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Page first published on JCR-UK: 2003
Latest revision or update: 8 August 2014

Notes for the Visitor to Plymouth Synagogue

by Rabbi Bernard Susser

The word "Synagogue" can denote either a congregation of Jews, Judaism as contrasted with "the Church" or "the Mosque," and it is also used to designate the place of worship.

The institution of the Synagogue is very ancient. So much so, that we do not quite know when it began. Most scholars are agreed that it originated in Babylon during the first exile, about 550 B.C. The bulk of the Jewish people were in exile, far from their beloved Temple. The Jew could not worship the way his father had prayed, and to meet the new need, there arose the institution of the Synagogue. The prayers said in the Synagogue conform basically to the pattern of the Temple procedure, but there were differences which time accentuated.

There was only one Temple, and it could be erected at only one specified spot. The services in it were stereotyped and conducted by the hereditary classes of Priest and Levite. On the other hand the Synagogue could be erected anywhere, any Jew, whether of the priestly caste or not, could lead the service. It is interesting to note that Anglican and Catholic Churches have taken the Temple as their model, rather than the later development of the Synagogue. The two institutions were not rivals, there was a Synagogue in the Temple precincts, but rather they were complementary. The Synagogue became a house of both prayer and study. Study of scripture became in itself a part of prayer - "and straightaway on the Sabbath day he entered into the Synagogue and taught" (Mark 1.21). To this day we refer to the Synagogue as a "Shool", the German word for " School. ",


In the centre of the Synagogue is a raised platform called the BIMAH; a Greek word meaning "a speaker's tribune" from which we read the Pentateuch in an annual cycle. "For Moses hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the Synagogues on the Sabbath day" (Acts. 15.21). Written in letters of gold at the front of the Bimah is the Hebrew for "Seek peace and pursue it."

The Pentateuch which we read from is in the form of a scroll. In Hebrew it is called a "SEFER TORAH" and usually translated "The Scroll of the Law." This is bad translation and a good example of how biased people can alter the essential meaning of a technical term without even realizing that they have done violence to its real meaning. It is said that Judaism is a religion of "legalism," with the implication that it pays more heed to the letter of the law than the spirit behind it. The Hebrew word " Torah" is usually translated as "Law," but this is not at all accurate. "Torah" comes from a root which means "Teaching" and Sefer Torah should be rendered "The Scroll of Teaching."

The Scroll itself is made of Parchment specially prepared for the purpose, and every letter is carefully written with a quill according to ancient custom. It is a mark of the piety, skill and care taken by our scribes which has ensured for Synagogue, Church and Mosque an accurate text. Those of the Dead Sea Scrolls which relate to the Pentateuch show that in 2,000 years the text has not changed. Some of the letters have little crowns (TAGIN) on them. It may be that these TAGIN are merely scribal flourishes, but is more likely that there is a deeper mystical meaning bound between them and their letter, whose significance has long been lost. These "tagin" are called "titles" as in the verse ". . . till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one title shall in no-wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled." (Math. 5.18).

The Bimah is the counterpart of the wooden pulpit from which Ezra read the Torah to the assembled people who stood all around him (Neh. VIII.4) and to this day, the weekly portion from the Pentateuch is read from the Bimah along with a second lesson from the Prophets. In the Church, the first lesson is usually taken from the Jewish Bible, whilst the second lesson usually parallels or has something in common to the first.


A closet or chest in which the Scrolls of the Torah are kept. The Ark is placed in or against the wall of the Synagogue towards which the worshippers turn in the Solemn Parts of the liturgy, the wall facing the direction of Jerusalem.

In earlier times and other Countries it was found necessary to have the Ark easily transportable, so that in times of trouble it and its contents could be easily hidden.

To build the Ark into the wall was an act of faith in Providence and shrewd estimate of the characters of their fellow citizens. One wonders whether those first Jewish settlers in Plymouth around 1740 could have foreseen that descendants would worship in that very same place for more than 200 years.

In front of and above the Ark is a small LAMP called in Hebrew the NER TAMID

This had its origin in the perpetual light which burnt in the central shaft of the seven branched candlestick in the Temple. The symbolic significance is variously represented as depicting God's Presence, or the spiritual light which went forth from the sanctuary. Our lamp is lit by gas and is probably over 100 years old. In many Synagogues they are lit by oil and are often of great beauty.

