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What is a shul?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht


Library » Daily Life » Prayer | Subscribe | What is RSS?


A. A Shul (pronounced SHOOL) is a synagogue. The word “shul” comes from the same root word for school: the Old German schule, or place of learning, a throwback to the days when synagogues doubled as community Torah learning centers (as many do today, though informally).

B. The shul is a holy place. The Divine Presence is accessible in a shul, and prayers recited in the shul are answered more readily than prayers uttered elsewhere.1 Therefore, when in the confines of the shul, it is imperative to preserve the sanctity of the shul by behaving respectfully at all times.2

C. A shul’s centerpiece is the Aron kodesh, or holy ark, containing the Torah scrolls. The ark is usually ornately decorated with intricate woodwork and gold-trimmed, tapestry-like curtains, and placed along the easternmost wall of the main room, the sanctuary. This is because prayers must be said facing the Western Wall in Jerusalem—which is east in most Jewish-populated countries.3 Often, the aron sits on a raised platform, to lend it honor and prominence, like a judge’s bench in a courtroom. Directly in front of the aron stands the podium for the chazan (cantor), though it is oft-times to one side. Filling the rest of the room are congregational seating arrangements—chairs or the traditional pews, and the Bimah—the large, velvet-decked table upon which the Torah scroll is opened and read four times weekly and on holidays—in the center. Along other walls one will find bookcases holding prayer books, chumashim (the Five Books of Moses), and other Jewish books.

The Divine Presence is accessible in a shul... it is imperative to preserve the sanctity of the shul by behaving respectfully at all times
D. Hear ye, hear ye! There are many Mitzvahs associated with the good ol’ shul. Funding a shul’s decor is a Mitzvah, and generally, the more decorative the furnishings, the greater the Mitzvah. The secondary obligation of a Jewish community as a whole finances-wise is to construct for itself a shul (building a Mikvah comes first). And as with the decor, donating the various construction and interior decorating costs of the shul itself is a great Mitzvah. On the flip side, destroying a shul is a Torah prohibition: if a shul must be removed, it must be dismantled carefully, not bulldozed. Any sacred Jewish object or item, for that matter, such as Jewish books, must also not be destroyed.

What do I do inside a shul?

1. Pray

Jews go to shul for Tefillah, commonly known as prayer, which, of course, also means connection. The three regular daily prayer services are held at shuls in every Jewish community, every day, and on Shabbat and Jewish holidays too. Yom Kippur is a biggie, usually seeing more attendees stream out of the woods and through the front doors than any other occasion throughout the year. Prayers are held with a Minyan (a quorum of ten adult males) and led by a chazan who keeps everyone together.

Whenever Jews gather at shul... they share their triumphs, tragedies, and authoritative opinions on the daily news
2. Celebrate

Prayer isn’t the only use for a shul—Jewish holidays are celebrated there, too. There’s the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the circling of the bimah with the Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot, and some pretty snappy dancing on Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The community gathers there at Chanukah to light the Menorah, at Purim to hear the reading of the Megillah, on Pesach for a community Seder, and on Shavuot to commemorate the giving of the Torah.

3. Socialize

Throughout the centuries, the shul was the nerve center of the Jewish community. Each morning, and after a hard day’s work, the menfolk gathered for the three daily services. Before and after each, if they had a few seconds, they no doubt did the water-cooler thing: talk! Some things never change—the shul is still a community linchpin as much as it is a haven for the sacred. Whenever Jews gather at shul, whether for services or special occasions (Brit, Bar Mitzvah, wedding), they share their triumphs, tragedies, and authoritative opinions on the daily news. People make new friends, catch up with old ones, discuss and debate. Any shul event is a community event, and when the community comes together, the words flow.


  • 1. Ezekiel 11:16 "Thus says the L-rd G-d: Although I have removed them far off among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet have I been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they are come." The Talmud (tractate Megillah 29a) comments: "'a little sanctuary' - this refers to the synagogues and study halls".
  • 2. See Talmud tractate Megillah chapter 4 (namely 27b-28b)
  • 3. Cities east of Israel face west during prayer, and in Israel they face Jerusalem (be that east, west north or south).
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Mitzvot » Prayer » Synagogue

(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
A seven day autumn festival commemorating the miracle of the Heavenly Clouds which enveloped the Jews while traveling in the desert for forty years. On this holiday we dwell in makeshift booths and shake the Four Species.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
A ritual bath where one immerses to become spiritually pure. After her menstrual cycle, a woman must immerse in the Mikvah before resuming marital relations.
A one-day holiday celebrated in late winter commemorating the miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from a decree of annihilation issued by Persian King Ahasuerus in the year 356 BCE.
An eight day mid-winter holiday marking: 1) The miraculous defeat of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies by the undermanned Maccabis in the year 140 BCE. 2) Upon their victory, the oil in the Menorah, sufficient fuel for one night only, burned for eight days and nights.
Simchat Torah
An extremely joyous one-day autumn festival following the holiday of Sukkot. In Israel it is the eighth day of Sukkot, outside of Israel it is celebrated the next day, the day after Shmini Atzeret. Every Sabbath we read a portion of the Torah. On this holiday we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle.
The horn of a Kosher animal. The Shofar is sounded on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and is intended to awaken us to repentance. Also blown to signify the conclusion of the Yom Kippur holiday.
A citron; a greenish-yellow citrus fruit. We are required to take an Etrog on the holiday of Sukkot and shake it together with a palm branch, a myrtle and a willow.
A scroll. Usually a reference to the Book of Esther, one of the books of the "Written Torah", which is read--from a scroll--on the holiday of Purim.
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Festive meal eaten on the first two nights of the holiday of Passover (In Israel, the Seder is observed only the first night of the holiday). Seder highlights include: reading the story of the Exodus, eating Matzah and bitter herbs, and drinking four cups of wine.
(Yiddish) Synagogue.
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Shmini Atzeret
A joyous one-day autumn festival immediately following the holiday of Sukkot. Outside Israel this holiday is celebrated for two days, the second day is known as Simchat Torah.
A cantor, or any individual who leads the congregation in prayer.
A palm branch. One of the Four Species we are required to take on the holiday of Sukkot. We shake it together with a citron, myrtle, and willow.
Western Wall
The western wall of the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem. "The Divine Presence never left the Western Wall," and to this day, the Wall remains a holy shrine and a place for prayer.
Candelabra. Usually a reference to the nine-branched candelabra kindled on the holiday of Chanukah.
Bar Mitzvah
The thirteenth birthday of a Jewish male. On this day -- customarily celebrated with a modest party -- the adolescent reaches adulthood and is responsible to observe all the commandments of the Torah.
Prayer. The Jewish Sages instituted three daily prayers, and an additional prayer on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
[Lit. Covenant] Circumcision. The act of removing ones foreskin 8 days after birth, perpetuating a covenant with G-d originally established by the Patriarch Abraham.
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Table at the center of the synagogue upon which the Torah is placed when it is being read.
Passover. A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Literally: a box. Aron is usually a reference to one of the following: 1) The Holy Ark wherein the holy Tablets were kept. 2) The Ark in the synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept. 3) A coffin.
A quorum consisting of ten adult male Jews. A minyan is necessary to recite the kaddish or to publicly read from the Torah scroll.