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The Laws of a Synagogue

July 16, 2014 | by Rabbi Dov Lev

Maximizing the experience in God's house of prayer.

God declared: "Although I have dispersed [the Jewish people] among the nations and scattered them amongst the lands, I shall remain with them in a small sanctuary in the lands to which they have come" (Ezekiel 11:16).

The concept of the synagogue is about as old as the Torah itself.1 In biblical times, the center of worship was the Tabernacle, and later the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem. Then, throughout the exile, even in the darkest, gloomiest periods of Jewish history, the synagogue served as the center of Jewish life. Archeologists have uncovered remnants of ancient synagogues in Egypt dating back at least to the 3rd century BCE.2

Holiness of the Synagogue

Today, every community is responsible to build and maintain a proper synagogue.3 Since it serves as a place of communion with God, it should be beautified as much as possible.4

A synagogue is a sacred place. Therefore, it must be treated with the proper reverence and decorum. It is not a place for frivolity or socializing.5

It is only permitted to enter a synagogue for the purpose of prayer or some other mitzvah. It is forbidden to enter a synagogue simply to take refuge from inclement weather6 or to take a shortcut.7 In case of need, one may enter a synagogue for a non-mitzvah purpose if some words of Torah or prayer are recited there.8 It is certainly forbidden to sleep in the sanctuary of a synagogue.9

Among the requirements is that a synagogue must have a proper mechitza [partition] separating men and women.10 The purpose of the mechitza is to allow both men and women to focus on their prayers and not upon each other. Men and women who sit together can easily get distracted and then fail to achieve what the prayers are meant to accomplish.

Prayer in a Synagogue

God told Moses to instruct the Jewish people about the importance of praying in a synagogue.11 It is a mitzvah to pray in a synagogue even if a minyan can be organized elsewhere.12 Even if there is no minyan available, one should still make the effort to pray in a synagogue.13

Although women are not required to pray with a minyan,14 it is still a mitzvah to do so when there are no other conflicting responsibilities.15 In common practice, women generally do not attend the synagogue on weekdays but do try to come on Shabbat and holidays.16 For more details see Daily Living – Women and Mitzvot.

To demonstrate enthusiasm, one should go quickly to the synagogue.17 By contrast, one should leave the synagogue slowly in order to convey disappointment about leaving the place of communion with God.18

One should try to establish a regular seat in the synagogue where he prays every time,19 as being in a regular location helps one to focus on the prayers. Of course, one should not choose a spot near congregants who are not serious about their prayers.

If a guest happens to be sitting in your regular seat, it is not considered hospitable to ask him to move. In any case, within four cubits (about eight feet) is still considered your regular spot.20


What is a Minyan?

Every man must pray with a minyan whenever possible.21

A minyan consists of at least 10 adult,22 male,23 believing24 Jews in one location.25 If they are in the same room, it is not necessary for them to be able to see one another.26 Once a boy is 13 years old, he qualifies as an adult.27 Of course, the number ten is just a minimum. A larger congregation is more ideal, as it gives greater honor to God's name.28

The Sages teach that whenever 10 Jewish men gather to pray together, the Divine Presence descends to join them.29 In general, if a person's prayers are not focused, or if the prayers are recited by someone who is unworthy, it is possible that God will not accept the prayers. However, prayers said with a minyan will always be heard.30

It is considered especially meritorious to be one of the first ten men to arrive at the minyan.31

When possible, a person should only travel to places where there will be a minyan available.32 However, if there is a pressing mitzvah that conflicts with prayer with a minyan, one should pray privately and still perform the other mitzvah.33

A person should travel up to 18 minutes in order to pray with a minyan.34 Even if one will lose out on a profit, he should pray with a minyan.35 But if praying with a minyan will cause a person to lose money36 or detract from his regular income,37 he is not required to do so.

