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Synagogue Design and Architecture from the Third Century to Today

By TorahLab

Table of Contents
Interior
Early Synagogues
The Transitional Type
From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century
The Double-Naved Hall
The Single-cell Hall
Renaissance and Baroque Influences
The Four-Pillared Hall
Synagogues as Fortresses
Wooden Synagogues
Spain
Arab Countries
Italy
The Nineteenth Century
The Early Twentieth Century
Sources

Synagogue Design
Interior

No stipulations are made by Jewish Law for the external appearance of the synagogue. Indeed, revelation at the burning bush, at Sinai and in the Tabernacle, surely teaches that no place is devoid of the Divine Presence, Neither the lowliest of trees, barest of mountains, nor a wooden sanctuary. Jewish law governs only very specific elements of synagogue design, chiefly, orientation, location, height, lighting and provision for separate seating for men and women. Beyond those elements, the only basic requirements of the interior are an ark in which to house the Torah scrolls, a Bimah from which they are read the Torah and in Ashkenazi communities, a separate stand for the prayer leader. The arrangement of the essential elements of the interior has been dictated by the function of the synagogue, as conceived in diverse communities and in various periods. The architectural plan of the building has in turn been dictated by this interior arrangement, as well as by the styles prevailing at a particular time and place, so that over the ages, synagogues have been built in nearly every form and style conceivable.

Early Synagogues

In the Galilee, over fifteen synagogues have so far been identified, dating from the third and fourth centuries C.E. They are rectangular in plan, the largest (Capernaum), measuring 428 square yards, the smallest, 131 square yards. They are built and paved with stone. The gallery, which ran along three sides of the building, rested on two rows of columns going lengthwise and one row across. A staircase giving access to the gallery was provided outside the building. Some of the synagogues had an annex, probably used for the storage of the movable Torah ark. Stone benches ran along two or three sides. In some synagogues, there was a porch outside the fa�ade, in others, a terrace accessible by staircase. In some cases, a courtyard surrounded by porticoes was adjacent to the synagogue. This might have served as a place of rest during the services or as a sleeping place for wayfarers.
With regard to orientation, the early type of synagogue presents a unique feature: the facades of these buildings are toward Jerusalem. It follows that if the worshipers entered through the main doors in this fa�ade, and if they had to face the Holy City in prayer, they had to make an about-turn after entering. In these synagogues, no trace of a fixed place for the Torah ark has been found and it can be assumed that it was a movable object, carried or wheeled in, for the services. The architectural origins of this type of synagogue, apart from its general basilica character, common to the whole Greco-Roman world, are to be found in the Syro-Roman type of buildings. The architects of the synagogues were probably trained in the Syrian schools of architecture. From inscriptions, we know the names of a few of them, in particular, Yose the son of Levi, �the crafts man�, who built at Kefar Biram and Almah. In other cases, it is not certain whether those who are mentioned as making a synagogue, were the builders or the donors. One feature is noticeable in synagogues of all types: no one seems to have been able to afford to donate the whole building. The various parts were offered by separate donors and the gift of each was duly recorded on a column.
The execution of the buildings was in the hands of local craftsmen who introduced a strong oriental element into the classical orders (mainly Corinthian) of the columns ordered by the architect. The architectural ornament of the exterior fa�ade of these buildings was rich and varied. The builders, it seems, were interested in proclaiming the importance of the building in the life of the community, not only by its lofty position, but also by the splendor of its decoration. Thus, not only were the door and window lintels decorated with molded profiles, but they were often surmounted by conches set in a gable, to which a rich floral decoration was added. The fa�ade of the two-storied buildings was surmounted with a gable of the type known as �Syrian�. It consisted of a triangular pediment, with its base cut into by an arch. It seems probable that the corners of the building had decorations in the form of lions or eagles. Some of the lintels are of special interest, because they had in the center, a relief of a wreath held by two winged figures. Occasionally, the consoles flanking the doors were made in the form of palm trees.
In contrast with this rich, almost flamboyant, exterior, the interior of the building was kept deliberately bare. It was lit by windows above the doors. The columns within the building were smooth and stood on high pedestals; the double corner columns at the meeting of the three rows, had heart shaped bases in section. The capitals were of a simplified Corinthian order. The architects, it appears, were interested in avoiding anything that could distract the worshipers while at prayer. One exceptional feature in this respect was the richly decorated frieze. Scholars are still discussing the exact position of this architectural feature; most are inclined to place it over the wall of the women�s gallery. The frieze usually consisted of a running garland of acanthus or vine scrolls, with various images and symbols, set within medallions. The symbols include a number of Jewish religious objects, such as the menorah, shofar, etrog, lulav and the Holy Ark. Geometric figures such as the hexagram (Shield of David) or the pentagram (Seal of Solomon), and fruits of the land, in particular, the �seven species�, were also commonly used.

