Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai
Volume 2: Number 17
February 13, 2006
Mitzvah 18: Respect for Synagogues
Mitzvah 18 – It is a positive commandment to be in reverent awe of the sanctuary.
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture states, “You shall keep my Sabbaths and venerate my sanctuary.” (Lev. 19:30) Synagogues and houses of Torah study are called “little sanctuaries” (see Ezekiel 11:16) We have to avoid in them any frivolous laughter or levity, or any idle talk. No business calculations are to be reckoned there, nor are they to be slept in. Their holiness is very severe. It is in force everywhere and at every time for both men and women.
In the United States, we are not very experienced in what it means to have a place that is designated as holy. We seem to think that one location is essentially no different from any other location. We might even think that in places that are “special” to us, it is still OK to act in them as if they were any other place. We do not have a sense of a spiritual location where everyday behavior is no appropriate.
Still, a synagogue or a Beit Midrash, a place of Torah Study, is considered a place that is unlike any other place. When we are talking to a friend, when we are in synagogue the conversation is just different. Even when we are talking to our spouse, our conversation is on a deeper level when we talk in the place where we pray. We have a sense that somehow, this space is different, it is not just another coffee shop or lounge. Somehow we shy away from the ribald jokes and speech and sense that, here, even the humor is different.
Everyone does not agree with this assessment, of course. There are many who disparage the synagogue and do what they can to show their contempt for the sacred space. They tell off color jokes, ignore those who pray around them. Make inappropriate comments about the congregation, its officers and its spiritual leaders. This Mitzvah is addressed to them and informs them that such actions are not only inappropriate but a violation of the holiness of that location.
Most people, however, do not act either in an overly pious manner in shul, nor do they publicly disparage the synagogue. Most people don’t know what it means to be in a holy space. They don’t dress as if it is holy space, they don’t act as if it is holy space, nor do they speak as if they are in holy space. They just don’t know what to do and they are uncomfortable and feel out of place. Some who feel this way leave the synagogue and never return, convinced that there is nothing for them within the walls. Therefore it is important that we who value this holy space take the time and effort to make such people feel at home in the synagogue. The help them understand what they can do to feel at home in the synagogue and to discover for themselves the holiness that is here. It is also important that we treat everyone in the synagogue with the respect and concern that we show for the humashim and siddurim. How can we expect G-d to be concerned for us and for our lives, if we do not show concern for the people around us who are praying as well.
The essence of this Mitzvah is not so that the synagogue and clergy will merit the proper respect, the issue is that we feel the holiness of the place and to have that holiness infuse our lives when we are there, so we will share the inherent holiness that is there. Synagogue is not the place for gossip, rumors, slander, business discussions or conversations that belong in the street. We need to foster a reverential atmosphere in synagogue, so that everyone who prays can feel included.
Next week: Mitzvah 19: Declaring the Shabbat Holy