The most important part of communal prayer is to begin the Amidah (also known as Shmoneh Esrei) together with the congregation. It is disrespectful (and forbidden) to begin the Amidah before everyone else.38 One who prays at a slower pace should still try to time his prayers so that he will begin the Amidah together with everyone else. From that point, he need not speed up his recital of the Amidah in order to keep pace with the congregation.39

Certain prayers and rituals may only be done in the presence of a minyan. They include

  • Kaddish40
  • Borchu41
  • repetition of the Amidah42
  • Priestly Blessing43
  • Torah reading44
  • reading of the Haftorah45

The Chazzan

The chazzan (also known as the shaliach tzibbur – lit. "community emissary") plays the very important role of leading the congregation in prayer. There are many prayers that the chazzan recites exclusively on behalf of the congregation. Therefore, it is important that the chazzan be a responsible,46 God-fearing adult,47 with a pleasant voice who is familiar with the in and outs of the prayers.48 Particularly on the High Holidays, the chazzan should be carefully chosen.49 However, a congregation should avoid at all costs becoming embroiled in a dispute over who should lead the services.50

It is important that the chazzan adopts all the standard practices of the congregation. For example, if a person who normally prays according to the Sephardic tradition is leading the services in an Ashkenazic synagogue, he must do so according to the customs of the congregation.51 Similarly, when an individual receives an aliyah to the Torah or recites Kaddish, it should be done using the pronunciation of that congregation.52

The chazzan should not unduly extend the prayers with protracted song, as this places a burden on the congregation.53

The Priestly Blessing54

One of the most meaningful parts of the prayer service is the Priestly Blessing. The Talmud says that God's blessing is channeled to the congregation through the Priestly Blessing,55and that it is only through these blessings that the world is spared from "divine anger."56 The Kohanim are dedicated servants of God and the Jewish people, and their devotion serves as the medium for the divine connection.57

[A kohen is a male descendant of Aaron, the first high priest. While one's Jewishness is passed via matrilineal descent, the kohen designation is passed through patrilineal descent. But not everyone who is the son of a kohen is automatically a kohen. Therefore, one who wants to clarify his status should consult with a rabbi.]

Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

The custom of most Sephardic communities is to perform the Priestly Blessings on a daily basis.58 This is also practiced by most Ashkenazi communities in Israel. However, outside of Israel, the custom of most Ashkenazi congregations is to perform these blessings only during the Mussaf prayers of Yom Tov and Yom Kippur.59 The blessing may be said only in the presence of a minyan,60 and of course only when there is a kohen present.

Before performing the Priestly Blessings, the kohanim should undergo a ritual hand-washing.61 If there is a Levite available, he should pour the water over the hands of the kohen.62 The kohen must also remove his shoes for the blessings.63 The kohanim stand and face the congregation,64 with arms outstretched, as they recite the blessings aloud, word for word after the chazzan.65

The congregation stands66 silently, listens to the blessings,67 and recites Amen at the appropriate times.68 The congregation should not look directly at the kohanim during the blessings.69

Torah Reading

Moses instituted a public Torah reading for every Monday, Thursday and Saturday, so that no congregation will be without hearing words of Torah for three straight days.70 He also instituted that the Torah should be read on all the holidays,71 to publicly address the theme of the day.

Before the Torah is read, a member of the congregation is given the role of removing the Torah scroll from the ark. If there are multiple scrolls, it is important that he knows which one to take out. He embraces the Torah scroll with his right hand,72 but it is a good idea to support it with the left hand as well. Whenever the scroll is being carried, the entire congregation is required to stand until it reaches its destination.73 When the Torah scroll passes by, it is a mitzvah to kiss the scroll74 and to escort it as well.75

There is specific content that must be read during each public Torah reading, and it is forbidden to vary from the tradition either in terms of the specific verses or the designated time of the reading.76

Occasions of Public Torah Reading

Assigning Aliyahs

In order to prevent disputes as to who is entitled to be called to the Torah first, the sages instituted certain rules.77 Whenever possible, the first three Torah portions are assigned to a Kohen, Levite and Yisrael, respectively.78 If there is no kohen available, someone else may be called up in his place, with the announcement, "In place of the kohen."79 If there is a kohen present but no Levite, the kohen who was called for the first aliyah is called for the second one as well.80

A person who is called up to the Torah reading is known as the oleh, who is honored with an aliyah. The gabbai (sexton) announces the person's Jewish first name, and that of his father.81 If the Jewish name is not known, the secular name may be used.82 If the person's father is not Jewish, he should be called using the name of his maternal [Jewish] grandfather.83

There are many traditions regarding who gets preference in being called to the Torah. Among them are:

  • A groom, both before and after the wedding
  • A boy who has just turned 13 years old
  • A new father
  • One who has a yahrtzeit for a close relative
  • One who needs to recite the blessing of Hagomel84

Additionally, it is proper to give an aliyah to guests in the synagogue, especially if they are dignitaries.85

In many communities, the oleh dons a tallit if he was not already wearing one.86 If the tallit is not his own, he should not recite a blessing on it.87

Before the blessings are made on the Torah reading, the oleh should be shown the place from where the reading will begin.88 Many have the custom to kiss the scroll at this point as a sign of affection for the Torah.89 Since the parchment of the scroll should never be touched directly,90 the scroll may be kissed by using one's tzitzit or the belt of the scroll as a medium.91 The oleh should then grasp the wooden beams of the Torah92 and recite the blessings aloud.93

Even one who cannot read Hebrew may be called to the Torah.94 He should be taught how to recite the blessings properly, and may read from a transliteration.

