For the week ending 27 May 2006 / 29 Iyyar 5766

Sinagoga? Si Senor!

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Andreo in Mexico City

Dear Rabbi,

I see religious Jews in my neighborhood going to temple and I was wondering what it’s like inside. Is a gentile like myself allowed inside? What would I experience there?

Dear Andreo,

First let me explain some terms. The Hebrew word for the Jewish place of worship is “beit haknesset”, which means “house of assembly”. This is not only because Jews gather there to pray, but also because it is a place of group learning, communal meetings, family celebrations and other functions. The word “synagogue” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew. Many people use the Yiddish word “shul” (related to school), emphasizing the synagogue's role as a place of study. Religious Jews prefer these terms over “temple”, which is reserved for the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.

While the entrance to the synagogue building may be in any direction, the sanctuary of the synagogue should be built facing Jerusalem. So in the Western Hemisphere for example, once you enter the synagogue complex, the sanctuary faces east. At the front, on the eastern wall, is the Ark. This is a decorative, sometimes elaborate, type of large cabinet facing the entrance in which the Torah scrolls are kept. Also, in front of the Ark, there is a special lamp that is never turned off, called “the eternal light”.

In a typical Ashkenazi synagogue, the community sits facing the Ark while someone leads the services from a special prayer stand near the Ark. In the middle of the sanctuary there is an elevated, decorative table upon which the Torah scroll is placed when read for the community. According to Sefardi custom, the prayers are often led from this table as well, and the seating may be arranged around it, facing it. In all cases, the main part of the prayer is recited quietly while standing facing Jerusalem.

Non-Jews may enter a synagogue as long as they honor the decorum and respect the practices observed there. This includes formal, modest attire and refraining from conversation during services. A gentile does not have to participate in any way or profess any faith. However, he may follow along and participate in the prayers if he wants, as the prayer book usually has a side-by-side translation. While he should wear a hat or yarmulke (usually available for visitors), he may not wear the prayer shawl, phylacteries or be called to the Torah. Non-Jews should stand whenever the Ark is open and when the Torah is carried to or from the Ark, as a sign of respect for the Torah. Any other time the worshippers stand, non-Jews may stand or sit.

Our sources relate that in ancient times, non-Jews would come from far and wide to witness the miraculous and uplifting events that occurred in Jerusalem around the Holy Temple. Sacrifices were offered on behalf of all the nations with the intention of bestowing upon them G-d’s blessing and bounty (see Significance of Succot Sacrifices in Ohrnet Magazine for October 15, 2005), and individual non-Jews entered parts of the Temple Mount to present their own sacrifices. Since the synagogue is considered “a miniature Temple”, presumably a gentile should be able to find some inspiration in the synagogue experience as well. To what extent seems to be a highly individual matter depending on each person’s personality, sensitivity and familiarity with what’s going on. Ask your neighbors if you can tag along!

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