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Synagogue Layout Then and Now

Before we talk about the services you hold, first we need to talk about the physical layout of your synagogue. Whether you realize it or not, the physical layout can greatly impact the nature and quality of your services.

Form Follows Function: Function Dictates Form

There is an old saying that “Form follows function.” The corollary to that is that function dictates form; and as we will see, both the form of the synagogue and its function changed after the Second Temple was destroyed.


While each synagogue is unique, almost all synagogues share certain elements in common. For example, most synagogues are located near a spring or other body of water (such as a river or lake), for bathing and ritual immersion (“baptism”). This must be clean, fresh water. Salt water (such as in the Dead or Mediterranean Seas) does not qualify, and neither does swamp water. Rather, it must be clean, fresh water that not only cleanses, but is also capable of supporting life (i.e., living water). (Some believe that a pool will also work as long as the water is clean, and we will talk about that in the section on immersion.)

Another thing virtually all synagogues have in common is some form of Torah niche or Torah shrine, where the Torah ark is kept. The Torah ark is basically a decorated armoire in which the Torah scrolls are stored. There is also usually a bimah, which is a table on which the Torah scrolls are placed while they are being read. However, there are some major differences between how ancient and modern batei knesset are designed, and how they operate. You need to understand what changes took place and why, because it will make a big difference to you and your congregation.

Before the Destruction of the Second Temple

The Second Temple hosted ritual sacrifices, prayers, singing, bar mitzvah ceremonies, and more. However, while the Second Temple still stood, the synagogues did not feel the need to host tightly scripted ceremonies, because they were not trying to replace the temple. Rather, their focus was primarily on study and learning, and also as a local place of assembly. Any Torah-related function could be held in the synagogues, but they were primarily oriented toward study, learning, and prayers which came from the heart. This was the kind of synagogue Yeshua liked to attend.

Archaeologists tell us that before the Second Temple was destroyed, most synagogues had a very different physical layout than synagogues do today. Most Second Temple period synagogues had benches on all four walls. Therefore, when a member of the community got up to speak he stood in the center of the room. While there was a synagogue leader there was also an inclusive “club-like” participatory feel that is not normally found in the modern synagogues. Rather than being led from one side of the room (as in a modern synagogue), the leadership led from the center of the room.

A Second Temple period synagogue was a place for the faithful to come together and share psalms, teachings, tongues, revelations, and interpretations in an orderly way.

Qorintim Aleph (1 Corinthians) 14:26
26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

The elders should schedule time not only for the Torah portion and any teachings you may have, but also time for the people to present the things that Elohim is sharing with them through His Spirit. Of course you will want to screen these (and tongues are not shared unless a true interpreter is present, 1 Corinthians 14:28), but it is important to make time for them, as the goal is to help and encourage one another, and to raise up the next generation of Israel’s leaders.

Mishle (Proverbs) 22:6
6 Train up a child in the way he should go,
And when he is old he will not depart from it.

After the Destruction of the Second Temple

Big changes took place in the synagogue service after the destruction of the Second Temple. Since there was no longer a temple, the rabbis adapted the temple rituals, singing, and prayers to the synagogue. After that it was no longer a participatory environment of learning, study, and prayer led by a leader from the middle. Now the buildings were built with one wall facing Jerusalem, and the Torah niche or Torah shrine was placed on that wall, often also with a raised platform. Seating was now either a semicircle of seats, or rows of seats, such that the rabbi or synagogue leader led the service from the elevated platform on the wall closest to Jerusalem.

As we saw in earlier chapters, the nature of the prayers changed after the Second Temple was destroyed. Now, rather than the worship leader praying from his heart, the words of the prayers became fixed. The synagogues also started to be much more elaborately decorated, and the services themselves became more scripted. While the people might sing along or say “amein” to the rote prayers, it became less a study and worship center, and more of a sing-along performance, and a show. There was no longer the same kind of spontaneity that there was in Yeshua’s time. Unless you specifically want an evangelical service (which some do), this is precisely the kind of service you want to avoid.

About Moshe’s (Moses’) Seat

While there have been rabbis ever since the Babylonian Exile, the rabbis did not begin to dominate Judaism until after Judah HaNasi redacted the Mishna circa 200-220 CE. Before then, synagogues leadership was a mix. While some synagogues were led by elders or rulers, others were led by scribes or rabbis.

