- Maghain Aboth Synagogue Active (National Monument)
Chesed El Synagogue Active
For guided synagogue tours or any other information please contact Mr. Hertzel Lelah 91287886 or Rebecca Rott at 98195633
About Maghain Aboth Synagogue:
The synagogue was constructed by 1878. It is the oldest Jewish synagogue in Southeast Asia. Till today, there are still several Jewish buildings standing within its vicinity. Descendants of some of Singapore's earliest Jewish settlers are still living and doing business in Singapore.
When Manasseh Meyer returned to Singapore in 1873, he found the synagogue in Synagogue Street in a deplorable state and set about planning a new one for the Jewish community. Meyer asked the government for land for a new synagogue. He was given the site in Waterloo Street, then called Church Street because of the presence of the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul nearby. The Jewish community soon began moving into the surrounding areas of Dhoby Ghaut, Waterloo Street, Prinsep Street, Selegie Road and Wilkie Road. Today, there are still several Jewish buildings standing there.
Construction of Maghain Aboth, which means Shield of Our Fathers, began soon after the community was given the land, and it was completed in 1878. A well was sunk for use as a mikvah (ritual bath). The consecration service was held on 4 April 1878 and conducted by either Lucunas or I.J. Hayeem or both men.
In 1924, extensions were made to the building. Nevertheless, with the growth of the community, Maghain Aboth became rather crowded, prompting Manasseh Meyer to build a private synagogue for his family and friends.
A synagogue can be in any building so long as the congregation has a quorum of ten Jewish men above the age of thirteen. This quorum is known as a minyan in Hebrew. Manasseh Meyer used to pay elderly men who were staunch and religious to attend service with him to form the minyan.
- The raised pulpit in the centre of the prayer hall is one of the main features of a synagogue. This pulpit is known as the bimah. The rabbi conducts prayers from here. There is where the Torah is read out during the service.
- Opposite the bimah, away from the entrance, is the Ark with a niche where the Torah is stored. When not in use, the Torah is kept in silver caskets inside the Ark. If the Scroll is accidentally dropped for whatever reason, the congregation has to fast for a day.
- The Ark is orientated west towards Jerusalem and on a raised platform. It is normally covered with an embroidered curtain called the parochet. It is considered an honour to be asked to embroider the parochet. In some synagogues, there are wooden doors in front of the Parochet.
- In front of the Ark is the Eternal Lamp. This is a reminder of the perpetual lamp of the Temple and links the synagogue, the lesser sanctuary, with the ancient great Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. It is sometimes interpreted as a symbol of God's presence, the symbol of the Torah or of the spiritual light from the sanctuary in Jerusalem.
- There is usually a menorah in front of the Ark. The menorah is a eight-branched (with an extra place for the lighter candle) candlestick, the number seven being the number of completion. It is the emblem of the state of Israel.
- The Torah is handwritten on parchment prepared from the skins of animals slaughtered according to kosher laws. They are divided into 54 Sidras or Orders and are read in rotation every Sabbath. Only male members of the community can read the Torah.
- The Scrolls are never touched with the finger while reading but a special pointer shaped like a hand with a pointing finger is used instead to follow the reading. It is considered a privilege to be called upon to read from the Torah.
- Oil lamps burn day and night to commemorate those who have died during the year. At the end of the year, relatives hang silk or velvet banners on the walls to replace the burning oil lamps.
- The seats in the front of the synagogue nearer the Ark are the most important seats and they go to the important people in the community. Some of these seats have names inscribed on them.
- The walls of a synagogue are devoid of decorations, images or pictures of any kind containing human figures as Judaism expressly prohibits images or icons of God or the prophets. One of the commandments handed down to Moses forbids the making of images of God. Contrary to a common misconception, all image-making is not forbidden. Many synagogues include depictions of lions, floral motifs, and scenes of the land of Israel, and a number of mideval and renaissance manuscripts written in Hebrew contain illuminations of the sort found in contemporary Christian manuscripts.
- Women and men are kept segregated in the synagogue during service. There are separate entrances for the women.
