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Practicing Religion in Places of Worship

For some religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, communal worship is important. The faithful gather at particular times on particular days and interact in a faith experience. For other religions, like Shinto and Buddhism, for example, individual worship is the focus. In yet other faiths, such as Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, worship can be both individual (daily prayers) and collective (celebrating religious festivals). Although they may get together for prayer, the prayers are generally individual for members of most religions, not collective.

Whether communal, individual, or both, most religions have structures that serve as places of worship. Although these structures are often buildings, they don't have to be. Nor do they have to be grand or imposing. A storefront church or mosque can be as central for routine worship as an ancient shrine.

Synagogues: Jewish houses of prayer

A Jewish house of prayer, study, and gathering has many names: beit kenesset, shule, kehilat kodesh, Temple, Congregation, Jewish center, and more. The Greek word synagogue is the most generic; it's also the one most people are likely to recognize.

The synagogue is a place of study (beit midrash), a house of gathering (beit kenesset), and a house of prayer (beit tefilah). The most important thing in a synagogue is the ark (aron hakosh), a container or cabinet that contains the Torah scroll:

  • The ark represents the Holy of Holies (originally, the inner sanctum of Solomon's Temple that contained the original tablets holding the Ten Commandments). As such, it's the most sacred place in a synagogue and the focal point of prayer.
  • The ark has doors as well as an inner curtain, called a parokhet. This curtain is named after and modeled from the curtain in the sanctuary in the first temple in Jerusalem.
    During certain prayers, the doors and/or curtain of the ark may be opened or closed. Typically, a member of the synagogue opens and closes the doors (or pulls the curtain); being the person to do this is considered an honor.
  • The ark also has an eternal light (ner tamid) that symbolizes the eternal flame that once burned on the Temple Mount.
  • In most synagogues, the ark has a raised area in front of it called a bima. In orthodox synagogues, the bima is often in the middle of the congregation. This is where the Torah is read on Mondays, Thursdays, and on the Sabbath. In other synagogues, the bima is up front.
  • Synagogues try to put the ark on the wall that faces Jerusalem so that worshippers face Jerusalem during prayer. If the synagogue can't be arranged that way, worshippers face the ark.

In synagogues, you won't find exact representations of any of the holy objects that were once in the Temple (it's forbidden). For example, if a synagogue has a menorah (a candelabrum), it can't be seven-branched like the menorah in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Buddhist temples

You won't find regular daily prayers at Buddhist temples. Buddhist temples are places for personal devotion, ancestor worship, meditation, and offerings for the monks and for the Buddha. Individual devotion is so important to Buddhism, in fact, that Buddhists can construct shrines in their own homes. These shrines, like the great temples, help believers remember their ancestors and Buddhist scriptures.

At home, shrines (or altars) should be located in a separate room or quiet area. The shrine contains the following items:

  • An image of Buddha: This image, whether a statue or picture, represents the Buddha who passed on his teaching and the potential for everyone to attain enlightenment. It is placed on a special shelf high on the wall, in a place of honor.
  • A vase or tray with flowers: The flowers symbolize the impermanence of all living things and are usually arranged to represent some aspect of Buddhist teaching. For example, a single flower represents the unity of all things; four flowers can represent the Four Noble Truths, and so on.
  • A candle (or oil lamp, in some traditions): The lighted candle or lamp symbolizes the light of enlightenment.
  • Incense: Because the fragrance fills the room, incense symbolizes how Buddha's teachings spread throughout the world.
  • A miniature stupa: The relics of the Buddha are buried within a dome-like shrine, or stupa. A miniature one on a home altar can represent Buddha's relics, or it can contain family relics.
  • Scripture: Most people have a Buddhist text on or near the altar to both refer to and to remind Buddhists of the Middle Way.

Mosques: Places of ritual prostration

The word mosque comes from the Arabic masjid, which means a place of ritual prostration, and that, in a nutshell is what a mosque is. Although mosques, since Muhammad's time, have served various functions — political social, and educational, as well as religious — the main function of a mosque is as a place devoted to the praise and worship of Allah.

A mosque is any place devoted to prayer. It could be a house, a community building, or an open area of ground that was marked off as sacred. In fact, the early mosques were based on the place where Muhammad worshipped: the courtyard of his house. The builders kept the basic design — open space — and added a roof.

Many mosques have domed roofs, atop of which is the symbol of Islam: a star cradled by a crescent moon.

  • The star has five points, reminding Muslims of the five obligations of Islam.
  • The crescent moon reminds Muslims of Allah the Creator and the lunar calendar that marks Islamic holy days.

Attached to many mosques in Muslim countries is a tower, called a minaret, where the muezzin (or crier) calls people to prayer. Most mosques also have an ablutions room, a place where the faithful can perform the ritual washing before prayer.

When you enter a mosque, you may notice the following:

  • Mosques don't have furniture. Everyone sits on the floor, not in pews or chairs.
  • In larger mosques, the carpeting often has a design that marks out the prayer lines so that people know where to sit to leave enough room for someone else.
  • The wall that faces Mecca (and the wall Muslims face when they pray) is called the qiblah. Set in this wall is a niche or an alcove, called a mihrab that points in the direction of Mecca. The mihrab is not an altar (even though it kind of looks like one). Its function is to direct Muslims' minds and thoughts toward God.
  • To the right of the arch is a raised platform called the minbar. Similar to a pulpit, this is where the imam reads the prayers and gives sermons.
  • Mosques don't have statues or pictures. You won't find images of God, Muhammad, or any of the prophets, for example. Instead, you'll find beautiful calligraphy of verses from the Qur'an.
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