As we all know, prayer takes place in shul. Shul is an interesting concept; what is it really about?
Obviously, a shul is an area designated for the purpose of serving Hashem through prayer. But it is more than that; it is designated for the purpose of a community serving Hashem through prayer.
The concept of a shul is intertwined with the concept of tzibbur – community. The Gemara (Berachot, 8a) says Amar Reish Lakish: Kol mi sheyesh lo Beit HaKnesset b’iro v’eino nichnas sham lehitpalel, nikra shachen ra, “Reish Lakish said: Any person who has a shul in his city and does not enter the shul to pray is called a ‘bad neighbour.’” Why? What is the connection between neighbourliness and going to shul?
The Gemara takes this even further and says that one who is in close proximity to a shul and does not avail himself of it causes exile and destruction in the world. How do we understand this Gemara?
Being a “good neighbour” to our fellow congregants
The Maharal says we learn from this Gemara that going to shul is not just a personal act but a communal one. The shul is the centre where the whole community gathers for a common purpose. In this sense, we are each other’s neighbours.
In some respects, in the modern world we have forgotten the concept of neighbourliness and what it means to be a neighbour. To be a neighbour is to share things with other people. Collectively, we share the city streets with our neighbours. The concept of a shul, explains the Maharal, is at the heart of what it means to be a neighbour; in a shul, we come together for a common cause and share a common communal space.
This is a unique dimension of Jewish prayer: on the one hand it is about a personal connection with Hashem, but on the other hand it is very much a public connection. We do not pray alone but as a community, and there is a particular power in praying with a minyan. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law – says it is very important to put every effort into praying with a minyan. When we pray with a minyan our prayers have an extra spiritual power which they do not have when we pray alone.
Thus the concept of prayer in a shul is linked to the concept of community and good neighbourliness. If there is a shul and one does not attend, it reflects something lacking in our relationship with Hashem. It is indicative of a flaw in our relationship with the community. We have let down the people around us, because we function as part of a greater whole.
This is one of the things that has made South African Jewry so vibrant. Right from the beginning, when the first Jews arrived here in South Africa, among the first things they did was build shuls – first in Cape Town and then in Johannesburg. Wherever they settled, they felt they needed a shul, and so a shul was built. Those pioneering founders of the South African Jewish community built shuls and instilled in their children and grandchildren the love of going to shul and being part of a community, and we today still experience this reverence for shuls. This exemplifies the link between the mitzvah of prayer and the concept of community and supporting one another in the service of Hashem.
Being a good neighbour to Hashem
The Maharal says that prayer in shul is not only about being a good neighbour to one’s fellow congregants but also about being a good neighbour to Hashem. If there is a shul in town and we do not use it, we are called a “bad neighbour” – not only in terms of our fellow congregants, but also in terms of our relationship with Hashem. Our relationship with Hashem requires effort; and like any relationship, the effort we invest in it shows how important the relationship is to us. Our relationship with Hashem is measured, in part, by whether we go to pray to Him in shul.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for the Divine Presence is Shechina, from the word shachen – neighbour – because we are G-d’s neighbours; the Divine Presence dwells among us. The Tabernacle, the original holy sanctuary built in the desert, which was eventually replaced by the more permanent Temple, was called the Mishkan, also from the same root as shachen, which comes from the word “to dwell.” G-d instructed, Ve’asu Li mikdash veshachanti betocham, “And they shall make for Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them.” The very concept of dwelling is linked to shachen, neighbour. When we go to shul, Hashem dwells among us; the shul is His miniature sanctuary.
Of course, G-d is everywhere and He is not limited by any human-imposed physical boundaries. However from our human perspective, there certainly is a concept of holiness of space. Our Sages teach us that there are certain places that have a particular spiritual energy, where G-d’s presence is felt more intensely. For example, the Land of Israel is called the Holy Land because, according to our tradition, the Shechina is felt there with greater intensity than anywhere else in the world; and within the Land of Israel, the Shechina is felt most intensely in the city of Jerusalem; and within the city of Jerusalem the Shechina is felt most intensely on Har HaBayit – the Temple Mount. There are places in the world which have a greater intensity, and an important example of this is the Beit Knesset – the shul.
The verse in Ezekiel (11:16) says: Va’ehi lahem lemikdash me’at, “and I have been for them [the Jewish people in exile] a miniature sanctuary.” Since the destruction of the Temple, Hashem dwells in the Mikdash Me’at, the “miniature temple.” What is this miniature temple?