In Yeshua’s day, some scribes and Pharisees sat in a special seat to read the Torah scrolls. This was called Moshe’s (Moses’) Seat. Yeshua said that when the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moshe’s seat, we should do what they said (because they were reading from the Torah). However, He also said that we should not follow their examples, because while they read from the Torah, they did not do what it said (and they still do not).

Mattityahu (Matthew) 23:1-3
1 Then Yeshua spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples,
2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moshe’s seat.
3 Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.”

Archaeologists have found a stone “Seat of Moshe” in a third century (post-destruction) synagogue in Chorazin. The seat was located near the wall that was closest to Jerusalem, indicating that the services were led from the side of the room nearest Jerusalem, rather than from the center. It is therefore intriguing to note that Yeshua had said those in Chorazin needed to repent.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 11:20-22
20 Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent:
21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.

The picture is one of bad leadership in the synagogue in Chorazin, with the scribes and the Pharisees sitting in a physical Seat of Moshe, and reading to the people from the Torah, but then keeping their own customs and traditions (just as the rabbis do today).

Adapting for the Electronic Age

While we do not know for sure, it seems that Yeshua preferred the Second Temple period style of synagogue service, where the leaders spoke from the center of the room (rather than preaching from a wall). This seems ironic, because in today’s electronic age there is a need for projectors, screens, and cameras, and these do not typically work from the middle of the room. Electronics dictate a modern layout, with semicircular seating, or rows-of-chairs. This is especially true if you want to lead an evangelical-style service. However, if you have the ability to teach from the center of the room it is better, as it gets the people to face each other, and this tends to generate a more participatory feel.

What you want is not for a bunch of people to flock to a Roman-style amphitheater, listen to a beautiful polished performance, eat lunch, and then go home. Rather, you want participation. Rehearsal is fine, but you want a place where the people can come together and share, and encourage each other day by day, and help each other learn to walk in Elohim’s ways. So long as you can do that, the layout of the building is secondary.

Gender Segregation Issues

Rabbinic Judaism traditionally segregates men and women in the synagogues based on the segregation of genders implied in Zechariah 12:10-14. In this passage the men mourn apart from their wives. Rabbinic Judaism says if the genders are to be segregated during mourning, then segregation is also appropriate in happy times. (Note: verse 10 speaks of Yeshua.)

Zechariah 12:10-14
10 “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me [Yahweh-Yeshua] whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him [Yeshua] as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.
11 In that day there shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning at Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo.
12 And the land shall mourn, every family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves;
13 the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of Shimei by itself, and their wives by themselves;
14 all the families that remain, every family by itself, and their wives by themselves.

Based on this and other passages, the rabbis have come up with a set of laws which call for segregating the genders in the synagogue, and a dividing wall between them. However, while we agree that some degree of gender segregation is correct, we come to different conclusions as to what it should look like.

Yahweh’s Laws Regarding Ritual Purity

The Torah speaks of many things which can make us ritually unclean. While ritual uncleanness is not a sin, it is sinful to disregard Yahweh’s laws, or not to take them seriously. Because of this, we must pay special attention to these laws, as Yahweh has given them to us for our own good.

Leviticus 15:16-18 tells us that if a man has a discharge of semen he must wash his whole body in water, and he remains ritually unclean until evening. Further, if he has an emission of semen with his wife, they are both ritually unclean until the evening after they bathe in water. This means they should not enter the temple or tabernacle until then.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 15:16-18
16 “If any man has an emission of semen, then he shall wash all his body in water, and be unclean until evening.
17 And any garment and any leather on which there is semen, it shall be washed with water, and be unclean until evening.
18 Also, when a woman lies with a man, and there is an emission of semen, they shall bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.”

Further, Leviticus 15:19-33 tells us that a woman is ritually unclean during her time of monthly cleansing.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 15:19-23
19 “If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening.
20 Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean.
21 Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.
22 And whoever touches anything that she sat on shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.
23 If anything is on her bed or on anything on which she sits, when he touches it, he shall be unclean until evening.”

