synagogue and is tiered.
The building is basically rectangular. The building always faces the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (see 1Kings 8:46-50). The wall facing towards Jerusalem does not have the ark containing the Torah scrolls, but rather a decorated curtain which acts as a Mizrach (anything which indicates the direction of Jerusalem).
In front of the Mizrach curtain, there is a ma`aleh (stage or platform where Torah is read). This is the same as a bimah (ma`aleh is the more ancient biblical Hebrew word). Only Torah and the haftarah is read from here; the rest of the service is conducted from the back of the synagogue, facing the Mizrach curtain.
As one looks at the Mizrach curtain, to the left there is a room leading off to the side. This is where the Ark of the Scrolls of the Torah are kept. During the service, the scroll is taken out and paraded around the synagogue, accompanied by singing.
The tiered seating follows along the side and back walls, not in pews like in Christian churches. This is actually still the way it is done in Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) synagogues today.
If there is a Levitical choir, the singers can either assemble on a balcony at the back, or sit near the the front of the synagogue, and go and stand on steps in front of the Mizrach curtain when they sing (ie they should not be permnanetly sat at the front, since they are not the focus of worship).
As mentioned earlier, the person conducting the service is at the back of the synagogue, facing the Mizrach curtain. This means that everyone’s attention is towards the front of the synagogue, focused on God and not on the person taking the service – a very important concept and consideration in Talmidaism.
Proper decorum in synagogues
Shortly before a service starts, usually music will be played, as an indication for those present to assume a quiet, reverent attitude. This means one’s attention is focussed away from chatting with each other and turning towards God.
It is tradition in synagogues to dress modestly. In Western culture, most people think nothing of women going to church wearing low cut dresses, short skirts and men wearing jeans or shorts and T-shirts. In synagogues, this is considered irreverence and disrespect towards God. Both men AND women are expected to dress respectfully. We are there to direct our thoughts and souls on God, not to put ourselves on display to each other.
The custom with head-dress in a Talmidi synagogue is slightly different to that of rabbinical synagogues. Only married men and women are expected to keep their heads covered – this was the ancient custom. Women can wear a headscarf, and men can wear a hat, cap or Hebrew turban. We do not wear kippot (yarmulkes), as this was a Muslim custom taken over by Jews. When Torah is read, all those who have prayer-shawls cover their heads, regardless of whether they are married or not.
Men and women do not sit separately in Talmidi synagogues.
Music and singing
The playing of music and singing is encouraged in Talmidi services. Each sect will have their own style. Massorite music is Middle Eastern, with traditional instruments such as lyre, flute, drums, symbals, ram’s horn etc. Music and singing add to the atmosphere of the service; the whole service becomes a kind of theatrical performance, heightening one’s experience.
Meals after the service
It is tradition to have a communal meal after the service. There should be a separate area in the building for this. Each Sabbath those who can, bring along food to share. This gives an opportunity to those who are of scant means to enjoy YHVH’s holy day and have a full stomach, thus receiving this blessing from YHVH, who is our great Provider. In this way they can call the Sabbath a delight, and YHVH’s holy day honourable.