Interior and Design
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The word synagogue means a ‘meeting place’ indicating its dual function as a House of Prayer and a social and educational centre for the community. Synagogue styles of decoration and architecture are very diverse – there is no standard form. These elements are usually determined by the fashions of time and place. The main constant is an East-West interior orientation although this can occasionally vary.
The Ark (Hebrew : Aron HaKodesh) is the main focal point and is located in the eastern wall (the farthest as you enter), This is where the Scrolls (Sephorim) are kept. Using Hebrew consonants only and written on parchment with a quill pen, each contains the biblical Five Books of Moses.
The Bells (Rimmonim) and Shield or Breastplate which decorate each scroll recall biblical Temple times and symbolise a part of the biblical High Priest’s vestments. The embroidered cover protects the scrolls.
The Pointer (Yad) enables the reader to indicate the place – avoiding the need to touch the parchment. The Everlasting Light (Ner Tamid) hangs above the Ark and remains lit at all times. It recalls the light which burned continuously in the Temple. This beautiful example is one of several features here which reflect Byzantine design.
The Lectern or Pulpit, from which the weekly sermon is preached, was presented (1887) by Sir Albert Sassoon to mark his son Edward’s marriage to Aline de Rothschild of Paris.
The Seven branched candelabrum (Menorah) again symbolises Temple-era furnishings. The two examples here (one either side of the Ark) were bought with donations, totaling 65, from Juliana, Baroness Mayer de Rothschild (1831-77) and her daughter, Hannah.
Above the Ark is an arch with a Talmudic quotation which translated means “Know Before Whom You Stand“. There are also windows representing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments – this motif is repeated on the Ark Curtain (Parochet). The individual box pews either side of the Ark are for the Rabbi on the right, and distinguished visitors on the left.
The Reader’s Desk (Almemmar or Bimah) is the large raised area in the centre where the services are mainly conducted. Torah readings also take place here – the Scroll (or Scrolls) having been brought in procession from the Ark.
Fronting the bimah is the Warden’s Box – reserved for the congregation elders. Facing this is an Eight branched candelabrum (Chanukiah) with eight large branches and one small one, used each December for the eight-day Chanukah festival. This fine example was given by the first Jewish Town Commissioner of Brighton (elected 1822) Hyam Lewis and dates from around 1845. It is the only artifact remaining from Devonshire Place in the main hall apart from some pews.
Wooden wallboards on either side of the entrance give details of the weekly Torah reading and other information relevant to the time of year. The marble plaques (in English and Hebrew) display the regularly read Prayer for the Royal Family. These give the pre-1935 version although the King and Queen referred to are George VI and the late Queen Mother.
For reasons of modesty men and women sit separately in Orthodox synagogues – following Temple practice – men sit downstairs and women in the Gallery above. The thrice-daily services (not in this building) are, except for very small sections, said in Biblical Hebrew, They may be conducted by the Rabbi, a salaried Cantor (Chazan) or any suitable Jewish male. These statutory services require a quorum of 10 men aged 13 or over.
To the casual visitor, one of the most striking features are the myriad colours and designs of the stained glass windows. Each set is unique. Some of the “renaissance” design windows are stylistically based upon the early Arts and Crafts movement designs of William Morris. We’ve put together a few basic galleries of these. Go to the “gallery” page for more.
The Holy Land Columns
In the main hall, the capitals of the columns all represent different floral and botanical specimens from the Middle East and specifically what is now modern-day Israel. There are 24 different designs and all are unique. Amongst the golden undergrowth can be seen pomegranate, citron, barley, grapes, pistachio, jujube, fritillaria, and almonds.
The Golden Botanical Columns
All the carved stone capitals between the stained glass windows in the Men’s and Ladies Galleries are individually carved with no two being exactly. Each floor has twenty designs each side making a total of 80. The capitals bordering the stained glass windows at roof level are more uniform in their design. For a selection of photos see the gallery page!