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Difference Between a Synagogue and a Jewish Temple

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It is common to hear the terms synagogue and temple to refer to a place of worship within the Jewish religion. And today, these terms are used almost interchangeably, but if you look at the historical perspective of these terms, you will see that the evolution of the words has shown differences in the past. Historically, Jewish congregations were called Holy Assemblies or Houses of Assembly. At this time, synagogues were referred to as Houses of Prayer or Houses of Study.[i]

When the ancient Temple of Jerusalem existed (commonly just referred to as the Temple with a capital T), the functions of the Temple and a synagogue were quite different and only when the Temple was destroyed did synagogues become of greater importance. At this point in time they evolved to become a sacred space for prayer and studying of the Torah, although it is important to remember that a synagogue is not necessary for worship and it does not replace the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem.[ii]

In the 19th century, the Reform movement emerged in Europe, establishing the first ‘temple’ in Germany, essentially upholding the traditional belief of restoration of the ancient Temple. Since the development of this temple, the Reform ideology has spread far beyond Germany.[iii] For this reason, the distinction between referring to a place of worship as either a temple or a synagogue can often indicate much about the person who is using the term. Reform Jews use the term temple as they consider the meeting place to be a manifestation or replacement for the Temple in Jerusalem. Conservative Jews typically use the word synagogue as it is the Greek translation for Beit K’nesset meaning ‘place of assembly’. To further confuse matters, those of the Orthodox or Chasidim sects will often refer to it using the Yiddish word for school, ‘shul’.[iv]

The difference in the linguistic choice when using the term temple/Temple can also be thought of as a division between more traditional Jews, who believe that the Temple will be rebuilt when the Mashiach, or Messiah, comes and modern Jews who do not hold the same importance for rebuilding of the Temple. They believe that ‘temples,’ with the definition of houses of worship, are the only temples that are necessary and the only ones that will exist and they are the equivalent to the Temple in Jerusalem. This idea can be considered offensive to those who proscribe to the traditional ideology and therefore, it is best to use caution when using the word temple to describe a place of worship.[v] But it is also important to keep in mind that there can be local variations to these general tendencies. For instance, in the United Kingdom, all Jewish factions, whether Liberal, Reform or Masorti, tend to use the term synagogue rather than temple. The one exception is that some of the Liberal communities will use the term congregation rather than synagogue.[vi]

Another noted difference is that the term synagogue can refer to the building that individuals attend or it can refer to the institution itself which has many functions, including worship, prayer, study and reading of the Torah. They can also serve as a center for many other activities for the community and at times can be used as a catering hall, kosher kitchen, a religious school, library or even a day care center. Any group within the Jewish faith can construct a synagogue and there are no architectural restrictions so the designs can vary greatly reflection geographical and historical differences. There are some differences among the varying factions within the faith. Orthodox synagogues separate the seating areas by gender and sometimes will put the women’s seats on a balcony. The Reform movement might make more changes to the traditional look in order to be accepted by the local culture. This can sometimes mean adapting the structure to look more like a church.[vii]

The Temple, as dictated by the activities conducted in the original Temple of Jerusalem, acts as a place where offerings described in the Hebrew Bible are conducted, including daily morning and afternoon offerings and special offerings on holidays. These include a prayer service that is recited to this day. The untranslated name given to the Temple is Beit HaElohim, which literally means House of God.[viii]

As you can see, there are some differences between the terms temple and synagogue. However, in most areas in modern times, the two terms frequently refer to the same thing-a Jewish place of worship.


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[0][i] Waldoks, M. (2012, July 10). What’s the difference between a temple, synagogue, and a shul? Retrieved September 21, 2016 from http://www.jewishboston.com/whats-the-difference-between-a-temple-synagogue-and-a-shul/

[1][ii] Synagogue. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synagogue

[2][iii] Waldoks, M. (2012, July 10). What’s the difference between a temple, synagogue, and a shul? Retrieved September 21, 2016 from http://www.jewishboston.com/whats-the-difference-between-a-temple-synagogue-and-a-shul/

[3][iv] Rich, T. (n.d.). Synagogues, Shuls and Temples. Retrieved September 21, 2016 from http://www.jewfaq.org/shul.htm

[4][v] Rich, T. (n.d.). Synagogues, Shuls and Temples. Retrieved September 21, 2016 from http://www.jewfaq.org/shul.htm

[5][vi] What is the difference between a temple, a synagogue, and a congregation? (n.d.). Retrieved September 21, 2016 from http://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/40816/what-is-the-difference-between-a-temple-a-synagogue-and-a-congregation

[6][vii] Synagogue. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synagogue

[7][viii] Temple in Jerusalem. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_in_Jerusalem

[8]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synagogue

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