Why is the synagogue our locus of prayer? Is this always the ideal place for genuine meditation?
A lonely mountaintop overlooking a stunning sunset as it reflects off of calm waters may be more spiritually uplifting. Synagogues and the societal norms they perpetuate may stifle our inner voice, as our focus is often diverted from earnest conversation with the Almighty. Despite the challenges, the sages insist on sincere intent during communal prayer.
Our sages place particular emphasis on the final word of the first verse of the Shema prayer - ehad (one): "Those who prolong the pronunciation of the word ehad have their days and years prolonged" (B. Berachot 13b; Y. Berachot 4a).
The Talmud elucidates the procedure for protracting the articulation of the word ehad: The final letter of the word - dalet - should be drawn out while intoning the word. Extending the final letter should not be done at the expense of the middle letter - het - which need not be hurried.
Stretching out this final word of the opening line of Shema provides ample opportunity to ponder the oneness and omnipresence of the Almighty and to meditate on the aspiration for a time when all will recognize God's unity (Semak, 13th century, France).
The common pronunciation of the letter dalet makes it difficult to lengthen its articulation. Thus halachic authorities caution against adding an extra vowel to give the dalet a longer sound - as in e-ha-de - adding that the meditation should be protracted, not the articulation of the word (Rabbi Shneur Zalman Lyady, 18th-19th century, Byelorussia).
The Yemenite tradition preserves a different articulation of this consonant. This culture pronounces the dalet as a hard th as in the word this. Hence Yemenites are able to elongate the final word with the fricative th-th-th-th until they run out of breath.
The Talmud proceeds with an example of a sage who followed this rabbinic directive by protracting the dalet as he articulated the word ehad, but the anecdote highlights the limitations of this instruction. Rabbi Yirmiya was sitting before his teacher, Rabbi Zeira, while reciting the Shema. Rabbi Zeira saw that his disciple was excessively prolonging the pronunciation of the final word of Shema. The master turned to the disciple: "Once you have acknowledged God's rule over the heavens above and the earth below and the four directions, no more is required."
What was Rabbi Yirmiya's mistake? Surely intense meditation on the unity of the Almighty cannot be faulted! In light of the rabbinic dictate we would have expected Rabbi Zeira to praise his student for his heartfelt recitation of this quintessential prayer.
Faced with this twist in the flow of the passage, one commentator opines that Rabbi Zeira did not approve of Rabbi Yirmiya falling behind the congregation (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). The congregation was about to continue to the silent Amida prayer, and Rabbi Zeira chastised his pupil for lengthening his own personal prayer at the expense of communal participation. This highlights an important aspect of synagogue prayer - being part of a community. Indeed, the synagogue experience is not just about prayer, it is also about community.
There are synagogues that boldly display signs cautioning worshipers: "If you come here to talk, where will you go to pray?" Entering the synagogue, one could say, tongue-in-cheek: "Prayer? I can pray at home; I come here to talk!" While no one would seriously advocate chatting during services, nor earnestly suggest that the synagogue is the locale for catching up with friends and discussing current events instead of praying, the role of the synagogue as a community center should not be overlooked.
The Hebrew term for the synagogue - beit knesset (the house of gathering) - indicates that this institution is more than just a place for prayer; it is a meeting place for the community. In reality, we go to the beit knesset to commune with God, but we also go to commune with our fellow worshipers.
Stressing the importance of communal prayer, the Talmud relates how the sage Rabbi Yitzhak inquired about the whereabouts of Rav Nahman: "Why have you not been coming to the synagogue to pray with the congregation?" Rav Nahman responded saying he was too weak to attend the service.
Rabbi Yitzhak offered to assemble a quorum in the home of the infirm scholar so that he could pray with a congregation. Rav Nahman balked at the offer, saying that he was bothered by the prospect of burdening people.
Rabbi Yitzhak was not discouraged: "Why don't you ask a messenger to inform you when the congregation is worshiping so that you can pray at the same time?" Seeing that his colleague was not to be deterred and perhaps somewhat puzzled, Rav Nahman asked: "Why are you being so adamant?" At this point Rabbi Yitzhak relayed a rabbinic tradition acclaiming the time of communal prayer. The Talmudic passage continues extolling the virtues of communal prayer (B. Berachot 7b-8a).
A cursory look at the prayers reveals that almost the entire service is said in the plural. Our prayers were not composed to be uttered in a cloister; they were designed to be recited by a group coming together to connect with the Almighty. Our desires are phrased as requests for the well-being and improvement of the whole community, not as self-centered wishes for our own betterment. Moreover, we join a community of worshipers so that our prayers will be accepted on communal merit, even if as individuals we may not have earned favored status.
Looking beyond our own experience, our presence in the synagogue may create the conditions necessary for our peers' heartfelt prayer and facilitate the spiritual journey of others.
One hassidic master asserted: The worst prayer in a congregation is better than the best prayer alone (Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Stefanesti, 19th century, Romania).
Intent concentration on the oneness of God is unquestionably laudable and indeed the hub of prayer. Awareness of our fellow worshipers and attentiveness to their needs, however, is a parallel focal point of the beit knesset.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.