What makes a place holy?

Unlike the words church or temple, which mean “House of the L‑rd,” the Hebrew term1 for a synagogue is beit knesset, which means “a house of gathering.”

Whereas the inauguration of a temple might involve offering sacrifices and anointing oil to introduce holiness into the space, there is no ritual or procedure for inaugurating a synagogue—to formally dedicate it and make it holy, all you need is to gather and pray there.

For, as the Sages teach, when ten individuals pray together in a designated space, their togetherness itself transforms the brick-and-mortar structure into a holy place. No additional rituals or functions are required.

Furthermore, the holiness of a synagogue is not exclusive to the prayer that transpires there.

As the Talmud2 teaches: “The Divine Presence rests upon every gathering of ten,” even when those assembled are gathered for reasons other than sacred study or prayer.

Interestingly, the idea that a synagogue is a space whose function is not only to connect people with G‑d but with each other, as well, is reflected in the way synagogues were organized historically.

For example, one of the oldest synagogues described in Jewish literature was the great basilica in Alexandria, Egypt. The Talmud3 describes the socially sensitive setup of this early synagogue in the following way:

“Members of various crafts would sit together. Goldsmiths would sit among themselves, silversmiths among themselves, blacksmiths among themselves, coppersmiths among themselves, and weavers among themselves. When a stranger entered, he would recognize people who plied his craft and would join them. From there he would secure a livelihood for him and his household, as his colleagues would find him work in that craft.”

For truly, nothing is more precious and holy to G‑d than His children coming together, whether for matters sacred or mundane.4

Such togetherness is a foundational element of prayer. Indeed, some communities5 make a point of opening the morning prayers with the affirmation: “I hereby accept upon myself the positive mitzvah of You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

By stating this at the outset of one’s prayers, one sensitizes and expands their field of concern and responsibility beyond themselves, connecting their experience, aspirations, and blessings with the larger community of which they are a part.

While many prayers from the liturgy may be recited alone, some of the most important Jewish rituals,6 such as reading from the Torah, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, or performing a marriage ceremony, cannot be enacted without a minyan—a quorum of ten. What’s more, even those who aren’t present in the synagogue during prayers stand to benefit when the community gathers in prayer, as the Talmud7 teaches: “When is a time of favor [for one’s prayers to be answered]? When the congregation is gathered for prayer.”

Why? Because, while G‑d is certainly accessible to all on an individual level at any time, He is more readily accessible when we turn to Him as a unified collective,8 whether in space or time.9

When it comes to prayer and community, not only is there strength in numbers, as mentioned above, but also in diversity and inclusivity. Accordingly, we learn that a minyan does not have to be made up of only spiritually advanced or learned individuals; rather, it can include people at any level of spiritual development and religious observance. As the saying goes, “Nine great rabbis cannot make a minyan, but ten simple shoemakers can.”

Notably, the Hebrew word tzibbur, another word for a community gathered for prayer, is an acronym for tzaddik/righteous person, beinoni/intermediate person, and rasha/evil person.10 A real tzibbur must include and represent the full spectrum of the community.

The collective setting for Jewish prayer is so important because it models one of the broader functions of prayer in general, which is to move our attention from the particular to the universal, from the subjective to the objective, from the “I” to the “We,” shifting our focus from our own self-centered desires to a more selfless concern for the good of the whole that includes and transcends us individually.

This emphasis on communal prayer thus conveys an essential message about Judaism’s approach to our relationship with G‑d. When we succeed in overcoming our self-oriented interests by coming together in prayer, that is when and where we are most likely to discover G‑d and to find favor in His eyes.

Indeed, the Talmud teaches that G‑d is more attentive and available to us when we put the needs of others before our own. As our Sages teach:11 “Anyone who asks for compassion from Heaven on behalf of another, and he requires compassion from Heaven concerning that same matter, he is answered first.”

This dynamic is poignantly expressed in the Book of Job:12 And the Lord changed the fortune of Job when he prayed for his friends.

This powerful idea helps explain the fascinating Jewish custom to cover one’s face with a tallit during the Priestly Blessings, when the kohanim stand before the congregation to bless them on special occasions.