Aliyah to the Torah – Before

Ashkenazi Pronunciation

Sefardi Pronunciation

The Torah reader reads from the Torah aloud, while the oleh reads along quietly from the scroll, if he is able.95 The reader should be well-prepared so that he doesn't err in his reading.96 If a significant error is made in the reading, the section will have to be repeated.97

The congregation should quietly listen to the reading.98 It is forbidden to leave the sanctuary during the Torah reading,99 as this is a sign of disrespect to the Torah.

After the section is completed, the oleh closes the Torah scroll100 and recites one additional blessing.

Aliyah to the Torah – After

Ashkenazi Pronunciation

Sefardi Pronunciation

Hagbah and Gelilah at the Western WallEvery time the Torah is read, there is a practice to hold it up and show the writing to the entire congregation.101 This ritual is known as hagbah. Some communities practice this before the reading, while others do it afterwards.102 It is important that hagbah be performed by someone who is of sufficient strength to be able to hold the scroll open while turning in a circle so that everyone can see it.103 [If a Torah scroll falls to the floor, it is considered a terrible tragedy.104 ] As the Torah is being held open, everyone present should declare: "This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Jewish people..."105 One additional person is honored with gelilah, wrapping the Torah scroll back into its decorative mantel.


The Haftorah

When the Jewish nation was subjugated by the Greek Empire, many decrees were issued to severely limit Jewish religious freedom.106 Among these edicts was a prohibition against public Torah reading.107 During this era, the Jews temporarily adopted the practice of reading a segment of the Prophets that related to the Torah reading in its stead.

After the edict was no longer in effect, it became Jewish tradition to continue this reading, following the regular Torah reading.108 This is known as the Haftorah. The subject of the Haftorah is always related to the Torah reading.109

The times when the Haftorah is read are:

  • Saturday mornings110
  • Yom Tov mornings111
  • Yom Kippur morning112
  • The afternoons of fast days113

The one called up for the Haftorah is first given an aliyah from the Torah.114 This is done in order to ensure that no one will view reading from the Prophets as on equal footing with the Torah reading.115

Blessings are recited aloud before and after the Haftorah reading.116

In the Future...

The Sages assure us that all of the synagogues in the Diaspora will in the future be re-established in the Land of Israel.117 Thus, those who make the synagogue a special, spiritual place will continue to reap the rewards for all times.118

