“The Sanctity of the Synagogue”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, is the first of a series of parashiot that deal with the creation, erecting and furnishing of the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, the portable sanctuary that traveled with the Children of Israel in the wilderness.

As parashat Terumah opens, G-d instructs Moses to call for donations from the people for the building of the Tabernacle. In Exodus 25:2, the Al-mighty says: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה,  מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי, Speak to the Children of Israel, and let them take for me a portion [donations], from every man whose heart motivates him, you shall take My portion.

Rashi citing the Midrash Tanchuma 1, states that the donations made to the Tabernacle–the gold, silver, copper, purple, scarlet wool, linen, goat’s hair, etc. etc., must be given לִשְׁמִי, for Me, specifically dedicated for G-d’s sake. The commentaries explain that the word, לִי, to Me, cannot possibly be understood to mean that the contributions must be given to G-d, for after all, G-d is the Possessor of the entire universe. So, it must mean that everything that is given to the Tabernacle, must be given with a full heart.

When performing most mitzvot, the essential objective is to do the right thing, even if one does not have proper intentions. Charity (see Deuteronomy 15:7-11) must be given, even though one’s heart is not into it, even if one really does not care about the poor, the infirm, the widow or the orphan! What is in a person’s heart is irrelevant. The poor and the hungry must be fed, or else you may very well wind up poor and hungry. Even those mitzvot, which do require absolute and total intention, such as giving a get [divorce decree] to a woman, do not require that all aspects of the ritual, the parchment or the pen, be prepared or manufactured with the proper intention.

However, when it comes to building the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, every donation must be given of free will, with a full heart, with unequivocal good-will and with the purest of intentions. The reason for this extraordinary requirement must be because any attempt to build the most perfect dwelling place for G-d, must be thoroughly sanctified. Therefore, every act involved in its creation and construction must be, לֽשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, for the sake of Heaven, with absolute pure and proper intentions.

The great devotion that was required when building the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, and, in later years, in the construction of the בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, the holy Temples in Jerusalem, applies also to the sanctity of contemporary synagogues and houses of study. Just as the Torah states, in Leviticus 19:30, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ that G-d’s sanctuary [the Temple in Jerusalem] must be revered, so too must the sanctity of every synagogue and house of study be revered. In fact, the prophet Ezekiel, 11:16 refers to synagogues and houses of study as, מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט, miniature sanctuaries.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 17b, states that one is not permitted to reside in a city that does not have a synagogue. In Brachot 6a, at least one Talmudic sage is of the opinion that heaven only hears prayers that are uttered in a synagogue. The Jerusalem Talmud Brachot  Ch. 3, states that praying in a synagogue is compared to bringing an actual offering. The sanctity of the synagogue is so great that the Abridged Code of Jewish Law (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) declares that it is forbidden to engage in gossip in the synagogue, or to make any calculations, except those pertaining to religious matters, such as dispersing charity and the like.

The great reverence shown in the building of the Tabernacle and the Temples, must be reflected in one’s behavior while in the synagogue. Synagogues and houses of study must be kept perfectly clean and candles are to be lit in them to show reverence for the place.

Just as the ancient Israelites donated gold, silver and precious stones for the Tabernacle, respect and reverence for the synagogue and houses of study can be demonstrated today by providing beautiful furnishings and decorations for contemporary houses of worship and study. One must not be concerned about demeaning one’s own dignity when it comes to performing menial services that are necessary to properly maintain the synagogue. All Jews should be prepared to roll up their sleeves to maintain the cleanliness and beauty of the synagogue. As King Solomon states in the Book of Proverbs 25:6: Do not glory in the presence of the King. Showing devotion to the Temple and Tabernacle underscores a pure faith and love of G-d, that is greater than one’s concern for one’s own personal stature or dignity.

One must dress respectfully when entering these holy places. Mud must be cleaned from one’s shoes and clean and proper clothes must be worn. One who enters the synagogue must do so with trembling and fear, not behave in a frivolous manner. When exiting the synagogue, one should do so slowly, preferably facing the Ark and walking out backwards (Jerusalem Talmud Brachot Ch. 3). It is forbidden to eat, drink or sleep in places of worship, even if it is only for a short nap. The synagogue should not be used as a place for taking shelter from heat or rain, or to be used as a shortcut, to cut through.

The contemporary controversy over Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount only underscores the great emptiness that we Jews today experience as a result of the absence of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In the absence of the Temple, we must all realize that the closest institutions that we have to a Temple today are our miniature sanctuaries–-the synagogues and houses of study. They must be treated with utmost respect and profound reverence. In this way, we demonstrate that we truly deserve to experience the restoration and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, soon in our days.

May you be blessed.