Our Sages teach that just as Moses covered his face when the Divine Presence was revealed to him at the burning bush, we, too, cover our faces at the auspicious moment when these prayers are recited in deference to the unique revelation of G‑d’s presence elicited by this communal blessing.13

But why is G‑d’s presence more manifest during the Priestly Blessings than at any other time or through any other prayer?

The answer is that this is the one prayer in which members of the congregation bless each other rather than being blessed by G‑d directly. Paradoxically, G‑d’s presence is even more manifest in that moment, despite the role of an intermediary, because there is nothing more precious to G‑d than when one of His children blesses another from the depths of their being.14

When such love and concern is the foundation of our relationships, G‑d’s presence is amplified among the community.

This sentiment is echoed in the final words of the Amidah prayer, where we say “Bless us, our Father, united all as one, in the radiance of Your countenance.” The mystics15 interpret this to mean: “Bless us, our Father, [because] we are united all as one, in the radiance of Your countenance.” In other words, it is on account of our togetherness that we merit G‑d’s blessing.

Accordingly, we find that the greatest milestones and watershed moments in Jewish history took place after, and as a result of, a heightened sense of unity. For instance, Rashi16 points out that at Mount Sinai, millions of Israelites gathered “like one person, with one heart.” Our Sages teach that it was the people’s unique display of collective unity that elicited G‑d’s revelation of the Ten Commandments.17

Today, we live in a hyper-individualistic world, where, as time progresses, many tend to burrow deeper and further into themselves, creating micro-universes based on limited, and limiting, personal preferences. This is the age of the self-reinforcing algorithm. Judaism’s approach to communal prayer is, in a sense, the antidote to such egoic inertia.

From this perspective, prayer is not only about finding ourselves, but also, and even more importantly, about losing ourselves in the collective pursuit of something beyond us.

The beit knesset teaches us that we are all interconnected, that we are incomplete without each other, and that a lack in one is a lack in all.

By gathering together, including and transcending our individuality, we gain access to the Divine Presence and create a fitting receptacle for G‑d’s blessing. As our Sages teach:18 “There is no better vessel for Divine blessing than peace.” Such sensitized socio-spirituality is the highest form of holiness we can aspire to.

Put simply, we don’t gather in a synagogue because it is holy; a synagogue is holy because that’s where we gather.

The Big Idea

Where is G‑d? Wherever you let others in.

It Happened Once

The Torah commands us to Love your fellow as yourself,19 and to love the L‑rd, your G‑d.20 This prompted the disciples of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi to inquire of their teacher: “Which is a greater virtue—love of G‑d or love of one’s fellow?”

R. Schneur Zalman replied: “In truth, the two are one and the same. However, since G‑d loves His children so dearly, the love of one’s fellow is a greater expression of love for G‑d than simply loving G‑d. Why? Because true love means that you love what your beloved loves.”

Another story:

Once, R. Michoel the Elder, who was the spiritual adviser in the yeshivah of Lubavitch, was about to recite one of the central parts of the morning prayers, the Shema, when he noticed that one of the students had torn shoes. He interrupted his prayers and pointed out the torn shoes to the person who was charged with taking care of the students’ material needs.

Later, R. Michoel was asked: “Couldn’t the torn shoes have waited until after you completed your prayers?”

“The Shema proclaims the Oneness of G‑d,” replied R. Michoel. “A student wearing torn shoes can, G‑d forbid, catch a cold [and become ill]. Being conscious of this is an expression of the Oneness of G‑d.”21

Another story:

On his way to the synagogue one morning, the third Rebbe of Lubavitch, R. Menachem Mendel, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, encountered an individual who asked him for a loan. It being a market day, the man needed the money in order to earn something through buying and selling. The Rebbe asked him to come back after the morning service, and he continued on his way to the synagogue. Once in the synagogue, he realized that the poor fellow needed this loan now. So the Rebbe returned home, got some money, sought out the fellow with great difficulty, gave him the money, and only then went to pray.

In the midst of his prayers, the Tzemach Tzedek had a vision of his late grandfather, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who was beaming and lauding him for his thoughtfulness.

Based on this experience, the Tzemach Tzedek taught that when a person helps another with their livelihood, even with a very modest sum, all the gates to the heavenly chambers are open for them.22