The Transitional Type

In the second half of the third century C.E., architects attempted modifications of various kinds. Sometimes, these were made in existing buildings; a typical case is the synagogue of Bet She�arim, in which an extra structure was built against the central door, blocking it. The two side doors were left for the entrance, but a new focus of worship was evidently created in the direction of Jerusalem. Other synagogues show a number of architectural experiments. In one of the early-type synagogues, that of Arbel (Irbid), a niche was included in the wall facing the fa�ade, presumably as a fixed receptacle for the scrolls of the Law. At Eshtemoa, in Judea, the problem of the relation of fa�ade versus entrance was solved, by changing the traditional plan. One of the long walls of the rectangle faced Jerusalem, while the entrance was through doors made in the short wall. A niche in the wall facing Jerusalem, served as a focal point of worship. The same arrangement was adopted in the earlier of the two superimposed synagogues at Caesarea.
The transitional type also introduced another innovation in the architecture of the synagogues. Mosaic pavements that now replaced the former stone slabs. These pavements were first decorated with geometric designs only, but from the fourth century, onward (as we know from a saying of R.Abun recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud) figurative drawings were permitted. At Hammat, one finds the earliest example of the standard type of synagogue pavement, figuring the signs of the Zodiac, with the sun in the center of the circle and the seasons in the four corners. The Zodiac circle was placed in the center of the pavement, with a representation of the ark, flanked by two menorahs beyond it. While the later images are self-explanatory, it has been suggested that the Zodiac, representing the regular succession of months and seasons, also stood for the fixed holidays and the succession of priestly watch periods in the Temple.

The Double-Naved Hall

The oldest building surviving in its original form, before it was destroyed by the Nazis in November 1938, was the renowned synagogue of Worms. Its construction began in 1034, but the structure underwent a fundamental change at the end of the 12th century, when buildings in the city were marked by a transition from the early to the late Romanesque style. The columns and their capitals and the portal, whose details and decoration are identical with those of the columns, (also the chandeliers, known from description only) may have been the work of a Jewish artist. An inscription preserved for nearly 800 years on one of the columns read: �The pride of the two columns, he wrought diligently, also the scroll of the capital, and hung the lamps.� The two-naved hall is a centralizing space, the Bimah being placed midway between the two columns. The women�s section, attached to the main buildings north wall, at the same level, is hardly smaller, and was built in 1213.
The second well-known Central European synagogue of this style was the old synagogue in Prague, Altneuschul (literally �The Old-New Synagogue�). The very narrow windows shed a gloom on the interior. The Altneuschul was built at the end of the 14th century and is unique in the Middle Ages for its impressive exterior, so different from the other synagogues of that period. This can be explained by the fact that the building was built in the heart of a large Jewish quarter and there was no fear of offending a hostile environment.

