Synagogue

Synagogue [Gr. synagōgē ‘assembly’, ‘congregation’]  - house of prayer, Heb. bet ha-kneset [‘house of assembly’] – in antiquity - an organized Jewish community, as well its assembly and place of assembly; according to rabbinic legends, s. derives from the period of Babylonian captivity (6th century BC); however, according to some researches, that institution was created in the Greek-speaking diaspora in the 3rd century BC, when Jews in towns were able to associate following the pattern of religious associations (Gr. thíasoi) and, as a self-governing community (Gr. políteuma) within the city (polis); at least from the 1st century BC, they also existed in the territory of the country of Israel; The New Testament confirms that they were common in the 1st century BC; after the destruction of the Temple (AD 70), a local Jewish religious community became the basic institution making it possible for Jewish diaspora communities to survive. However, in time, the name “synagogue” became used to refer to a building.
Synagogue was a centre of religious life of Jews, the place of their public prayers, studying the Torah and teaching; from the Middle Ages - also a seat of the authorities of the Jewish community (kahal), a rabbinical court, sometmes a kahal prison; s. is not a temple, in Judaism, the sacrificial cult ceased when the Second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and was replaced with prayer. The main room of s. is the prayer hall for men, with the Torah Ark and the bimah; the hall is entered through the vestibule; in Orthodox s., women pray in separate rooms with direct entrances from the outside.
The s. architecture depends on the forms typical of specific periods and places; in antiquity, it was a Greek Roman style with its local variations (Alexandria, 3rd century BC; Delos, 1st century AD; Gamla and Herodium, 1st century AD; Kfar Baram, 3rd century; Ostia Antica, 4th century; Beth Alpha, 6th century); in the Middle Ages, Mauritanian forms appeared on the Iberian Peninsula (Toledo — later the churches: Santa Maria la Blanca, 13th century, and Nuestra Señora del Tránsito, 14th century; Segovia and Cordoba, 14th century); the medieval Ashkenazic s. were Romanesque and Gothic halls (Worms and Speyer, 11th century; Ratisbon, 13th century; Sopron, 14th century; Prague — Old-New s., 14th century).
In Poland, brick and wooden s. were built from the Middle Ages; the oldest preserved brick s. date back to the 14th and 15th century — the present nave of St. Barbara Church in Strzegom, originally the two-nave hall of St. Salvator Church in Oleśnica; from early 16th century - Old Synagogue in the Jewish district of Kazimierz,Cracow (now a museum). Between mid-16th and mid-17th century, new layouts of the hall appeared, which were inspired by the Ashkenazic rule of locating the bimah in the centre. The rule was established in the 12th century by M. Maimonides and confirmed in the 16th century by M. Isserles in the commentary to Shulchan Aruch. The systems created in that period had been used until the end of the 18th century and some of them in the 19th century: clear span, rectangular and central halls, with gazebo-like bimahs (among others, from the 16th and the first half of the 17th century in Szydłów, Pińczów, Lviv — the Golden Rose Synagogue, Zamość, Cracow — the Isaac Synagogue; from the second half of the 17th and 18th century in Goraj, Husiatyn, Sokal, Nieśwież, Sałanów, Sandomierz) and central, with 4 columns supporting the bimah (among others, Przemyśl, Tykocin, Lviv — the Great Suburb Synagogue, Vilnius). The main hall was either enclosed from two or three sides with a lower vestibule and women’s galleries or all rooms comprised one structure with the main hall entered through a vestibule over which the women’s gallery was located; in the 16th and 17th century, s. were covered with bath-type roofs topped with attics (among others, Kazimierz in Cracow — the Old Synagogue, Zamość, Żółkiew, Husiatyn); in the 18th century, they were replaced with mansard pyramid and hip roofs (among others, Tykocin, Przeworsk) or gable roofs with ends following the pattern of Baroque church facades (among others, Słonim, Słuck); references were also made to late Baroque palace architecture (among others, Włodawa, Wołpa). In late 18th and early 19th century, facades were decorated with a Neoclassical portico or a pseudo-portico (among others, Tulczyn, Nowy Korczyn, Kuźniczka). The oldest known wooden s. date back to mid-17th century (Zabłudów, Chodorów); most of them were erected in the second half of the 17th century and in the 18th century; the rooms were covered with wooden corbel vaults. Due to the shape of the structures and interiors, they belonged to the greatest achievements of the Polish wooden architecture (among others: Gwoździec, Pilica, Przebórz, Wołpa, Olkienniki, Końskie). In many cases, on the walls and vaults, there were texts of prayers, quotations from the Holy Scripture and the Talmud; in brick s., the inscriptions were surrounded with painted and stucco frames and placed inside the frieze surrounding the hall; wooden s. from the second half of the 17th century and in the 18th century were decorated with polychrome of symbolic meanings, in the second half of the 18th century, also illusionistic.