photo credit: Yissachar Ruas Photography –

  1. See Targum Yonoson (Yitro 18:20).
  2. Encyclopedia Judaica (vol. XV, pg. 581)
  3. Orach Chaim 150:1
  4. Shabbos 133b
  5. Orach Chaim 151:1
  6. Orach Chaim 151:1
  7. Orach Chaim 151:5
  8. Biur Halacha 151:5
  9. Orach Chaim 151:3
  10. Regarding the necessary height of a mechitza, see Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 1:39-42, Orach Chaim 2:40 and Orach Chaim 3:23-24) who writes that it should ideally be higher than the height of the women but it is acceptable if it is five feet high. However, see Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer (7:8) and Shu”t Mishnah Halachot (7:12) who dispute this ruling.
  11. Targum Yonoson (Exodus 18:20)
  12. Orach Chaim 90:9
  13. Mishnah Berurah 90:38
  14. Shu”t Sh’vut Yaakov (Orach Chaim 3:54); Shu”t Teshuva M’Ahava 2:229
  15. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv and Rabbi Chaim P. Sheinberg as quoted in Rigshei Lev [Targum Press], pg.178
  16. Rigshei Lev, pg.178
  17. Mishnah Berurah 90:4018 Orach Chaim 90:12
  18. Orach Chaim 90:19; see Talmud Brachot 6a
  19. Mishnah Berurah 90:60
  20. Orach Chaim 90:9; Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 2:27 and Orach Chaim 3:7)
  21. Orach Chaim 55:4
  22. Orach Chaim 55:4
  23. Mishnah Berurah 55:47
  24. Orach Chaim 55:38
  25. Mishnah Berurah 55:48
  26. Orach Chaim 55:9
  27. Mishnah Berurah 90:28
  28. Talmud – Brachot 6a
  29. Mishnah Berurah 52:3, 90:28
  30. Orach Chaim 90:14
  31. Ishei Yisrael 12:2
  32. See Ishei Yisrael 12:29
  33. Orach Chaim 90:16
  34. Mishnah Berurah 90:29
  35. Mishnah Berurah 90:29
  36. Rav Eliashiv, as quoted in Shu”t Avnei Yoshfeh 6:8
  37. Orach Chaim 90:10; Mishnah Berurah 90:34
  38. Shu”t Avnei Yoshfeh 6:3
  39. Orach Chaim 55:1
  40. ibid
  41. Mishnah Berurah 55:5
  42. Mishnah Berurah 55:6
  43. ibid
  44. Rema – Orach Chaim 284:1
  45. Orach Chaim 53:4
  46. Orach Chaim 53:6-7
  47. See Mishnah Berurah 53:18
  48. Rema – Orach Chaim 581:1
  49. Mishnah Berurah 581:11
  50. Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 2:29)
  51. Halichot Shlomo 1:5:20
  52. Orach Chaim 53:10
  53. For more information on this topic, see Bircas Kohanim [ArtScroll].
  54. Sefer Va’ani Avorichaim (introduction)
  55. Jerusalem Talmud – Sotah 9:14
  56. Sefer Va’ani Avorichaim (introduction)
  57. Orach Chaim 129:1
  58. Rema – Orach Chaim 128:44
  59. Orach Chaim 128:1
  60. Orach Chaim 128:6
  61. ibid
  62. Orach Chaim 128:5
  63. Orach Chaim 128:11
  64. Orach Chaim 128:14
  65. Mishnah Berurah 128:51
  66. Orach Chaim 128:26
  67. Orach Chaim 128:13
  68. Mishna Berurah 128:92
  69. Rambam (Tefillah 12:1)
  70. Jerusalem Talmud as quoted in Mishnah Berurah (introduction to 135)
  71. Mishnah Berurah 134:13
  72. Mishnah Berurah 146:17
  73. Kaf HaChaim 149:7
  74. Orach Chaim 149:1
  75. Piskei Teshuvot 135:1
  76. Mishnah Berurah 135:9
  77. Orach Chaim 135:3
  78. Mishnah Berurah 135:23
  79. Orach Chaim 135:8
  80. Rema – Orach Chaim 138:3
  81. As heard from Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits
  82. See Mishnah Berurah 139:10
  83. Biur Halacha 136:1
  84. Sha’arei Beis Haknesset 34:1
  85. Piskei Teshuvot 139:9
  86. Sha’arei Ephraim 18:4, quoted in Biur Halacha 14:3
  87. Orach Chaim 139:4
  88. Piskei Teshuvot 139:10
  89. Orach Chaim 147:1
  90. Piskei Teshuvot 139:10
  91. Orach Chaim 139:11
  92. Orach Chaim 139:6
  93. Mishnah Berurah 139:1
  94. Orach Chaim 141:2
  95. Orach Chaim 139:1
  96. Orach Chaim 142:1
  97. Orach Chaim 146:2
  98. Orach Chaim 146:1
  99. Orach Chaim 139:11
  100. Orach Chaim 134:2
  101. Orach Chaim 134:2
  102. Mishnah Berurah 147:7
  103. See Magen Avraham 44:5
  104. Orach Chaim 134:2
  105. Rambam (Chanukah 3:1)
  106. Tosfos Yom Tov (Megillah 3:4)
  107. Abudraham (Seder Shacharit shel Shabbat); Levush (Orach Chaim 284:1); Tosfot Yom Tov (Megillah 3:4)
  108. Orach Chaim 284:1
  109. Rambam (Tefillah 12:2)
  110. Rambam (Tefillah 12:2)
  111. Rambam (Tefillah 12:2)
  112. The Ashkenazi custom is to read a Haftorah on all fast days (Rema – Orach Chaim 566:1). The Sefardi custom is to only do so on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av.
  113. Orach Chaim 282:5
  114. Rashi (Megillah 23a)
  115. Rambam (Tefillah 12:15)
  116. Talmud – Megillah 27b
  117. Shu”t Har Tzvi (Orach Chaim 1:84)
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