In the Church, the Ark area, is represented by the Sanctuary. In the Synagogue, prayer has replaced sacrifice and there is no need for an altar and the Church altar has its origin in Temple worship. In some Churches the altar is called the Credence Table. In the Catholic rite, on this table are placed the cruets with wine and water, the humeral veil for the subdeacon, the burse, the chalice and candlesticks. It would seem that the origin of this table was the Temple "pre-table" on which was paced the weekly "show bread." Among the vessels enumerated as belonging to the table are dishes and bowls. These were for the incense, wine libations and the "menak Myot" perhaps cleansers or dippers. Antiochus Epiphanes looted the table from the temple, and Judah Maccabee replaced it. The Ark of Titus in Rome depicts a table amongst the spoils carried of at the sack of Jerusalem.

In the Catholic Church, the altar is covered with three linen clothes. To this day Jews are buried in three linen shrouds. "And when Joseph had taken the body he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth" (Mat. 27.49). The altar serves to remind the Christian of the sacrifice and death of his Saviour.

Similar to the Ner Tamid of the Synagogue is the Sanctuary Lamp in the Church.

Above the Ark is a representation of the two tablets of stone and written upon them in Hebrew are the first two words of each of the:


These few commands - only 120 words in the Hebrew text - cover the whole gamut of man's existence, in his outward actions and the innermost recesses of his heart. The Decalogue laid down the foundations of Religion and Morality, but is not in itself the entire structure of Human Duty.

Such was the strength of these commands and so awesome the circumstances under which they were revealed to mankind, that they alone of the commandments given to the Jewish people, have been also accepted by the Church and not regarded as abrogated or "fulfilled." St. Augustine spoke of them as "the heart of the Law." Luther wrote "Never will there be found a precept comparable or preferable to these commands, for they are so sublime, that no man could attain them by his own power."

On the large picture at the prayer dais in front of the Ark is a representation of:


The SEVEN branched candlestick. Made for the first Tabernacle in the wilderness and subsequently to be found in the sanctuary at Shiloh and in the Temples. The representation on the Arch of Titus in Rome erected after the sack of the second Temple is probably of a Menorah made by Solomon and not the Mosaic one which was concealed by the Priests prior to the destruction of the first Temple.

The Menorah symbolizes according to most authorities the world and creation. The seven branches might also represent the seven days of the week or the seven planets. Following Jeremiah I, there seems to be a connection with the almond tree and hence a mystic conception of a celestial tree with leaves reaching to the sky and fruit typifying the planets.

The Menorah is one of the most common objects used as a Jewish art form, and it is to be found from earliest times on coins and tombs. it is an emblem of the present state of Israel and Parliament presented a very large one to the Israeli Kenesset a few years ago.

St. Luke in Acts 20.7 mentions "the many lamps" which burnt the upper chamber," while St. Paul "continued his speech till midnight." Christians, familiar as they were with the symbolical meaning of the candlesticks in tabernacle and Temple, also attached symbolical significance to the lights which they burned during the holy mysteries. "Lights are to be read," says Jerome "not to drive away the darkness, but as a sign of spiritual joy."

The Candlesticks in Buckfast Abbey are made by a Jewish artist, Benno Elkan.

Below the right hand window is an EIGHT branched Menorah cast in Silver. This is used at the Festival of Chanukah which generally falls in December and commemorates the victory of the Hasmoneans in restoring the faith of monotheism. Our sages placed the emphasis on the religious aspect of the victory rather than the military. Each day we light one more branch until all eight are lit, to commemorate the miracle of a tiny flask of oil sufficient for a day which lasted for eight days.

On the left hand stained glass window is:


This has become identified in the reminds of most people nowadays as the characteristic symbol of Judaism. The six pointed star has been noted on a Jewish tombstone in South Italy which is said to date back to the 3rd Century. The first literary reference to it is in the 12th Century, by a Karaite, Judah Hadassi. It is possible that it was originally employed as an architectural ornament on Synagogues, as it is on the cathedrals of Brandenburg and Stendal, and on the Marktkirche at Hanover. The Masonry movement has adopted the star of David for one of its signs, and there is one prominently displayed outside the Masonic Hall at Liskeard.

On the right hand window is

THE SHOFAR ;the Ram's Horn

The sound of the ram's horn stirs the soul and leads man to repentance. It is blown particularly at the season of the High Festivals at the Jewish New Year in September. It is at once a call to repentance and a clarion blast proclaiming freedom from human bondage.

