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The Synagogue: Where Jews Pray

The Synagogue: Where Jews Pray

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Where is G‑d? The obvious answer is, everywhere. He is not limited to the constraints of time and space. Yet at the same time, there are places where His manifestation is more apparent. One of those places is the synagogue.

Why do we need a synagogue? How do we build a synagogue? What do we do in one? Let’s explore the answers together.

History of the Synagogue

Contrary to popular belief, the synagogue has not been central to our tradition from Day One. When G‑d gave us the Torah at Sinai, the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and afterward the Bet Hamikdash (Holy Temple) inWhere is G‑d? Jerusalem, served as the primary meeting point for Israel and the Creator.

The earliest overt scriptural mention of the synagogue is in the Book of Jeremiah, circa 500 BCE.: “…And the houses of the people the Chaldeans burnt with fire.”1 Rashi explains that the “houses of the people” were synagogues.2

Known as a bet knesset (gathering place) in Hebrew, synagogue in Greek, and shul (school) in Yiddish, it is the place where Jews gather to pray.

From Prayer to Synagogue

In order to understand the historical significance of the synagogue, we need to first understand prayer.3

Originally, whenever a person felt the need to address G‑d, he or she would so with no text or formal order of services. In the aftermath of the destruction of the First Holy Temple, during the Babylonian exile, Ezra the Scribe – then the leader of Jewry – and the Men of the Great Assembly noted that people were no longer able to formulate coherent Hebrew prayers. For this reason, he and the Men of the Great Assembly composed a text that would include praises for the Almighty and requests for whatever a person may need.

Ezra also instituted prayer times corresponding to the times that the sacrifices were brought in the Holy Temple. The morning prayer mirrored the morning sacrifice; the afternoon prayer, the afternoon sacrifice; and the evening prayer, the all-night burning of the leftover limbs and fats from the day’s sacrifices.

This led directly to the proliferation of synagogues throughout the Babylonian diaspora, where people would gather to pray following an established text.4 And when they returned to Israel, the synagogue and the texts came with them.

Holy Temples Everywhere

Our approach to the synagogue can perhaps best be seen in the words of Ezekiel, who prophesied in the waning days of the First Temple and the start of the Babylonian exile: “…Although I have scattered them in the lands, I have become for them a small holy [place] in the lands where they have come.”5 Rashi explains, “TheFormal prayer enhanced their centrality synagogues in which we dwell are considered as the Holy Temple.” Metzudat David takes it one step further: “This means to say that ‘I will rest My Presence (the Shechinah) within their synagogues.’”

Just as G‑d dwelled within the Holy Temple, His holiness is found in synagogues. Thus we read in the Talmud: “Rabbi Yitzchak would say, ‘How do we know that G‑d is found in the synagogue? For we read, ‘G‑d stands among the congregation of G‑d.’’”67 The Midrash extends this concept to the study halls, where Torah is taught: “If not for the synagogues and study halls, G‑d would not manifest His presence in the world.”8

You Gotta Go to Shul!

The synagogue can have a wondrous effect on those who pass through its doors. The Midrash compares it to a stream of water. Just as a person who is ritually impure enters a stream and becomes purified, a person who enters the synagogue full of sin can exit full of meritorious deeds.9

For this reason, it is important to pray in a synagogue even if there are no “official” services at that time. In fact, there are those who say that payers said in a synagogue – even if there is no one else there – are superior to those said at home.10

To Long Life!

The Talmud11 tells us the following anecdote:

When they told Rabbi Yochanan that there were old men in Babylon, he showed astonishment and said, “Why, it is written, ‘That your days may be lengthened . . . upon the land,’12 but not outside the land [of Israel]!” When they told him that they came early to the synagogue and left it late, he said, “That is what helps them.”

So a synagogue is a place to gather and pray, a play where G‑dliness is manifest, a place where sins are forgiven, a place that can even extend your life. But how is a synagogue created? To be continued next week . . .

Footnotes
2.
Note that Tagum Yonasan\Yerushalmi on Exodus 18:20 implies that synagogues already existed in the days of Moses. Additionally, the Zohar 3:126a understands the mitzvah (in Exodus 25:8) to “build a Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell amongst them,” to be the imperative to build a synagogue.
3.
As codified by Maimonides in his Laws of Prayer 1:4.
4.
While there were synagogues before (as is evident from the verses quoted from Jeremiah and Ezekiel), one can presume that formal prayer enhanced their centrality to Jewish life.
7.
Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 6a.
8.
Esther Rabbah 11.
9.
Yalkut Shimoni 771.
10.
See Maimonides, Laws of Prayer 8:1, as explained by the Kesef Mishnah. This approach is followed in the Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 90.
11.
Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 8a.
Levi Mendelson is a Yeshiva student in B'nei Brak, Israel.
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