Where We Come Together

Our Temple
Temple Shalom
A Reform Jewish Congregation
Chevy Chase, Maryland
The Sanctuary Design and Symbols

The Aura of Infinity
Ein Sof (Unending, the Infinite) does not abide being known,
Does not produce end or beginning...

--Zohar, translated by Daniel C. Matt


The central focus of the Temple Shalom Sanctuary is the use of circles and segments. Beginning with the bimah and moving outward there are seven circles. Within Judaism the number seven represents the achievement of wholeness and perfection. It is an allusion to Shabbat and the completion of creation. Symbolically these circles reflect the unity of God and our oneness with one another, simultaneously creating a sense of communion and equality. The semi-circular arrangement of the chairs creates an intimate communication between the congregants and service leaders.

We enter the Sanctuary through a series of entranceways, or gates. First one enters the vestibule from the outside. From there a person passes into an inner chamber which opens directly into the Sanctuary. This series of gates represents our spiritual journey, our understanding of havdalah, the concept of "distinction," and, ultimately, hopefully, our transition from hol to kadosh, the ordinary to the extraordinary, the mundane to the sacred.

Orientation

  "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem a city bathed in golden light... paraphrased translation of Naomi Shemer," (of blessed memory), in which she herself is quoting the opening words of Psalm 137:5  

After entering the sanctuary and taking in all its parts, the eye follows a solid swath of carpeting and the lines in the ceiling circle which point east. .At our feet, almost out of sight, we encounter a purple stripe in the carpet. We look up, and behold strips of wood in the darker ceiling circle. The stripe and the strips, the subtle reorientation points us towards Jerusalem, the capital city of our souls, the traditional direction for Jewish prayer. In this way we are united with Israel and Jews everywhere.

The carpeting and upholstery reflect blue, purple and red, the colors of the specially woven fabric panels of the portable tent that protected the Ark of the Covenant in the Wilderness. Many of the articles in the tent were covered with a blue cloth while they were being transported from place to place... The color blue to many Jews, because of its associations with religious tradition, popular folklore, and the modern state of Israel, has become the quintessential Jewish color.

Windows

"When Daniel learned (the news), he went to his house, to the upper chamber, in which he had had windows made, facing Jerusalem (in order to pray)..."

-- Daniel 6:11

"A person ought not to utter his or her prayers in a room without windows"

-- Bablylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 31a;

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, during its initial resettlement in early 20th century, taught one interpretation of the Talmudic saying above. The windows, said Rabbi Kook, are to remind us that even during our innermost meditation, even in the middle of our prayers, we must be aware of the outside world. We must not withdraw from the world and pray only for our own needs.

Light floods into the Temple Shalom sanctuary through the clear and frosted glass in the newly created windows. The translucent quality of the windows recalls the translucent fabric in the description of the sanctuary in the Torah, evoking the luminous spirit of God in the sanctuary.

The clear portions of the glass and spaces around the edges of the screen give worshippers ever changing views of the world outside, reinforcing our connection to our community and the mysteries of nature. The fact that the two sets of clear portions on each side are similar, but not identical, indicates the human condition: that there is a balance between the commonality of the whole, and the uniqueness of each individual. Similarly, the verticality and strength of the windows represent the individuality and uniqueness of each person and their presence together in the sanctuary represents our sense of community with all Jewry.

Surrounding the six windows are twelve wood columns, reminding us of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. The wood columns and brass connectors and translucent surrounding are images that have an inherent feeling of portability and have roots in biblical Judaism. The design of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem required that the poles supporting the ark extend out into public view from the Holy of Holies. This would remind the people of the portable ark they had previously carried and would also recall both the adversity and the intimacy present in their relationship with God in the wilderness, a relationship still present in our own lives.

The Bimah

"A living tradition." It is the goal of Judaism, the need of any spiritual community, to balance roots and renewal, creativity and continuity. There is a tradition that renovations of the sacred spaces of synagogues preserve something of the "old" from the previous Sanctuary. In keeping with this tradition, the beautiful Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) above the aron hakodesh (ark) connects us to our past. It is, in and of itself, a symbol of continuity, of the light that never goes out, the flame of faith that is never extinguished.

The bimah itself is elevated to symbolize access to the divine. It is thrust into the center of the spiritual center of the worship space.

Aron HaKodesh (The Ark and Ark Doors)

He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, Yet the bush was not consumed.

-- Exodus 3:2

The beautiful Ark doors are based on the burning bush but engage the imagination. Some may see God as whirlwind or vortex; some may see the design as manna from heaven. The search for the meaning of the doors requires scrutinizing the smallest details to understand a larger truth. In this spirit the different ways of interpreting the symbolism of the ark doors reflects the multi-layered meanings of the Torah.

In recent times, as flames have increasingly come to symbolize the Holocaust, the Burning Bush has assumed a new meaning, representing the eternity of the Jewish People, which was engulfed by manmade flames and miraculously not consumed.

Some scholars consider the Biblical burning bush to be the Rubus sanctus, a tree with rose flowers, dark blue berries and thorns. These red, blue and black elements float in the vortex of the leaves that are designed into the doors.

The back wall of the Ark inclines at an angle, lining up with the circle in the ceiling. This angle suggests a person "davening," bowing when praying, and connecting to a spiritual entity, the circle above.

Sifrei Torah (The Torah Scrolls)

"It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it..."

-- Proverbs 3:18

"The Eternal created (Torah) as the beginning of God's way; as the first of God's works of old."

-- Proverbs 8:22

In the ark of the Sanctuary are three Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls). Every Torah contains the same text; each one is written by hand, in a special ink, with a goose quill pen on parchment, without punctuation or vowels.

Jewish tradition teaches that the world is sustained by three things: truth, justice and peace. Thus, our three Torahs are titled Truth (Emet), Justice (Din) and Peace (Shalom). Torat Shalom (Peace) is a newly written scroll. It was commissioned by the congregation in the late 1990's in honor of its then Senior Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D. This newly created Torah serves as a physical link to our heritage and our history, vertically over time, and horizontally to all Jews, everywhere, around the world.

The other scrolls are older, and we do not know their exact origin. There were some indications that they were Holocaust scrolls. If these scrolls did, in fact, come from Europe after the Holocaust, using them as "survivor" Torahs today is an act of redemption, connecting us with our past and celebrating Jewish continuity. Combining them with the "new" Torah commissioned especially for our congregation is another expression of balancing the old with the new. Any ongoing interpretation of Torah, indeed, any Jewish worship service is a moment in time in which yesterday and tomorrow meet and embrace in the full promise of our present lives.

Our ark also contains a number of smaller "mini" Torahs. These are photocopied replicas, meant as a way of inviting and including the youngest of those who worship with us to come close to the ark, to participate in the procession of the Torah scrolls, the encircling of the congregation within the presence of Torah. That procession itself, taking place at the outset of the part of the service during which we read from the Torah scroll, is the ultimate expression of inclusion and community. The fact that it is a circle takes us back to the place we began, with the circular design of the Sanctuary itself.

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