A word about the matter of symbols. The Christian, whether he adores or merely reverences the Cross or Crucifix, regards it as summing up all that is essentially Christian. "No Cross, no Christianity," Christian theologians have preached over the centuries.

There are comparatively few symbols used in the present day Synagogue. In an age long fight against the dangers of rank idolatry the plastic arts have been neglected. However, excavations of a third Century Synagogue at Dura Erupts on the borders of the Roman and Persian Empires have revealed beautiful frescoes which have close affinities with early Christian art as found in the catacombs. There is strong evidence to suggest that Church art and hence, ultimately, all modern European art, has its roots in the Synagogue.

At the back of the Synagogue is a large canvas with the ancient form of prayer for the reigning Monarch and the Royal Family. Originally, the names of King William the Fourth and Queen Adelaide were inscribed on it but it was brought up to date some time ago. "Seek ye the peace of the City," says Jeremiah and Jewish people do just that taking a full part in the religious, social and governmental life of this City.


. . . is upstairs. Women take no active part in the Services nor (except by influencing their husbands) in the lay administration. But the importance of woman in Judaism cannot be measured by this, because for us though the Synagogue is important, the central point of Judaism is the home. The Jewish home cannot be run without the express and active participation and direction of the Jewish woman. In this country there has not yet been a woman Prime Minister, but long, long ago there was a Deborah in Israel. The concluding chapter in Proverbs "a woman of worth who can find? Her price is far above rubies . . ." could never have found its way into Holy Writ unless there had been a complete appreciation and acceptance of the importance of woman in Judaism.


Our prayers are written and recited in Hebrew. The Jewish people throughout history have been at least bi-lingual. Besides speaking the mother tongue of the country of their adoption, they have retained a knowledge and appreciation of their own language - Hebrew. It is not accidental that any community which neglected the study of Hebrew was ultimately absorbed into its non-Jewish surroundings. Hebrew, unlike Latin is not a "dead language." The Bible, Mishna Talmud, Mediaeval Poetry, Philosophy and Science and Bible commentary have led straight into the renaissance of the Hebrew Language in the new State of Israel. Except for modern technical terms the Israeli today would be understood by Moses, Isaiah, Hillel or Kimchi.


Both men and married women in the Synagogue have their heads covered. For the Jew it is a sign of disrespect to appear before his King bare headed. Women wore a veil which covered their hair as well as their face.

In the Catholic Church women still use some form of head covering. During the middle ages the aristocracy used to wear their hats in Church. Normally the Catholic Priest wears his biretta during mass, doffing it at the mention of the sacred Name. (It is interesting to note that the clergy were permitted to keep their birettas on during the whole service in China, where it was considered indecent for a man to appear in public with head uncovered).

-The other outstanding article of dress is the praying shawl, "the Tallis." Its religious significance is related to the fringes and "the tzitzis" which remind the Jew at all times of his duty to God.

In some Protestant Churches the "Jewish Prayer Shawl" is worn by the officiating clergy in the form of a clerical stole. The six sacred vestments used by the Priest in celebrating Mass, almost certainly have their origin in the vestments used by the Priest in the Temple service.

In the building next to the Synagogue are housed two institutions which are regarded by Jews as of fundamental importance to Judaism. They are


From the 1st Century of this era universal and free education was available to every Jewish child up to the age of sixteen. Without doubt the education of Jesus was arranged by the Pharisee teachers of Galilee. He was brought p as a Pharisee Jew and lived his life as one. It has been said that the religion of Jesus was Judaism, and the religion about Jesus is Christianity.

Deep is our consciousness that the existence of our community depends upon the diffusion of Hebrew and Religious knowledge to our children as well as to the adults. "We may not suspend the instruction of the children even for the rebuilding of the Temple." (Talmud). The other institution is


The Mikvah is a gathering of natural waters like a very small swimming pool. Immersion in the Mikvah has always been a distinctive act of dedication. The High Priest in the Temple had to immerse himself before carrying out his duties on the day of Atonement. Pious Jews to this day use the Mikvah on the eve of the Sabbath and on holy days. Converts to Judaism are required to immerse themselves.

The main use, however, is by the woman. Month by month throughout her married life, the wife immerses herself completely in the waters of the Mikvah. Until she does so, the husband must be continent. By the reverent guidance in these intimate matters which the law affords, Jewish men have been taught respect for womanhood, moral discipline and ethical culture, apart from the religious aspect, there is also benefit on hygienic grounds from the observance of the Jewish marital laws. An investigation has shown that Jewish women who observe the laws of Niddah and Taharah suffer from uterine cancer in the proportion of one to fifteen of the general populace of similar social and economic standing. Even more noteworthy is the difference of incidence of a certain kind of cancer amongst Jewish and non-Jewish men.

