World of the Sages: Doorways to prayer

When we enter a synagogue, our first impulse is generally to find a seat.

synagogue 88 (photo credit: )
synagogue 88
(photo credit: )
When we enter a synagogue, our first impulse is generally to find a seat. Where do you like to sit in the synagogue? Do you enter and quietly try to find a seat in the back rows, or do you try to blend in with the congregation by sitting in the middle of the sanctuary? Or maybe you prefer not to sit, hanging about the door and leaning on the back wall? Perhaps you enter and stride purposefully to the front so that you can "have a seat by the eastern wall," in the words of Shalom Aleichem's Tevia the milkman. The Talmud tells us that upon entering a synagogue, a person should traverse two doors (B. Berachot 8a; Y. Berachot 9a). The sages base this directive on the verse: "Happy is the person who listens to Me, who comes quickly to My doors every day, to guard the doorposts of My entranceways" (Proverbs 8:34). Daily entrance is understood to denote the daily prayer services in the synagogue, and the use of the plural - doors - is interpreted as the need for two doors. The Talmud, however, questions this directive, assuming that the sages could not be giving architectural advice about the requisite number of doorways of a kosher synagogue. The prescription is thus elucidated: When entering a synagogue we should walk the measure of two doors and subsequently pray. The instruction remains cryptic: What is meant by "the measure of two doors?" The commentators have grappled with this guideline, offering two schools of understanding. The medieval scholars interpreted the "measure of two doors" as physical dimensions of space or time, while the hassidic masters understood these doorways in spiritual terms. From the medieval period, Rashi (France, 11th century) explains that we should not sit near the entryway of the synagogue. Rather, we should walk a distance of two door widths, so it does not appear that we are anticipating a hasty exit to liberate ourselves from the burdens of prayer. Apparently, Rashi would not approve of those of us who choose to stand near the door. There is a caveat, however, to the proscription of sitting near the door: If you sit in your assigned seat in the synagogue which happens to be near the exit, you suffer no censure, for it is clear that you are not planning a quick escape (Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi, Spain, 13th century and others). Spanish commentators from the late 12th and early 13th centuries preferred to render the talmudic passage in terms of time rather than space, explaining that we should allot the time it takes to traverse two doors for our minds to settle and focus before we begin praying. Rushing into prayers gives the impression that we wish to be rid of a burden, and hinders quality, heartfelt service (Rashba, HaRah, Rosh, Ritva and others). Unlike the medieval commentators, the hassidic masters understood traversing two doors to be a spiritual formula. One master suggests that the two doors are the paths of awe and love. Meaningful prayer can only be achieved by opening both the gate of awe and the gate of love (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, Cracow, 18th-19th centuries). The present Boyaner Rebbe suggested that the sages are referring to the two doors that guard our speech - our teeth and our lips. As we enter the synagogue we cross these two gates, closing them behind us, and ensuring that time spent in prayer is not mingled with idle conversation (Sichot Kodesh, 27 Ellul 5757). Looking at the words of the Boyaner Rebbe from a different angle, we could suggest that before praying we must enter deep inside ourselves, past our teeth and lips, ensuring that we are not merely offering lip service. When we turn to God we aim at praying from deep in our hearts. Turning from the words of the medieval and hassidic greats, a parallel rabbinic passage in the Midrash seems to offer insight into this talmudic directive (Devarim Rabbah 7:2). Why, ask our sages, should you traverse a door beyond a door when entering the synagogue? "Because the Holy One, blessed be He, counts your steps and gives reward." Although this exchange does not explicate the meaning of the two doors - for that we must look to the commentators - it provides an overarching framework for understanding the instruction to enter through two doors: The further we enter into the synagogue - physically and perhaps spiritually as well - the more significant our entry is considered. Anecdotally, in 1901, the wealthy Zalman Nozyk built a synagogue in Warsaw. With 600 seats it was not the largest synagogue in this culturally rich city, though it was intended for Warsaw Jewry's elite and to host great cantors. Today, it is the only surviving synagogue in a city that once contained countless houses of prayer. A regular service is held there to this day. Before the Holocaust, seats in the Nozyk Shul were sold an entire year in advance, and the price of each seat was determined by the distance from the Ark. The more expensive seats were at the front, while places near the exit were cheaper. Though it is highly unlikely that this policy was rooted in the Midrash's urging us to step further into the synagogue, there is an interesting parallel: The further into the sanctuary we go, the dearer our steps become. Each step into the synagogue is a show of commitment. This Midrash paints a colorful image: Like an expectant lover, God waits to see how close His beloved will come, counting the steps and perhaps hoping for intimacy. Each movement through a door is an advancement in our relationship with God. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word used for doors is the regular plural, indicating a minimum of two doorways that should be traversed. Opening the door to enter into the synagogue is not just a matter of finding a seat to recite the prayers. It is a step in building a relationship with God. 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.