We give more details in “About Ritual Cleanness” (in Nazarene Scripture Studies, Volume 1), but such ritual uncleanness is not solved by showers and modern feminine hygiene products, because not only the woman but also everything she touches becomes unclean until the evening after she has bathed. Next, notice that if the husband sleeps in the same bed with his wife and any of her menstrual blood gets on him, he is also unclean for seven days, and every bed he lies on also becomes unclean.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 15:24
24 And if any man lies with her at all, so that her impurity is on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.

However, we also know that verse 24 does not refer to the husband having marital relations with his wife, but only to getting his wife’s menstrual blood on him due to lying in the same bed, because the penalty for having marital relations during his wife’s time of cleansing is that both of them are to be cut off from among the people.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 20:18
18 “A man who lies with a menstruous woman and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow, and she has exposed the flow of her blood; thus both of them shall be cut off from among their people.”

This shows us how seriously Yahweh takes matters of ritual purity. He also tells us that the reason for these commands is to separate us from our impurity, so that we do not die in our uncleanness for defiling His temple or tabernacle.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 15:31
31 “Thus you shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness when they defile My tabernacle that is among them.”

Obedience to Yahweh’s Precepts

So to touch on some fine-yet-important points, while the synagogue is not a Levitical tabernacle, it is nonetheless a type of tabernacle of David, and a type of sanctuary. Clearly, we should never defile any tabernacle or sanctuary belonging to Yahweh. In fact, it can be argued that we should not be ritually unclean for any appointed time, whether we are in the temple or tabernacle or not. For example, consider that at the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Yahweh told the men not only to wash their clothing, but also not to come near their wives for three days.

Shemote (Exodus) 19:14-15
14 So Moshe went down from the mountain to the people and sanctified the people, and they washed their clothes.
15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not come near your wives.”

Also, King Shaul (incorrectly) thought that the reason David was not at the new moon day feast was because he was ritually impure.

Shemuel Aleph (1 Samuel) 20:24-26
24 Then David hid in the field. And when the New Moon had come, the king sat down to eat the feast.
25 Now the king sat on his seat, as at other times, on a seat by the wall. And Jonathan arose, and Abner sat by Shaul’s side, but David’s place was empty.
26 Nevertheless Shaul did not say anything that day, for he thought, “Something has happened to him; he is unclean, surely he is unclean.”

Even if we are not technically under the Levitical order right now (but under the Melchizedekian order) the thing we need to remember is that the commandments that deal with ritual purity are precepts, Yahweh commands us to keep His precepts diligently.

Tehillim (Psalms) 119:4
4 You have commanded us to keep Your precepts diligently.

Some General Principles

In Judaism, husbands and wives of childbearing age normally sleep in separate beds during the wife’s time of monthly cleansing. This is correct for the reasons we saw above.

Further, because marital relations cause both husband and wife to be unclean (because of the man’s emission of semen), married couples should never have marital relations on a Sabbath or feast. If they have intimate relations on the preparation day, they should be sure to shower before sundown. One might want to extend this to three days before Pentecost as in Exodus 19:14-15, above.

This also highlights another reason why the priesthood should be male. Men can remain ritually clean by abstaining from marital relations while they are on duty in the temple or tabernacle, but women are not able to control their time of monthly cleansing. Therefore, if we are to obey the same precepts, then it also makes sense for the men to lead the services in the synagogues.

No Mechitzah (Gender Dividing Wall)

There are some gray areas, but if we apply the precepts to them, they clear up.

The synagogues are not Yahweh’s temple or tabernacle, and yet they are a type of tabernacle of David, and a type of sanctuary. We should never do anything that would bring ritual uncleanness into Yahweh’s tabernacle or sanctuary. Yet the other edge of the sword is that the synagogues are still not the tabernacle or temple. They were originally intended as study and learning centers, and as a place for the faithful to meet. Because they were not originally intended to replace the tabernacle or temple service, they did not have a gender dividing wall (what Judaism calls a mechitzah). Since our goal is to recreate the kind of synagogues Yeshua liked to attend, and since women were allowed to participate in the Second Temple era synagogues, we do not favor the Orthodox gender dividing wall. As we will see in later chapters, we believe head coverings are sufficient to help the genders stay focused on Elohim.

For details, see “About Ritual Cleanness” and “Head Coverings in Scripture”, in Nazarene Scripture Studies, Volume 1.

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