The Gemara (Megillah, 29a) explains that every shul and beit midrash is a mikdash me’at, a miniature sanctuary. Since the destruction of the Temple, G-d’s presence has relocated to our shuls and places of Torah learning. A shul is a microcosmic Temple, where the intensity of the Shechina can still be felt even today. Of course, we long for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash and that is the purpose of this period of mourning during the Three Weeks – to awaken us to repent and to sensitise ourselves to what we no longer have. But we must know that even in times of destruction and exile, the Divine Presence has never left us. G-d still dwells among us, in every single shul and beit midrash. In a certain sense, G-d is there waiting for us; and by davening in a shul we reciprocate His reaching out to us.
The Maharal explains further that this is why the Gemara says that if a person does not pray in a shul, it brings exile into the world. A shul is about bringing people together, in the service of Hashem. Exile is the exact opposite; it is the scattering of people. We are meant to be gathering people together to serve Hashem and be close to Him. When we pull away from that, the obvious consequence is a scattering into exile. This is part of what we are mourning now during the Three Weeks, and the best response to counteract this dispersion is to gather in, to hold together and dedicate ourselves to Hashem as a community.
Prayer in the larger context of history
The shul represents the concept of good neighbourliness – of community members to each other as well as to Hashem. But when we pray with a minyan in shul it also represents the fact that we do not stand alone before Him but are part of Am Yisrael – the Jewish people. The quorum of ten symbolises our connection to the entire Jewish people.
When we talk about the Jewish people, we speak in geographical and historical terms, spanning space and time. Am Yisrael refers to all Jews around the world today, as well as to the Jewish people throughout the ages. When we come to pray in shul, we come not only as individual members of a global Jewish community, but as part of something much larger: we are linking ourselves historically to generations of Jews who have come before us.
We see this in the Amidah prayer, which we say three times a day. The first blessing of the Amidah is the blessing of Avot, referring to our Forefathers: “Blessed are you Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, the G-d of Jacob.” By beginning our prayers with the mention of the Forefathers, we are declaring that we stand before G-d not as lone individuals (though of course there is certainly a personal aspect to prayer), and not only as part of the global Jewish community, but as part of a larger context of Jewish history. We link ourselves with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who lived almost four thousand years ago. And since then, Jews throughout the ages have connected with G-d. All through their struggles, through failures and achievements, they served Him. They perpetuated the legacy of our values, given to us by G-d at Mount Sinai. Before we begin our prayers, we must first acknowledge our past and where we come from.
Why is this so important?
Our past frames our relationship with Hashem. We do not step into the relationship devoid of history; rather we begin with mentioning the Forefathers, demonstrating that there is an historical context to our relationship with G-d. This history anchors us; we rely on it, and it gives us strength. And when we say the words Elokey Avraham, “the G-d of Abraham,” we can think of all the things that Abraham went through; likewise with Isaac and Jacob. We all have our struggles, hopes, disappointments, dreams and aspirations; we all have goals we are striving to achieve. The realisation that our Forefathers faced their own struggles, as did so many generations of Jews before us, and they too came to pray to Hashem, provides us with a sense of comfort, knowing that we are part of a much larger historical context.
Furthermore, it also means that the merit of our Forefathers and of the generations before us stand us in good stead when we come before G-d. When we daven in a minyan together with the community, we do not come with our own merit. We do not come before G-d as lone individuals, rather with the power of the whole community. And we also come with the power and the merit of all the generations that came before us. We can stand before G-d with confidence, because we have Zechut Avot – the merit of our Forefathers and -mothers.
Just before we begin the morning Amidah, we say Baruch Ata Hashem ga’al Yisrael, “Blessed are You, Hashem, the One Who redeems Israel.” The Gemara (Berachot 9b) says that one has to proceed straight away from this blessing to the Amidah. There can be no interruption between saying “ga’al Yisrael” and the Shemoneh Esrei. Why?
If you look at the full text of the blessing of ga’al Yisrael, you will see that it talks about all of the miracles that G-d has done for us throughout history, in particular the miracles of the redemption from Egypt. The Gemara says the two have to be connected – the mention of the redemption and the Amidah prayer – because we are not just coming before G-d as individuals. We are coming within an historical context, with the inspiration of the past. We are standing on the shoulders of giants and with the accumulated merit of generations of Jews before us. This is the requisite preparation for entering our relationship with Hashem in the Amidah prayer.
This introduction also means that we step into our relationship with Hashem knowing the parameters of the relationship. Judaism teaches us that we do not set the parameters for our interaction with G-d. Of course there is a personal, individual dimension, but it must be within the larger Torah context of how we relate to Hashem – our mitzvot, our duties regarding what it means to be an ethical person and our responsibilities on this earth.
And so, even when we connect personally with Hashem in prayer, our relationship is within the broader context of the values, the power and the merit of the global Jewish community, and of all the generations who came before us.