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Sample Guide to Sanctuary and Customs #1

Return to Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ideas and Primer for Interfaith Families.

Unique Features in a Jewish Sanctuary

The following are architectural or symbolic objects that you may notice in a synagogue.

The Pews (Congregational Seating)

Everyone, Jew or gentile, is invited to enter and attend services. Sit wherever you like.

The Bima (Pulpit)

Bima literally means “high place.” The bima is the focus of most ritual activities in the synagogue.

The Ark (Aron Hakodesh)

The ark is the repository of the Torah scrolls and is the central object on the bima. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.

The Eternal Light (Ner Tamid)

Hanging from the top of the ark is an electric light that is never extinguished. This “eternal light” symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.


Many synagogues have a candelabra on the bima to commemorate the seven-branched gold candelabra that stood in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and was lit each night to provide light for the priests during their evening duties.

Memorial Plaques and Lights

It is a Jewish custom to secure a memorial plaque for a departed family member, often on a wall in the sanctuary. The light next to the memorial plaque is illuminated each year during the week of the anniversary of a person’s passing.

The Flags

Many American synagogues display two flags in the sanctuary, an American and an Israeli flag. The Israeli flag, adopted at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, represents the entire Jewish people. In the center is the six-sided star traditionally associated with the Jewish people, and the blue stripes above and below the star represent the stripes of the tallit. The Jewish tradition also requires Jews to be loyal to the country in which they live and to pray for its welfare, hence the American flag, representing the loyalty of the American Jewish community.

Participants in the Service

The Rabbi

“Rabbi” means teacher. The major function of a rabbi is to instruct and guide in the study and practice of Judaism. A rabbi’s authority is based solely on learning.

The Cantor

A cantor has undergone years of study and training in liturgy and sacred music. The cantor leads the congregation in Hebrew prayer.

The “Emissary of the Congregation” (Shaliach Tzibbur)

The shaliach tzibbur is the leader of congregational prayers, be it the cantor or another congregant. Every Jewish prayer service, whether on a weekday, Shabbat, or festival, is chanted in a special musical mode and pattern. The shaliach tzibbur must be skilled in these traditional musical modes and familiar with the prayers. Any member of the congregation above the age of bar/bat mitzvah who is familiar with the prayers and melodies may serve as shaliach tzibbur.

The Gabbai

The gabbai, or sexton, attends to the details of organizing the worship service. The gabbai finds a shaliach tzibbur, assigns aliyot, and ensures that the Torah is read correctly.

The Laity

Members of the congregation may participate in all synagogue functions and leadership roles. Any knowledgeable Jew is permitted and encouraged to lead the prayers, receive an aliyah, read from the Torah, and chant the Haftarah.

Excerpted from What a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest Needs to Know, by Rabbi Daniel Kohn. Reprinted with permission from

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ideas and Primer for Interfaith Families is also available as a PDF document.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn is Rabbi-in-Residence at Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, California, a proud father and author of Kinesethic Kabbalah: Spiritual Practices from Martial Arts and Jewish Mysticism.