by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
Is there any particular significance behind the general synagogue set-up the way we have it today?
The synagogue is referred to in Rabbinic literature as a "Mikdash Me'at" - a "mini temple", a model of sorts of the Holy Temple which stood in Jerusalem. This concept is the greatest influence behind the synagogue structure which reflects the layout of the Temple. This is also the reason why a synagogue is built facing Jerusalem - highlighting the fact that our synagogues are made to model the Temple in Jerusalem.
Here are some examples:
The holiest section in the Temple was the "Kodesh Hakedoshim" - "The Holy of Holies". This was a small room in the front of the temple that housed the ark, the tablets and a Torah scroll written by Moses himself. This holy section was separated from the rest of the temple by a beautifully embroidered curtain called the "Paroches". Today this is represented by the "Aron Hakodesh" - the "Holy Ark" - at the very front of every synagogue. This is the focus of holiness in the synagogue because like in the Temple, it contains the holiest object - the Torah scrolls. You will notice that the ark is covered by a curtain. This is not just a decorative feature but is made to represent the embroidered curtain in front of the "Holy of Holies" in Jerusalem.
The Bima - the podium from which the torah is read - represents the sacrificial alter ("Mizbeach") that stood in the Temple courtyard at a distance from the "Holy of Holies". It is for this reason that the bima is placed towards the middle of the synagogue. In fact, the reason that we encircle the bima with our lulavim on the festival of sukkot is because in the times of the Temple they would encircle the alter with their lulavim.
You might also notice that in most synagogues there is a little lamp or electric light, usually found on top of the Aron Hakodesh, which remains lit at all times. This light is called the "Ner Tamid" - The Eternal Light - and reminds us of the Menorah in the Temple which always had at least one candle burning.
Many larger synagogues are built with a women's gallery - known as the "Ezrat Nashim". This too is modelled on the structure of the Temple where the ladies section was built on the upper level, surrounding the men at the bottom on three sides.
In the temple, the priests were obligated to wash their hands and feet at a special water urn known as the "Kiyor" - situated in the outer part of the Temple, before commencing their daily service. For this reason most synagogues are built with some sort of basin outside of the prayer area, so we too can wash our hands before commencing our service.
Because the Temple was the place where the Divine Presence rested, it mandated that all those visiting treat it with the utmost respect and sanctity. So too, our "mini Temples" are a holy place and we are expected to conduct ourselves in them with all due reverence and holiness.