The first Jewish Communities settled in Lithuania in 14th century. The records about the first synagogue in Trakai date back to 16th century, although an opinion exists, that at that time Trakai was inhabited only by karaims. In 1573, when the Warsaw confederation ensured equal rights to all confessions, Jews began building a synagogue in Vilnius. Records from the end of 17th - beginning of 18th century show that there were synagogues in Ukmerge, Valkininkai, Shvekshna, Jurbarkas. By 18th century Jewish communities were scattered all over Lithuania.
Synagogue is community's spiritual, cultural, economic and political center. Differently from a Christian temple, synagogue fulfills several functions: it is a prayer house, place of gatherings and the study of Talmud; sometimes it also serves as community's headquarters. According to Jewish religious practice, on holidays Jews are not allowed to move far away from home, therefore each Jewish community requested a permission to build a synagogue or a prayer house. The quantity of buildings, their type and size were determined by the number of Jewish houses, community's needs and financial resources. Often a synagogue or a prayer house were set up in a living space.
The construction of synagogues had to be accommodated to various restrictions and laws regulating the process. They had to be lower than Christian temples and had to stand in a certain distance from the latter. Differently from the buildings of other confessions, the prayer houses of Jews often made up entire complexes each of whom had its own status determined by the season (summer or winter synagogues), by the ownership of an estate (merchants', workers' synagogues) or a profession (tailors', musicians' etc.)
Before WWII there were several hundreds of various Jewish prayer houses (in Vilnius alone there were more than 100 of them). The majority of synagogues were destroyed during the war, others were taken down after the war, still others were severely damaged by employing them as warehouses, manufacture shops, gyms etc.
© Jews in Lithuania, Vilnius, 1999-2000