Did you know that the Greek word ‘synagogue’ is actually a translation of the Hebrew term Beit K’nesset (English = House of Assembly). The ‘assembly’ referred to is the minyan (quorum of 10) necessary for a full prayer service.

By the time of the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, the beit k’nesset was an essential part of Jewish communal life. Aware of the importance of maintaining the dignity of a place set aside for worship, the sages recorded numerous rules and discussions on worshipers’ attitudes and comportment in a beit k’nesset. For instance (Talmud Megillah 28a-28b): ‘…in a synagogue one may not conduct oneself with levity, one may not eat in them, nor may one drink in them, nor may one adorn oneself in them, nor may one stroll in them…’ In other words, the beit k’nesset is a place to be respected and revered.

One is, however, permitted to study Torah and halacha (Jewish law) in a beit k’nesset. It is, therefore, not uncommon for many batei k’nesset to double as study halls. In fact, this is most probably the source for the Yiddish term shul (which also means school), which is the expression used by many traditional Ashkenazim to refer to their local synagogue(s).

Other terms for a beit k’nesset are:
Temple–This term is used most often by Reform worshipers to signify that Jews can create a holy space in lieu of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Esnoga–This term is used by Spanish and Portuguese Jews.
Knis–This term is used by many Arabic-speaking Jews.

In order to address the need for both a place to pray and a place for socializing, during the past century most synagogues began to include social halls in their buildings. As these rooms are designated for non-worship/study purposes, it is permitted to eat, drink and be merry there.

This Treat was originally posted on February 10, 2010.

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