Both Sephardi and Ashkenazic s. were erected in the 16th and 17th century in northern Italy and in the 17th and 18th century in the Netherlands. In Italy, where Jews lived in densely-built ghettos, a Baroque-type s. developed with rectangular rooms, located on top floors of tenements; Sephardi s. had the so-called bipolar layout with the Torah Ark at the eastern wall, the bimah at or near the western wall, benches arranged in parallel to the axis of the room (among others, from the 16th century in Rome: Cinque Scuole and Tempio Italiano; in Venice: Scuola Spagnola, Scuola Canton; in Pesaro: Scuola Spagnola; in Ancona: Scuola Levantina). In Ashkenazic s., the bimah was arranged in the middle of the room (originally Venice: Scuola Grande Tedesca, 16th–17th century; Siena, 18th century); in Livorno, where there was no ghetto, as well as in large Netherlandic s. built in the 17th and 18th century., the halls had three naves with the bimah, depending on the rite, either in the middle (Amsterdam — the complex of Ashkenazic s.: Great, 17th century, New, 18th century) or the western part of the hall (Amsterdam: the Sephardi s. Grote Sjoel and Portugese, 17th century). The s. in London founded by emigrants from the Netherlands were also three-nave and bipolar — Bevis Marks, and the American in Newport (Rhode Island) — Touro Synagogue (18th century).
In the 18th century, the reform movement connected with the haskallah also comprised the s. architecture. By analogy to other religions, the supporters of the reforms regarded the synagogue as a temple. The layout of the Reform synagogues was similar to that of Evangelical churches with the type of presbytery for the elders of the community, the Torah Ark in the apse, the bimah in front of the Torah Ark and benches for the followers facing them, matronea for women open to the interior of the hall; along with rectangular halls, central halls were also constructed; first Reform synagogues were built in Germany (Seesen, 1810; Kassel, 1836–39; Dresden, 1840). Throughout the 19th century, appropriate architectural forms were sought for both traditional and Reform s., renowned architects were employed; the structures erected were larger and larger (with towers, often topped with cupolas), with rich eclectic (Oriental, Romanesque, Renaissance Revival and Neoclassical) decorations of the structures (among others, Lviv — the Reform Synagogue, Cracow — the Tempel, Warsaw — the Great Synagogue at Tłomackie Street, Stanisławów, Łódź); Orthodox communities continued to erect brick and wooden s. with traditional layouts. In the 19th century, the synagogue architecture remained under the influence of the architectural trends at that time, initially in Germany and then in Israel and the USA, where, at the end of the 20th century, the synagogues inspired with Polish wooden synagogues were erected among others.
In the 30s of the 20th century, the Nazi burnt or destroyed all s. (the majority of them during the Kristallnacht). Some of them were rebuilt after World War II, among others, in Worms, Berlin). In the territories of the old Polish Republic, nearly all wooden and most brick synagogues were destroyed by German and Soviet occupants. After the war, the most valuable s. located in the territory of Poland, as well as some in Ukraine (Husiatyń), were rebuilt. As there are no followers in the areas where they are located, they are generally used for cultural purposes, as museums, libraries, cultural centres, archives etc. (among others, Kazimierz in Cracow, Tykocin, Łańcut, Łęczna, Sandomierz, Włodawa).

Bibliography:

  • Piechotek M. and K. Bramy nieba. Bóżnice drewniane na ziemiach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej (The Gates of Heaven. Wooden Synagogues on the Territories of Historic Poland), Warsaw, 1996;
  • Bramy nieba. Bóżnice murowane na ziemiach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej (The Gates of Heaven. Brick Synagogues on the Territories of Historic Poland), Warsaw, 2000;
  • H. Krinsky Synagogues of Europe, Cambridge–London 1985.

 

 

 

 

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