The Single-cell Hall

Another type of synagogue building in Central Europe in the Middle Ages, was the vaulted single-cell hall, i.e., a structure consisting of one nave. There were of course, timber-roofed synagogues, without stone vaults, often with open woodwork, in rare cases with wood panel ceilings. The best known single nave synagogue without stone vault and with visible roof trusses was at Erfurt. Many were, however, proper stone-vaulted Gothic single-cell buildings. Among the few that still exist, or existed up to World War II, were Bamberg, Miltenverg, Leipnick and also the Pinkas-Shul, built in the 13th century in Prague. The rest, which developed particularly in Bohemia and Galicia, are known from records, drawings and documents. The longitudinal axis was later often enhanced by the addition of the women�s accommodation alongside the main building. It usually had small windows, the full length of the interior. These late medieval rectangular synagogues were equipped with built-in arks in a niche or small apse. The Bimah retained its central position.
Most of the synagogues of Poland and Eastern Europe, including all the wooden ones, were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. A few survived, and some of these have been restored.

Renaissance and Baroque Influences

From the end of the 16th century, the Jews of Poland developed a specific synagogue architecture. On the other hand, the Jewish communities of Bohemia and Galicia, which lived in comparative prosperity in Catholic lands, absorbed the Renaissance and Baroque architecture, even in detail. The majestic Klauz Synagogue of Prague, built at the end of the 16th century and altered in the 17th, was barrel-vaulted, and stuccoed with plant, scroll and flower ornamentation, in the local Renaissance idiom. Cracow, likewise a city with a magnificent building tradition in the medieval and Renaissance styles, boasted barrel-vaulted synagogues with high lunettes; the western women�s gallery was typically placed over the entrance lobby, and screened off from the main hall by elegant arcades on Tuscan columns. Cracow�s oldest vaulted synagogue bears the name of one of that city�s most brilliant sons, the rabbinic authority, Rabbi Moses Isserles.
At the beginning of the 19th century, waves of migrants from Bohemia and Moravia carried the vogue of square vaulted synagogues to Germany, where ornamentation was added in the pronounced Baroque style current there.
The above-described building tradition of Bohemia and Moravia was a direct result of the work of non-Jewish architects or of close contacts with the respective environments of the various major cities. However, with the growing isolation of Jews from the European environment after the Middle Ages, Jewry created a world of its own, notably in the midst of Polish society. Within this world, there flowered an independent art. At first, this was of a folk character, which expressed itself in decorative painting and in various arts and crafts, penetrating eventually into the building crafts.

The Four-Pillared Hall

The layout and space-form of the stone synagogues with four pillars originated in Eastern Europe from the following independent approach. Centralized buildings for worship were always known in Europe and the Middle East. Regarding synagogue building plans, the principal problem was the Bimah and the desire to emphasize its central position and overriding importance. Its expressive and forceful solution, determined the connection of the buildings� shell with the Bimah in a rigid manner, by including it in the internal space formed by the four pillars. This kind of space relationship was partly anticipated hundreds of years earlier by the double-naved two-pillared synagogue with the Bimah between the columns. The two isolated cases with a single pillar (the Eger synagogue and the women�s section at Worms) perhaps expressed an even stronger centralizing notion. It was of course possible to emphasize a centralized layout by other architectural means, as indeed shown in the domed synagogues throughout the centuries. But never was the centrally designed Bimah as strongly and meaningfully stressed, as in this case, when it was integrated in the structural system of pillars, vaulting and buttressing, creating a four-pillared sub-space within the shell of the building. Synagogues where the four pillars create a close group include the buildings at Rzeszow, Maciejow, Vilna, Nowogrodek, Lutsk and Lancut.
A less absolute type layout was also in use, in which the four supporting pillars which contained the Bimah, divided the hall into nine equal bays. The Vorstady synagogue of Lvov and the synagogue at Zholkva are the most characteristic examples of this type of hall.
The four-pillared synagogue was a full answer to the problem of a centrally conceived liturgical function. As such, it may be considered one of the highlights of synagogue architecture. Its validity may be seen in the fact that many of the contemporary and later wooden synagogues were designed with four timber posts surrounding a Bimah. This was structurally superfluous, as timber can bridge relatively large spans. It is also interesting to note the prevalence of similar concepts in the vernacular synagogue architecture of North Africa. The four-pillared, vaulted, 14th century, stone, synagogue of Tomar, Portugal, is also relevant in this context. Four columned synagogues in Palestine include the Ashkenazi synagogue of the Ari and the Sephardi synagogue of Rabbi Isaac Aboab at Safed, the Avraham Avinu synagogue at Hebron, destroyed during the Arab massacre of 1929, and the Prophet Elijah and the Istanbuli synagogues, both in the Old City of Jerusalem, destroyed in 1948 and rebuilt in 1972.

