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Synagogue vs. Temple: Definitions & Differences

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  • 0:03 The Knesset
  • 0:45 The Jewish Synagogue
  • 2:06 The Jewish Temple
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Even non-Jews have likely heard the terms temple and synagogue before. What's the difference? In this lesson, we'll explore both of these terms and see why it's important never to confuse them.

The Knesset

One of the core tenets of most faiths is the idea that you need a place for worship. The Jewish faith is no exception. In Judaism, teaching, worship, and important rituals take place in a communal religious building called the beit k'nesset, also sometimes written in the Latin alphabet as the batei knesset. It means ''House of Assembly.'' Incidentally, Israel's legislature is also called the Knesset, or the Assembly.

So, that's it, right? The Jewish people congregate to practice their faith in a House of Assembly. Well, it's actually a bit more complicated. Translating this term has been a source of confusion, particularly between the terms synagogue and temple. What's the difference? It's all in the name.

The Jewish Synagogue

In most of the world today, Jewish houses of worship are known as synagogues. This term is actually a Greek translation of beit k'nesset. Since Greek was the universal language of scholars in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was the Greek translation of the Jewish house of assembly that became the most commonly used term.

The synagogue itself is actually run by members of the community, who hire a rabbi as a spiritual leader, as well as other supporting clergy and staff. So, what is the function of a synagogue? In Jewish communities, the synagogue is a place of worship, a school, a community center, and a social hall all rolled into one. However, it's first and foremost a place for prayer. In Judaism, prayer is considered to be very powerful, and Jewish people have certain prayers which must be said daily. While these can technically be said anywhere, Jews do believe that prayer becomes more powerful in groups.

Synagogues are also important places of education. Jewish children study the Jewish laws and sacred texts until an age of maturity has been reached. However, the study of Jewish law and tradition doesn't actually stop with the bar mitzvah, the coming of age for young men (the coming of age celebration for young women is called the bat mitzvah). Adult Jews are expected to research and consult sacred texts throughout their lives, and most synagogues maintain libraries for this purpose.

The Jewish Temple

Even if you're not Jewish, you've probably heard the term synagogue before. However, you've also probably heard about Jewish temples. So, what's the difference? Basically, while we can talk about a synagogue, we can only talk about the Temple. In Judaism, the Temple was the central place of worship for the Jewish people, the sacred building located in Jerusalem. The Temple was to Jews sort of what the Vatican is to Catholics, only even more defined in its importance.

In Jewish history, the concept of spiritually interacting with God begins with the tabernacle, a portable structure carried by Moses and the Israelites from Egypt. The tabernacle was the place where the Israelites could meet with God, pray, and conduct their rituals in a divine presence. When they finally arrived and settled in Jerusalem, the tabernacle was replaced by the Temple of Solomon, the first permanent Jewish temple. This was the new house where humans and God could interact.

The Temple became the symbol of the Jewish people, but it was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II around 587 BCE. The Jews were expelled, returning some 70 years later to build the Second Temple. The Second Temple stood in Jerusalem for centuries, until being destroyed by Romans in 70 CE. This structure plays a very important role in both Judaism and Christianity; it was to this temple that Christ came to celebrate the Jewish rituals.

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