Maghain Aboth Synagogue
Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which translates to "Shield of our Fathers", was completed in 1878. Situated at Waterloo Street, it is the oldest synagogue in Singapore and Southeast Asia. On 27 February 1998, the synagogue was gazetted as a national monument.
In 1841, the colonial government leased a plot of land to the Jewish community at a nominal rent, for the construction of a synagogue. This was to be the community’s first synagogue. The land, estimated to measure 503m2, was located at where Synagogue Street is today, in the early Jewish quarters near Raffles Place.
The lease was enshrined in the Jewish Synagogue Ordinance and commenced on 1 September 1841. The three men that negotiated the lease, Joseph Dewk Cohen, Nassim Joseph Ezra and Ezra Ezra Ezekiel, were named in the Ordinance as the synagogue’s trustees.
A two-storey shophouse was built to accommodate the synagogue, which began with a congregation of about 40 and served the local Jewish population for 30 years until the shophouse was sold. This building was demolished after World War II.
By 1870, the Jewish population had grown significantly and many were living further away from the synagogue. The leaders of the community thus saw the need to build a new synagogue, a need that was later met by the opening of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.
In 1870, one of the new trustees, Joseph Joshua, negotiated to pay $4,000 for a piece of land owned by Raffles Institution at Bras Basah, for the construction of a new synagogue. However, the agreement required the synagogue to be built within three years. Because the funds for the building project could not be raised in time, the agreement lapsed.
It was only when Joshua’s nephew Manasseh Meyer, also one of the trustees, returned to Singapore in 1873 that the current site for the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was acquired. Meyer, who had been in Rangoon (now called Yangon, in Myanmar) for the past six years, approached the government upon his return, for permission to sell the old synagogue and build a new one. The government approved his request and granted a plot of land at Waterloo Street (then known as Church Street) for the new synagogue.
On 4 April 1878, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was consecrated. According to official sources, the service could have been conducted by one of two men, Lucunas or I. J. Hayeem, or both of them. The building had extensions added in 1924.
During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), the synagogue remained an important meeting place, where the local Jews exchanged news and collected funds to help those in need.
The synagogue sits within a 2,290.6m2 compound where a sunk-in well for the mikvah or “ritual bath” can also be found. The synagogue itself is a simple, symmetrical building designed in neo-classical style. The covered porch that protrudes from the front of the building has an entrance arch large enough to allow horse carriages through.
From the front porch, a wide flight of steps leads up to the three wide doors at the main entrance of the synagogue. There are two separate entrances for women. Inside, the hall features a high triple-volume ceiling, traditional columns and rusticated walls that do not bear any decorations or images. In the centre is the bimah, a raised pulpit where prayers by the rabbi and readings from the Torah (“scrolls of the law”) take place during services. The synagogue originally had only one storey, but a second-storey U-shaped balcony was later added to accommodate women.
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 it 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 once was the Temple of Jerusalem. Sometimes a menorah or “seven-branched candlestand” would also be placed here, as a symbol of the state of Israel.
In the past, gas lighting and oil lamps provided illumination during services. The oil lamps, which were merely wicks placed in glass bowls filled with oil, still hang suspended from steel rods today, mainly in remembrance of those who died in the past year. Electric lamps attached to the ceiling and columns now provide the needed lighting.
Services and events
The Maghain Aboth Synagogue is a hive of activity during Jewish festive celebrations. It is open all year round and holds services daily except on Mondays, when services take place at the Chesed El Synagogue instead. In the early days, during the service, congregants had the practice of auctioning the aliyoth or "privileges” given to certain members of the congregation, with the money going towards the maintenance of the synagogue.
In 2006, the synagogue was one of the religious sites used as an exhibition venue during the inaugural Singapore Biennale.
Bonny Tan & Valerie Chew
Attorney General’s Chambers. (2010). Jewish Synagogue Ordinance. Retrieved September 1, 2010, from Singapore Statutes Online website: http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/
Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places (p. 271). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW)
Jewish Welfare Board. (n.d.). History. Retrieved September 8, 2010, from http://www.singaporejews.com/history.html
Lee, G. B. (2002). The religious monuments of Singapore: Faiths of our forefathers (pp. 102-105). Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING 726.095957 LEE)
Lim, E. W. K., & Kho, E. M. (c2005). The Chesed-El Synagogue: Its history & people (pp. 8-19). Singapore: Trustees of Chesed-El Synagogue.
(Call no.: RSING 296.095957 LIM)
Nathan, E. (1986). The history of Jews in Singapore, 1830-1945 (pp. 1-13). Singapore: HERBILU Editorial & Marketing Services.
(Call no.: RSING 301.45192405957 NAT)
Singapore biennale 2006. (2006, September 6). The Straits Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1999). Maghain Aboth Synagogue preservation guidelines, Vol. I (pp. 4-6, 24). Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board.
(Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 MAG)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue. (2010). Retrieved September 8, 2010, from Preservation of Monuments Board website: http://www.pmb.sg/
Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore, Vol. 2 (pp. 274-275). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE)
Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore's heritage: Through places of historical interest (pp. 49-51). Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM)
Wan, M. H. (2009). Heritage places of Singapore (pp. 127-128). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 WAN)
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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