Baptism in or from a font of "living" water plays an important part in Christian life. The baptismal font is placed at the entrance to the Church to remind worshippers that Baptism is the opening step in the sacramental way to the Christian life. Thus when Christians participate in the ceremony or sacrament of Baptism, they borrow and re-interpret a Jewish ritual which fond its way into Christianity as early as the time of one of its immediate forerunners, John. the Baptist.

One last point. The visitor to the Synagogue is invariably struck by the free and easy manner adopted by the worshippers. At least part of the reason for this homely atmosphere can be explained when one realizes that the Synagogue has for centuries been far more than just a place one enters for prayer at specified times. Travellers were given hospitality in the Synagogue and slept there, as also the congregation on occasion; students studied in it, children were taught in it and it became a home in the real sense of the word for many worshippers.

There are many ways of worshipping the Almighty, in speech and in silence, in song and in dance, the only proviso is "The Merciful One requires service from the heart."

It is only within the last century that there has been a shift in the basis of that irrational hatred of the Jews, mis-named AntiSemitism, from a religious to a quasi-racial basis. Among enlightened Christians, religious anti-Jewishness has virtually disappeared. Especially in the Western democracies many Jews and Christians have been able to overcome the traditional animosity which is the heritage of almost twenty centuries, and are going ahead in constructive fellowship. To a greater extent than ever before, men of understanding realize that both Christianity and Judaism, each in their own sphere have a complementary part to play for the wellbeing of civilization. With this in mind we print


In 1947, Protestant and Catholic representatives agreed on the following:-

We have recently witnessed an outburst of antisemitism which has led to the persecution and extermination of millions of Jews living in a Christian environment. This would have been impossible if all Christians had been true to the teaching of Jesus Christ on the mercy of God and love of one's neighbour. We therefore, address ourselves to the Churches to emphasize the following points:

1. Remember that One God speaks to us all through the Old and the New Testaments.

2. Remember that Jesus was born of a Jewish mother of the seed of David and the people of Israel, and that His everlasting love and forgiveness embrace His own people and the whole world.

3. Remember that the first disciples, the apostles, and the first martyrs were Jews.

4. Remember that the fundamental commandment of Christianity, to love God and one's neighbour, proclaimed already in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus is binding upon Christians and Jews in all human relationships, without any exception.

5. Avoid disparaging biblical or post-biblical Judaism with the object of extolling Christianity.

6. Avoid using the word Jews in the exclusive sense of the enemies of Jesus, and the words the enemies of Jesus to designate the whole Jewish people.

7. Avoid presenting the Passion in such a way as to bring the odium of the killing of Jesus upon Jews alone. In fact, it was not all the Jews who demanded the death of Jesus. It is not the Jews alone who are responsible, for the Cross which saves us all reveals that it is for the sins of us all that Christ died.

8. Remind all Christian parents and teachers of the grave responsibility which they assume, particularly when they present the Passion story in a crude manner. By so doing they run the risk of implanting an aversion in the conscious or sub-conscious minds of their children or hearers, intentionally or unintentionally. Psychologically speaking, in the case of simple minds, moved by a passionate love and compassion for the crucified Saviour, the horror which they feel quite naturally towards the persecutors of Jesus will easily be turned into an undiscriminating hatred of the Jews of all times, including those of our own day.

9. Avoid referring to the scriptural curses, or the cry of a raging mob: His blood be upon us and upon our children without remembering that this cry should not count against the infinitely more weighty words of our Lord: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Avoid promoting the superstitious notion that the Jewish people is reprobate, accursed, reserved for a destiny of suffering.

11. Avoid speaking of the Jews as if the first members of the Church had not been Jews.

These brief notes only explain the meaning of the more obvious features of the Synagogue and their close relationship to Christian worship. To write extensively on these points, or even to touch indirectly on the derivation of Christian ethics and belief from Judaism would require a very long book indeed. May you derive knowledge and understanding from your visit and the Blessing of the Almighty accompany you.

Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord

We bless you out of the house of the Lord.


Some books for further reading:

The Pharisees, R. Travers Herford.

This Is My God, Herman Wouk.

The Faith of Judaism, Isidore Epstein.

The Jew and His Neighbours, James Parkes.

A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, Samuel Sandmel.

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