- The synagogue was originally a single-storey building until a second-storey balcony was added. The balcony is reserved for female members of the community during the prayer service. Jewish women do not have the duty to learn Hebrew and read the Torah. Because the sacred duty of reading the Torah falls only on the men, the women's section is very simple. The section is also very small because few women attended the service. Jewish law exempts women because of their obligations at home.
- A vestibule is common in most synagogues with a second door into the prayer hall. A fountain for cleaning the hands is often found there.
- Shoes are permitted in the synagogue but the head must be covered with a cap, hat or shawl. The traditional headgear is the skullcap or yamulka. During worship, a prayer shawl is worn. This shawl has fringes at its four corners to remind the worshipper to obey God's commandments at all times. Although the covering of the head is not mandated on a day to day basis, it is require by the vast majority orthodox and conservative synagogues, and encouraged by many reform congregations
- A covered porch fronts the building with steps leading up to the vestibule originally designed for horse carriages.
About Chesed El Synagogue:
The synagogue was constructed in 1905. As the Jewish community grew beyond the capacity of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, there was a need for this second place of worship, which was built in the late-Renaissance style. It was also one of the first places to use gaslights in Singapore.
There was another reason why another synagogue was needed. The Jewish community in Singapore was now made up of Jews from Europe as well as from Asia. Different backgrounds in the community led to disagreements over the order of service and specific rituals. Manasseh Meyer, who established the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, was very sensitive to this friction and was finally prompted to build his own private synagogue near his home in Oxley Rise.
Named Chesed-El which means "Bounty of God", the synagogue was completed in 1905. The attendance was good on holy days, but less so on ordinary days.
Today, Chesed-El and Maghain Aboth coordinate their services because the Jewish community is now small. When Chesed-El Synagogue has a service, Maghain Aboth does not. Service is usually held just once a week. Both, however, are open for festival celebrations.
- Flat-sided pillars resting on rectangular bases run along the sides of the building. They are aligned with the second-storey pilasters that curve out into arches round the windows.
- The entrance to the synagogue is covered by a projecting carriage porch. Above this porch is the second-storey gallery deck that extends from the women's gallery. The ceiling is made of wooden slats and the crossbeams create a coffered effect.
- The gallery deck extends beyond the entranceway into the hall, creating a small upper floor for the use of the women in the house. Women do not normally attend the synagogue but when they do, they are seated apart from the men. Separate entrances lead to the women's upper gallery.
- The synagogue was one of the first places to use gaslights in Singapore. The original lights have since been replaced by electric lights. The metal gas pipes are still in the prayer hall beneath the roof.
- The interior columns are fluted and intersected with two sets of moulding. They have square moulded capitals and are joined with arches at the top. They rest on flat-sided bases.
- Moulding and small pilasters edge the walls above the arched columns. They can be seen above the railing along the second-storey gallery deck where the women sit.
- The initial "M" for Meyer can be seen in the decorative moulding just below the ceiling and in two panels facing the congregation.
- To the right of the entrance is a plaque stating that the synagogue was built by Manasseh Meyer and the designer of the building.
- The floor is of white marble. The original combination of white marble with a gold trim that no longer exists once gave the interior an understated richness.
- The rails on either side of the Ark are for hanging oil lamps to commemorate the dead in the community. They are kept lit for a year. At the end of the year, those who can afford it can donate the silk hangings to replace the lamp.
- The raised platform or bema leading to the Ark where the scrolls of the Torah are kept was originally of marble. It was destroyed during the Japanese Occupation. It is now made of wood. The panels of the raised platform are ornamented with the Star of David as are many other parts of the synagogue.
- There are three entrances to the Ark where the scrolls of the Torah are stored in special holders. The scrolls are handwritten on a single continuous piece of parchment.
- The Hebrew inscription above the Ark says: "Lo, in Thine abundant love I enter Thy house; in reverence to Thee I bow towards Thy holy temple." There are also other panels in the synagogue that originally had inscriptions in Hebrew.
- Manasseh Meyer had a special chair set out in the front of the congregation. The place of honour is close to the Ark.
- The wooden windows are double-leafed and topped with round and half-moon fanlights edged out in wood. There are air vents running just above the ground.
- Some of the windows on the upper floors above the entrance and inside are rectangular with wooden louvres.
updated on: April 26, 2011
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