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How Synagogues Have Evolved Throughout the Ages

The way our houses of worship developed is as fascinating as Jewish history itself. How did their form change over the centuries? How did their architecture evolve? Here’s is a brief glimpse into the millennia of holiness – a brief survey of synagogues from the earliest days until today.

Most of the synagogues that you may have visited or prayed in were built in the modern era or over the last 200 years. Yet lovers of history will wonder about the synagogues in history and how this center of our world has always found new life.


The earliest synagogues

It’s surprising to discover that synagogues are a relatively new invention compared to human history, with the first synagogues appeared only during the period of the Second Temple (from 6th Century BCE to the 1st Century CE).

At the time of the First Temple, the People of Israel ascended three times a year and only later did they begin praying to the Almighty every day. Thus synagogues were established in Eretz Yisrael and later in the Jewish communities abroad, mainly in North Africa and Babylon. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, synagogues became the centers of continued Jewish life.

These first structures are shrouded in mystery but we know how the synagogues that followed them were designed. During the golden age of the Roman Empire (first centuries CE), they were built in the form of a Roman basilica with a large central hall,  narrower halls on either side and rows of columns separating them.

Diversity of the Diaspora

With the spread of Jewish migration into different countries, it was natural that synagogues would also borrow from the styling of the host country. In Morocco, they were decorated with colorful and ornate mosaics, while in medieval Europe they were built firstly in Gothic style, then in Renaissance and Baroque styles. The Ottoman rule in Palestine influenced the synagogues there to have dome-shaped ceilings similar to mosques.

In fact, the trend to ‘look like other buildings’ was intentional. Rising anti-Semitism forced many Jews to practice their rituals in secret, so many synagogues were housed in structures of unusual design in order to hide their identity and protect worshippers.

Growing emancipation and rights

During the 19th Century the Jews in many European countries (as well as Muslim countries under European control) received emancipation and equal right. Many of the most impressive synagogues in the world were built during this period. They followed the popular styles of the time: Neoclassical, Neo-Greek, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Roman, Neo-Mori and Neo-Byzantine.

The coming of the 20th century, and the return of Jews to Israel prompted the architects to borrow more freely from modern European and American styles. They were also keen to build in later styles such as Bauhaus and Minimalism.

Innovations in our century

One of the most significant features of the 21st century is focusing on the needs of individuals and the challenges to make their lives simpler and more convenient. However synagogues – conservative in nature – have only recently sought to embrace change. New insights, often suggested by architects and specialist suppliers like Lavi Furniture Industries, are now influencing the planning and construction of modern-day synagogues.

Examples are plentiful: assigning synagogues as multi-purpose venues; making the Aron Kodesh accessible to disabled people; installing highly functional seating systems; greatly improving comfort and viewability in the women’s section; upgrading kitchen facilities.

The synagogues of tomorrow

The good news is that a progressive viewpoint is now becoming more widespread  as leaders in Jewish communities strive to retain and broaden the appeal of the synagogue as the center of Jewish life.

To this end, it’s the total experience that now dominates – the comfort of seating, the attention to detail, the issues of safety and burglary-protection, the need to have multi-use flexibility, recognition of the rights of disabled worshippers, and more. This is where a supplier like Lavi Furniture Industries has strong advantages.