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Sample Guide to Sanctuary and Customs #2

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

Even if you’ve been going to synagogue your whole life, chances are there’s a lot you don’t not know about the special customs and traditions surrounding the architecture and ritual items found in the sanctuary, and the meaning behind many of the prayers we say during the Shabbat morning service. Whether you already have a broad understanding, or are visiting a synagogue for the very first time, we hope you will find something in the following explanation that will enhance the meaning of today’s service for you.

The Sanctuary

The Bima–The bima is the raised platform in the front of the sanctuary. It contains a reading table from which the Torah is read, and a podium from which the rabbi typically leads the service and delivers his sermon. There is no altar in the synagogue, and no area of the sanctuary has any more sanctity than another.

The Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark)–In the Great Temple in Jerusalem, the aron kodesh (holy ark) contained the original Ten Commandments. Today the synagogue is a representation of the Temple, and the aron kodesh, in which the Sifrei Torah (scrolls of the Torah) are kept, faces toward Jerusalem, in our case, East. To some, the design on the doors suggest a “tree of life,” a metaphor often used by Jews to describe the Torah itself, and to others, it represents the burning bush, in which God appeared to Moses (Exodus 3). Like in the Great Temple in Jerusalem, above the ark is the ner tamid (eternal light) which is never turned off, and symbolizes the eternal presence of God. The Hebrew words found above the ner tamid, say: “The teaching of the Lord is perfect, renewing life.”

The Torah Scrolls–The Torah can be broadly defined as encompassing all the teachings of Judaism. Literally translated, the word Torah means “doctrine” or “instruction,” the Torah is technically divided into two parts: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Written Torah refers to the first five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. What we refer to today as the Oral Torah consists of Talmudic teachings and subsequent rabbinic literature. When Jewish people refer simply to the Torah, however, they are usually referring to the Written Torah.

The Torah has been divided into 54 weekly portions, or parashot (parashah, singular) and is read in annual cycles. Every synagogue in the world reads the same parashah on any given Shabbat.

The Torah scrolls are the most precious and holy objects in the synagogue and are inscribed by hand on parchment by specially trained scribes. For thousands of years the Hebrew calligraphy used to write the Torah has been the same. When a person is reading from the Torah, he or she is forbidden to touch the parchment. Consequently, a pointer, or yad (Hebrew for “hand”) must be used.

Torah Cover and Decorations–The Torah scrolls are dressed and decorated in a style reflecting the priestly dress of Temple times. A breastplate, robe and belt were all worn by the High Priest in Jerusalem, so the “robe, mantle and belt” of the Torah scroll are usually made of the finest materials, velvet or silk, with the breastplate made of ornate silver.

Special Blessings

Shehecheyanu–“Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe who has kept us alive and sustained us, and brought us to this moment.” The Shehecheyanu blessing is said to offer thanks for new and/or unique experiences such as seeing a baby’s first steps, beginning a new year at school, dedicating a new house, or picking the first produce from a garden. This blessing is also often recited at special occasions, such as a bar mitzvah!

Mishebeyrakh for those who are Ill–This blessing asks for the renewal of body and spirit for all those who may be in need of such healing. Near the end of the Torah reading, the Rabbi will recite the names of those in the congregation who are ill, or those who have friends or family members who are ill. Afterwards, he will ask for additional mishebeyrackhs. At that time, please feel free to offer the name of someone you know who is ill, by standing and simply saying that person’s name aloud when the Rabbi indicates the appropriate time.

Some Commonly Used Terms

Aliyah–The first person to make aliyah was Abraham, when God commanded him to make an “aliyah” to the Land of Israel, “Lekh L’kha…” The word aliyah literally translates as a “going up” or “ascension.” During the Torah reading, various people are called to have an aliyah, which is a great honor. In fact, after completing an aliyah, or going up to the bima for other honors such as opening the ark or leading a prayer, the individual is congratulated with the Hebrew words, Yeyasher Koh’kha (or Yasher Koach) meaning “more strength to you.”

Today, in addition to        , who as a bar mitzvah is allowed to have an aliyah for the very first time, some of his relatives have been asked to come up for this very special honor as well. There are usually seven aliyot (plural of “aliyah”) on Shabbat, plus the maftir, the final Torah passage, which         will chant.

Tallit (prayer shawl)–The purpose of this fringed garment, or tallit, is to remind us of the commandments, which are symbolized by the knots in the fringes, or tzitzit. It is worn by Jewish adults who have become a bar or bat mitzvah. The numeric value of the Hebrew word “tzitzit” (fringes) is 600. Add to that the eight strings and five knots on each corner, and you get the number 613, which is the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah (Rashi – Numbers 15:39). A tallit can be made of many different colors, but typically it is black, or blue, and white. In fact, the colors of the Israeli flag were taken from the traditional white and blue of the tallit. Today,         will share in an ancient tradition as he wraps himself in a tallit for the very first time.

Tekhelet (blue strings)–“Speak to the Children of Israel and bid them that they make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue (tekhelet). And it shall be for you as a fringe, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of God, and do them.” (Numbers 15:38-39). Tekhelet are special blue colored strings that the Bible commands be made from the dye of a sea animal called a “hilazon.” Over thousands of years, this practice was lost due to the inability to identify the creature referred to in the Talmud, so the common practice was to wear all white strings. Recently a discovery of the hilazon creature was made and authenticated by many authorities in Israel. Since then there has been a rebirth of this practice.

Rabbi–Any Jewish adult may conduct a Jewish religious service or perform other religious functions if he or she is able to do so. The rabbi (teacher) is a person recognized as a qualified teacher and interpreter of the Jewish religion.

Gabbai–The gabbai is someone who helps to ensure the Torah is read correctly.         and others who will be reading Torah today will be joined by two gabbayim (plural), people who are highly skilled in reading Torah, who will stand by the sides of the reading table and call up those honored with aliyot, and who will assist the Torah reader if necessary.

Magbiah–The person who lifts the Torah is called a magbiah. The purpose of lifting the Torah is to show that it is an open book and belongs to all the people. When the Torah is lifted, our congregation rises and chants: This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel at the command of God.

Gollel (Gollelet)–The person who helps to roll, tie and dress the Torah.

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

Pamela Saeks

Pamela Saeks lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.


Author: Pamela Saeks