I was also told that I did not need to recite their prayers with them and that I can politely refuse to wear a prayer shawl although men should wear a skull cap. I was also told that I cannot take pictures nor was I allowed to take out my cellular phone, which must be on silent mode. I had no problem in abiding by the rules as I was entering someone elses sacred place and I would expect the same respect if a visitor was to come to my religions place of prayer. When I arrived at the synagogue, I instantly wondered if its location was also subject to the direction of a bigger temple.
I cannot discount the fact that mosques are built in an angle allowing for the prayer hall to be facing the direction of the Mecca. But I was told that synagogues follow no tradition at all. But a smile crept through my face as I saw the Star of David (also known as the Megan Star) on the outside wall. I guess although their temple did not face a certain direction, they also placed a symbol of their faith outside their place of worship, just like the mosque bearing the crescent moon and star or the Catholics with the cross. As I entered the synagogue, I immediately noticed bowl-shaped cloths on the side.
These are actually skull-caps for male visitors of the synagogue since Jewish men wear skull-caps everyday, but some of them only during prayers or while studying the Torah. A skull-cap is a sign of respect. I was about to take off my shoes when I realized that there was no shoe rack. And neither was there an ablution where cleansing and washing must be done. I learned that Jewish people do not take off their shoes when going inside their temple and they do not do any ceremonial washing right before prayers inside. Inside the synagogue, I keep thinking that they had so much furniture inside.
I guess I am used to kneeling on the carpet for prayers, which is why the benches where the Jewish congregation sat were something new to me. There were chairs on all sides except for one side, the side wherein their altar was set-up. The Jewish altar is quite complicated for an outsider since it had many parts. On the wall was something like a closet, which is called the Ark. I learned that the Ark contains the Torah, which is like the Quran for the Muslims (or the Bible for the Catholics). The Torah is actually written on scrolls and these scrolls are covered by a breastplate and a mantle.
The Ark is only opened during Sabbath day, wherein the community elders say a prayer before opening it. When the Torah is being read, a pointer called the Yad is used to follow the letters and words. On each side of the Ark are prayer boards written in Hebrew and right above the Ark I noticed that there is a replica of the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses. Right above the Ten Commandments is a lamp called the Ner Tamid. It is a symbol that God is omnipresent and it also shows the holiness of the Torah. In front of the Ark is a reading platform which is where the rabbi preaches and where the Torah is read.
It is called a Bimah and it is lighted by seven-branched candlesticks called the Menorah but more often than not, it is just plain Sabbath candlesticks that are used during the Jewish Holy Day. I learned that there are two different candlesticks in Jewish tradition. These are actually kept at the back of the synagogue. One is the Menorah and the other is the Hannukiah. A Menorah is actually the candlestick used in the original Jewish temples and oils were put to light them. The Hanukkiah is a nine-branched candlestick with a Star of David on top which commemorates the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.
It has nine branches instead of seven because on the night that the Jewish temple was desecrated, the olive oil used for the Menorah was calculated to last only one night and yet it miraculously burned for an additional eight more nights. Hence, the nine branches of the Hanukkiah. For orthodox Jews, only rabbis can lead the service and only men can be rabbis, in contrast with reformed Jews were in anyone can lead the service and even women can be rabbis. However, regardless of being orthodox or reformed Jews, there is no distinction as to the sitting arrangement in the synagogues.
Right in front of the Bimah is the seats for the elders of the Jewish community. Behind and around them would sit the men. Women and children are not allowed to sit with the men of the community and so they are seated away from them towards the back or at a balcony above. Also noticeable are decorations nailed on each doorway. The decorations are called mezuzah, a container containing words from the Torah. At this point, it reminded me of the prayer carpets in mosques used as decorations. It seems that the Jewish also use holy things for their decorations, to be in-keeping with respect and sanctity of their place of worship.
But the mezuzah is not only for the synagogues but also for Jewish homes and it is placed on each doorway except the doorway of the bathroom or toilet. Outside the synagogue there is also called the sukkah or a hut built for harvest. This is where the Jews pray and have meals. There is also a kitchen and it is kosher or clean according to Jewish laws. Meat and milk are separate and the parts of the kitchen are actually labeled so that the people will be reminded of where to place the meat or milk, thereby in keeping with Jewish laws.
Also found in the kitchen is a special cabinet for things used during the Passover. This is to make sure that things used during the Passover is not mixed nor touches anything that has yeast in it, since things for Passover cannot touch anything that has yeast in it. I realized that a synagogue is similar to a mosque. Just like the skull-caps worn inside the synagogue, a spare head covering must be worn inside a mosque. We also have something like the Ark although it does not hold the Quran.
It is the Mihrab which shows Muslims where to face during prayer, as it faces the direction of the Mecca. And just like the prayer boards around the Ark, a mosque has its own decorations around the Mihrab too like Arabic texts from the Quran and a picture of the cube inside the Mecca called the Kaaba. Just as there are similarities, of course, there are also differences. I did not have to take off my shoes when I entered the synagogue and the carpet on the floor was used for walking on and not for kneeling in prayer. Neither does a mosque have a pulpit or the Bimah where a rabbi speaks.
But more important than what I saw inside and outside the synagogue is the deeper realizations I had as a result of my synagogue visit. Each religion has its own place of worship and certain rules and proper decorum must be observed when visiting someone elses place of worship. It is okay that I felt like a stranger in a place of worship or prayer other than your own and that is because I was a stranger to the place. I was a visitor. I watched my step, my every movement to make sure that I do not do anything that may be seen as a sign of disrespect. I did choose to visit a Jewish temple on a day that there was no service.
Although I was told that it would be alright to attend the service and observe the Jewish day of prayer (and that they will not force me to pray with them), I did know my limits and personally did not want to intrude or disturb a very sacred religious practice. Each religion has its own beliefs, traditions and places of worship. And though there are many religions and each one believes in something different from the other religions, each religion must be treated with respect because if there is one common thing among all religions, it is believing in something higher and more powerful than the human being.