Synagogues as Fortresses

The exterior appearance of European synagogue buildings often reflected local conditions. Thus many of them, especially those that stood outside the city walls, were built as fortresses for the purpose of defense against Cossacks or Tartars. They usually included a roof, surrounded by a fortified parapet, equipped with loopholes and sometimes with small towers, as part of the arcaded attic-story, typical of the Polish Renaissance. From the gun mounts on the roofs Jews served as gunners, whenever the city was under enemy attack, and underground tunnels led from the synagogue, to other key buildings in the city.

Wooden Synagogues

The Polish wooden synagogues are a unique architectural phenomenon. The wooden synagogue is the best known expression of a Jewish folk art, which developed especially from the mid-17th Century, under the influence of the Polish vernacular traditional building arts and spread over the entire Jewish settlement area of Eastern Europe. Side by side with the four-pillar stone synagogues, the numerous wooden synagogues built in the same period, were a specific Jewish expression. Many conjectures exist on their origin; the simplest is that they came through the tradition of carpentry preserved among the local population, which was in the habit of constructing many of its buildings in timber. Proofs exist that many or perhaps most of these synagogues were designed and built by Jewish craftsmen. The Jewish builder, aware of his special theme, began by giving the eaves an upward curve, and piled roof upon roof. In a later period, the form of building becomes quiet and restrained, but in the 17th century, the synagogues were imaginative, dynamic compositions, inside and out, of a complex design. The plan was generally simple. The measurements of the interior were normally about 15 square meters. The women�s hall was an annex, or sometimes built as an internal gallery. Characteristic is the additional �winter room�, designed as a shelter for very cold weather, and generally plastered to facilitate heating.
These synagogues sometimes had quiet and restrained exterior and contained wooden columns, in the classical Tuscan order, such as were common in the manor houses of landed gentry in the region. Inside was a very complex timber vaulting, adorned with painting and wood carvings.

Spain

From the point of view of language and art form, the Spanish Jews were part of the Islamic civilization, as is evidenced in their synagogue buildings. To adorn their synagogue walls, the Jews employed verses from the Torah, written in elegant Spanish characters, in emulation of their Muslim neighbors, who adorned their mosques with verses from the Koran.
The two best known synagogue buildings in Spain are in Toledo. One seems to have been built in the second half of the 13th century by Joseph ibn Shushan. Like most medieval synagogues, this building is modest in its exterior and splendid within. Its plan and structure are characteristic of a mosque. Four long arcades, which carry a flat beam ceiling, divide the interior into five bays. The arches are horseshoe-shaped and the pillar capitals are richly carved. The pillar bases in the two central colonnades are adorned with glazed tiles. Small circular windows in the western wall apparently belonged to the women�s hall, which no longer exists. Despite the building�s relatively small size, the interior looks spacious, due to the rhythm created by the horseshoe arches and columns.
The second building is in the former ancient Jewish quarter of Toledo. It was the synagogue of Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, minister of Pedro the Cruel, and built about the year 1357. The plan is that of a rectangular hall of long proportions. The walls are decorated with carved foliage. Lines of verses from the Psalms, alternating with decorative patterns, surround the hall beneath, and above, is the arcaded clerestory. The walls of the women�s section are decorated with ornamental inscriptions of verses from the Song of Miriam. The niche in the eastern wall was initially made for the ark, and inscriptions on each side of it record the erection of the building by Samuel Abulafia. The windows of the Clerestory are fitted with alabaster grilles, admitting a diffused light.

