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From Greek, meaning assembly. In Hebrew, Bet Knesset, or House of Meeting. The synagogue can be traced back to the period following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. The exiled Jews in Babylonia gathered at first in private homes, later in special buildings, to read from the Scriptures and to observe holidays. Even when the Temple was rebuilt in 537 B.C.E., the number of houses of worship continued to increase. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the synagogue assumed a central place in Jewish religious and communal life. Wherever Jews settled, they established a place of worship and study. During the Middle Ages, the synagogue was the hub from which the religious, educational, social and charitable spokes of community life radiated. Wherever the Jewish communities moved, the synagogue moved with them and flourished.

The structure and magnificence of the synagogue varied depending upon the degree of religious freedom. In countries where Jews were oppressed their building was often restricted. But where Jews were permitted some measure of freedom, especially in the ancient East, beautiful structures were erected. Excavations in Dura Europos (Syria), Capernaum, and Bet Alpha in Palestine have uncovered the remains of highly ornate houses of prayer.

Traditionally, the worshipers in the synagogue face east, toward Jerusalem. Into the eastern wall of the structure is built the Holy Ark, where the Torah Scrolls are kept. This Ark is often lavishly decorated and ornamented with symbolic paintings of lions, eagles, and ceremonial objects such as the ram’s horn, Menorah, and musical instruments. The two tablets of the covenant inscribed with the Ten Commandments and surmounted by the Torah crown are generally placed above the Ark. A richly embroidered velvet or satin curtain is draped before the Ark. Suspended from the ceiling nearby hangs the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, which, as the name suggests, must never be extinguished. Traditionally, the Bimah, or pulpit, is located in the center of the house of prayer. The Amud, or reader’s stand, which is directly in front of the Ark, is decorated by a tall seven-branched candelabrum. In Orthodox synagogues, a separate seating section is provided for the women.

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