National Monuments Of Singapore: Maghain Aboth Synagogue
What is a National Monument? Who gazettes them? How many national monuments are there in Singapore? To date, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, a division of National Heritage Board, has identified and gazetted 75 buildings, structures and sites of national significance as an integral part of Singapore’s built heritage.
And we're here to tell you all about them - one National Monument at a time!
You've probably passed by or stepped into more than a few of them without realising they were National Monuments: Al-Abrar Mosque, Asian Civilisations Museum, the Civilian War Memorial, Saint Andrew's Cathedral, the Esplanade Park Memorials, Fort Siloso on Sentosa - no need to plan an itinerary for friends visiting from overseas; just show them this article ✌️
In this edition, we spotlight the oldest surviving synagogue on our Little Red Dot, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.
The Maghain Aboth Synagogue was the 35th building to be gazetted as a National Monument. Located near other National Monuments such as the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, and the Singapore Art Museum, the MRT stations nearest to Maghain Aboth Synagogue are Bencoolen and Bras Basah.
📅 Significant dates
- Sept 1841-1871: The first synagogue, in the form of a two-storey shophouse, was built on Synagogue Street
- 1873-1878: Maghain Aboth Synagogue was constructed on Church Street (today's Waterloo Street)
- 4 Apr 1878: Maghain Aboth Synagogue was consecrated
- 2007: The Jacob Ballas Centre was added to the compound
- 2 Dec 2021: The Jews of Singapore Museum opened at the Jacob Ballas Centre
Date gazetted: 27 Feb 1998
Fun fact: The word “synagogue” is derived from the Greek word "synagein" which means “to bring together”.
The synagogue is central to the Jewish culture and way of life. Not only does it serve as a religious house, it is also an important community and social space for the Jewish community. Most of the early Jewish immigrants settled in the Boat Quay area, near Commercial Square (present-day Raffles Place). The first synagogue, in the form of a shophouse, was built on Synagogue Street located within the Jewish quarter.
By the 1870s, many Jewish merchants and families had moved from the commercial centre to the residential areas in Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah. As the Jewish population in Singapore increased over the years, it became evident that a larger synagogue – and one that was nearer to the Jewish neighbourhood – was needed to serve the local community.
The appointed trustees of the proposed synagogue were Abraham Solomon, one of the earliest Jewish pioneers who was a trader and property owner; Joshua Raphael Joshua, who became successful in the opium trade; and Manasseh Meyer, Joshua’s nephew who was a wealthy merchant and highly regarded philanthropist.
After a failed attempt to erect the new synagogue, Meyer approached Attorney-General Thomas Braddell in 1873 for permission to sell the existing shophouse synagogue and acquire land for the new one. The government granted his request, and a plot on Waterloo Street (opposite the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, and Saint Joseph’s Institution) was chosen.
IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/@GAURAV.
Construction soon began and the synagogue was finally completed five years later. On 4 Apr 1878, Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which translates to "Shield of our Fathers" in Hebrew, was consecrated. The synagogue also housed a mikvah (a ritual bath).
Since Jewish men and women worship separately in a synagogue, the one-storey Maghain Aboth Synagogue could accommodate only men when it was first completed. At his own expense, Meyer added a simple wooden gallery where women could also participate in religious services. In 1925, a more solid and permanent gallery was constructed, and remains in use today.
The synagogue is the meeting place of the Jewish community for weekly Sabbath services and also religious festivals. Ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah (the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood for boys and girls, respectively) as well as weddings and funerals, are also conducted in the synagogue.
In 1978, the Jews in Singapore celebrated the centennial anniversary of Maghain Aboth Synagogue. The guest-of-honour for the auspicious occasion was David S. Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister and a prominent lawyer, who was an active member of the local Jewish community.
In 2007, Jacob Ballas Centre – named after the well-known Jewish stockbroker and philanthropist – was opened next to Maghain Aboth Synagogue. This provided additional facilities for the Jewish community, including a slaughtering room for chickens, a kosher shop, and a social hall.
Maghain Aboth Synagogue is presently managed by the Jewish Welfare Board and remains the main place of worship for the Jewish community. In addition to daily prayer and Sabbath services, festival celebrations are still regularly held in the synagogue.
📐 Design and architecture
Maghain Aboth Synagogue adopted several Neoclassical architectural elements in its design, including traditional Roman columns, pilasters (rectangular columns), and arches. Dentils (small rectangular blocks resembling teeth) line and adorn the cornices (ornamental moulding) around the building. The Star of David, the symbol often associated with the Judaic faith, is prominently displayed on the front facade.
The synagogue originally had only one storey in 1893, a U-shaped second-storey balcony was added to accommodate women. There are two separate entrances for women.
Inside, the prayer hall features a high ceiling, traditional columns, and rusticated walls that do not bear any decorations or images (Judaism expressly prohibits icons of god or the prophets). In the centre of the hall lies the bimah, a raised pulpit where prayers by the rabbi and readings from the Torah (“scrolls of the law”) take place during services.
The prayer hall is orientated west towards Jerusalem. The bimah faces the ahel or “ark”, which is situated in a niche on an elevated area at the west wall of the hall. The ahel is an alcove where the Torah is stored and is normally covered by the parochet, a fringed curtain with detailed embroidery. Hanging before the ahel is the eternal lamp, a symbol of the eternal flame that burned in what was once the Temple of Jerusalem.
Before air-conditioning was installed, the high ceiling and large windows allowed the interior to be well ventilated. Seats with woven cane backing also ensured maximum coolness and comfort for worshippers.
🕖 Opening hours
The synagogue is open from 9am to 5pm on the weekdays.
Regular visiting hours for the museum are 10am to 6pm daily, 10am to 12pm on Friday; it is closed on Saturdays and Jewish Festivals.