A traditional synagogue has an ark (where the scrolls of the Law are housed), a "everlasting light" burning in front of the ark, two candles, benches, and a raised platform (bimah) from which scripture passages are read and services are typically conducted. In addition to these features, a traditional synagogue will have a table for the offering plate, a couch for the rabbi, and a ladder leading up to a balcony where musicians may stand during services.
In modern synagogues, these elements are usually replaced by a ceremonial altar, a reading desk for the rabbi, chairs for the congregants, and bima stools for the rabbis. The lighting in modern synagogues tends to be more functional than decorative, with fluorescent tubes providing artificial sunlight through stained-glass windows. The sound system in a modern synagogue is usually electronic, though some remain equipped with pipe organs.
Modern synagogues can look very different from one another. Some are large buildings with many rooms, while others are small scale models of Jewish homes or businesses. Some have many religious articles and decorations, while others are simple and sparsely decorated.
No two synagogues look exactly the same. Each building is designed specifically for that community's needs and customs. But there are several common areas, such as a women's gallery, a foyer, a library, etc., that most have in common.
Every synagogue has an Ark, which is a cabinet that houses the Torah Scrolls, which contain the Hebrew Bible's text, as well as a desk from which to read the Torah. The Ark is called after the wooden box that housed the stone tablets of the Covenant given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Like the tablets, the scrolls inside the ark are covered with leather. There are two kinds of scrolls used by synagogues: the ketubah, which is a marriage contract between Jewish people; and the tefillin, which are small boxes containing passages from the Prophets that are worn on the head and arm during prayer.
The contents of the ark were originally kept in the temple, but since the destruction of the temple Jews have stored their holy books elsewhere. However, the practice of storing the Torah in a synagogue continues today even though it no longer serves as a temple.
In medieval Europe, where much research was done on plants and herbs, the ark came to be known as the "Herbarium." Today, this is what is referred to when someone says they are going into the synagogue to study the scrolls.
Synagogues also keep records of births, marriages, and deaths. These are important documents that serve as proof of eligibility to perform conversions or marry Jews who are not relatives.
The Ark, also known as the Ark of the Law, Hebrew Aron, or Aron Ha-qodesh ("holy ark"), is an ornamental cabinet in Jewish synagogues that houses the precious Torah scrolls used for public prayer. The ark is located between the two halves of the bimah, the platform on which the Torah is read from. It is usually made of wood, with decorative features such as carvings and inlays. In most cases, it stands by itself. However, in larger synagogues where space is limited, the ark may be part of an elaborate structure called an altarpiece.
In English usage, the term "altar" is often applied to any raised surface, including those found in churches and temples. In Judaism, however, the word refers only to the single elevated platform before the bimah (throne), on which are placed the menorah (seven-branched lampstand) and the chandelier (spiral staircase). From this area the priest reads the law each day during services.
In ancient times, the ark was covered with curtains to protect the scrolls inside from damage. When the temple was destroyed, so too were these curtains, which provided evidence of their existence. Later, when parchment replaced the older writing materials, the practice returned.
There are one or more Torah scrolls in the ark, each one a community treasure that is revered. It is traditional to stand whenever the Torah is withdrawn from the ark and put on the bimah. When it is returned to the ark, everyone sits down again.
The Torah is the fifth of six books of Moses. It contains the commandments God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai after they escaped from Egypt. The other five books of Moses are called the Pentateuch (meaning "five rolls"). They include the first five chapters of Genesis (which tell about the creation of the world and humanity's fall into sin), as well as the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (the last two of which describe the wilderness wanderings and arrival at the land of Israel).
People often wonder where the term "Torah" comes from. The Hebrew word for "torah" means "instruction," "law," or "code." It is what God told Moses on Mt. Sinai when He spoke to him directly rather than through an intermediary (such as a prophet).
During ancient times, people didn't write words down as we do today. So teachers needed some way to communicate essential information to their students.