Arab Countries

Many synagogues in Oriental countries still exist. The great synagogue of Baghdad was described by the traveler Benjamin of Tudela in the 12th century as a building which apparently contained a columned hall opening onto a courtyard, as in a typical mosque and magnificently adorned with ornamental lettering, similar to that of Spanish synagogues. The famous synagogue at Fostat was a Coptic basilica, built in the ninth century. The Aleppo synagogue resembled, in principle, the layout of the ancient mosques of Cairo, Amru and Ibn-Touloun, both of the internal courtyard type. It had a separate roofed Bimah in the middle of the courtyard, where normally the mosque well is placed. The congregation was seated in the porticoes surrounding the courtyard. This is the most pronounced case of Islamic influence on synagogue design.

Italy

Jews had lived in Italy from the beginning of the Christian Era and they preserved ancient local traditions. Italy had also absorbed Ashkenazi Jews, and after the expulsion of 1492, exiles from Spain. The synagogues in Italy, as in the other Diaspora centers, generally lacked exterior distinction, nor was anything novel introduced in the way of structure. Very little is known about the seating layout and position of the Bimah in early Italian synagogues: the characteristic bipolar hall took shape only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was an interior plan whereby the ark and the Bimah were placed at the opposing ends of an axial layout. The intimate spatial schemes that resulted constitute the unique contribution of Italian Jewry to architecture.
At the Sephardic synagogue at Ferrara, built in the middle of the 17th century, the Bimah was placed opposite the ark, in studied and disciplined spatial coordination. But in most cities, more especially in the north, a solution took shape, which placed the Bimah against the western wall and elevated it. Most important was the almost universally practiced seating layout. The congregation was seated in two equal parts, facing and divided by the aisle connecting Bimah and ark. Thus, every worshiper could equally face both foci and the ancient troublesome space conflict was at last resolved.

The Nineteenth Century

With some exceptions, 19th century synagogue architecture was of a rather low general standard. The Jews in Western Europe and the U.S. gained emancipation and rose to prominence during this period, and erected large buildings. Since the 19th century lacked any single coherent architectural style of its own, the result could often be stylistic uncertainty and synagogues in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Moorish, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, or other styles, or sometimes an unconvincing mixture of several of these. All this however, was only apparent in the second half of the century. During the first half, synagogues generally possessed an appearance of dignity and restraint, and continued to be built in the classical tradition, but with a new emphasis on an archaeologically accurate revival of Greek and Roman architectural detail.
A very few synagogues, mostly in Central Europe and America, were affected by the mid-century Gothic revival, but the style was generally used only in details. It was felt to be too exclusively associated with Christianity, and the Jewish community adopted the Moorish style instead, as that most suitable for the large city synagogue, perhaps partly owing to its association with the golden age of Spanish Jewry.

The Early Twentieth Century

At the end of the 19th century, architects began to react against the exuberant ornamentation of the preceding period. At first, this reaction expressed itself in a simplification of design, rather than in a complete abandonment of historical revivals, but later architects produced stark synagogues, without conscious reference to any previous period. The abandonment of historical precedents made it possible to some extent for architecture to reflect its contemporary and climatic environment. The modern synagogue in Israel is a case in point. A synagogue in Hadera includes a watchtower and a courtyard to provide shelter for 2000 people, in case of attack. The Jeshurun synagogue in Jerusalem features small windows. A synagogue in Hertzeliya features large perforated sunscreens to reduce the intake of the strong Mediterranean sunlight. A common feature in the modern synagogue is stained glass windows. Some are simply designs in colored glass, aimed at creating desired lighting effects in the sanctuary, but most are designed on Jewish themes such as the festivals, ritual objects, or specific events in Jewish history. Perhaps, the best known windows are the twelve made for the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, by Marc Chagall. They represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and are replete with biblical and rabbinic allusions.

Sources

1) My Jewish World. The Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth. Editor in Chief: Rabbi Dr. Raphael Posner. 1975. Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem. P. 17-18.

2) The Synagogue. Compiled by Uri Kaploun. 1973. Keter Publishing House. Jerusalem. P. 10-27 P.60-109. 3)Yesodot HaTefilah-Foundations of Prayer. Eliezer Levy. Avraham Tzioni books. 1963. P.71-99)

(besides the sources on the list, material was taken from �The Encyclopedia of Judaism.�)

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