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Why Do We Need Synagogues?

Prayer and Synagogues
Responsa by David Golinkin

At this time of year, we read four parshiyot (weekly portions) devoted to the building of the mishkan (tabernacle). Indeed, the last third of the book of Exodus is devoted to this topic. The first of these portions – Terumah -opens with the verse: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). R. Yitzhak Abarbanel (fifteenth century) asks:

Why did God say regarding the building of the mishkan “and let them make me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them” – as if He was a physical object limited to a specific place – which is the opposite of the truth! For God is not physical – and how could they set aside a place for Him? God Himself said [in Isaiah 66:1] “The heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool, where could you build a house for me? What place could serve as my abode?

Indeed, according to Pesikta d’rav Kahana, which was edited in Eretz Yisrael in the sixth century, Moses himself asked a similar question of God: “Behold the heavens cannot contain you, and you said ‘and let them make me a sanctuary’ “!? (ed. Mandelbaum, Piska 2, p. 33). In other words, why do we need a mishkan or a mikdash (temple) or a synagogue?

Let us examine three explanations for the building of the tabernacle as found in rabbinic literature:

A) Three different midrashim connect the building of the mishkan to the Golden Calf episode. Midrash Lekah Tov (Ki Tissa, fol. 105b) says that God provided the cure before the disease. In other words, he provided a mishkan so that they would be able to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.

Midrash Tanhuma (Pekudei, ed. Buber, par. 2) says that the mishkan is called “mishkan ha’edut” the tabernacle of testimony – because it is testimony to all the creatures of the world that God forgave the Jewish people for creating the Golden Calf.

A third midrash (Exodus Rabbah 33:3) explains that the Jewish people felt remote from God after the Golden Calf episode, so God advises them “And let them make me a sanctuary – so that I [= God] might not remain outside [of them]”.

B) The second set of explanations says that God wanted a mishkan for various reasons. One beautiful midrash found in Exodus Rabbah 34:3 says that God wanted to be close to his people:

Said God to Israel: You are my sheep and I am your shepherd – make a corral for the shepherd that he may tend you. You are a vineyard and I am a watchman – build a sukkah for the watchman so that he may watch you. You are my sons and I am your father – build a house for the father so that he should come and dwell among his sons. Therefore it says: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”.

In other words, God wanted to be close to his sheep, his vineyard, his children – so He asked them to build Him a house so that He might dwell among them.

Another midrash (Exodus Rabbah 33:1) says that God could not bear to part with his Torah, so he asked to dwell next to her:

“And let them make me a Sanctuary, that I might dwell among them” – it is like the parable of a king with one daughter who married her off to another king who wanted to take her home to his country. Said the father: My daughter whom I gave to you, is my only daughter! I cannot part from her and I cannot tell you not to take her, for she is your wife. Therefore, do me a favor – everywhere you go, make me a bedroom that I might dwell with you… Thus said God to Israel: I gave you the Torah. I cannot part from her and I cannot tell you not to take her. Therefore, wherever you go, build me a house that I might dwell therein…!

C) The third explanation says that God allowed the Jewish people to build a mishkan at their request:

This whole matter of the Menorah, the Table, the Altar, the boards, the Tent, the curtains, and the utensils – what is it for? Said Israel before the Holy One Blessed be He: Lord of the Universe, the kings of the nations have a tent and a table and a menorah and incense and these are the trappings of kingship, for every king needs this. You are our king, our redeemer, our savior – shouldn’t you have the trappings of kingship until all people know that you are the king? God said to them: My children, flesh and blood need all that, but I do not, because I don’t eat or drink and I don’t need light… [Finally God relented:] If so, do what you want, but do it as I instruct you: As it is written: “And let them make me a sanctuary… make the menorah… make the table… make the altar…” (Midrash Aggadah to Parashat Terumah, p. 170).

Now let us react to these three explanations:

A) It seems that the first set of midrashim about the mishkan and the Golden Calf is not convincing. They come to explain the juxtaposition of the mishkan and the Golden Calf episode, but they do not address the general phenomenon of a Jewish house of worship.

B) The second set of midrashim about God wanting to be close to his children or close to the Torah are very beautiful, but as it says in Isaiah (66:1), “The heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool”. The peshat or simple meaning seems to be that God does not have a need to be in close physical proximity to the Jewish people or the Torah.

C) Thus, I prefer the general intent of the third midrash. The Jewish people built the mishkan and later the mikdash and later the synagogue because they – like all human beings – had a need for a physical place in which to worship God.

My father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin, explained this aspect of the synagogue in his booklet Say Something New Each Day (1973, p. 18):

Where are You?

God, where are You?

Where do I find You?

You do not live here.
You have no address.

The Universe is filled with Your glory.

You live in every mountain
and in every valley
and on the busy turnpike outside.

You live in the beautiful riot of many colors
of the Indian summer;
and You live in my soul.

And yet

I have built for You a special building,
Beautiful, dignified, majestic,
Intimate, warm and friendly.

For whom did I build it?

For You and me.

For our conversations together.

For Your glory, O God,
And for my humble need.

I should be talking to You –
When I see You in the beautiful sunrise,
When I see You in the innocent smile of a child
When I see You in the kind deed of a man.

But I forget.

So I built this building
I come here and remember to talk to You.

With the Psalmist I say:

“Through Your abundant kindness
I come into Your house,
And reverently I worship You
in Your holy sanctuary.” (Psalms 5:8)

“I love the habitation of Your house
The place where Your glory dwells.” (Psalms 26:8)

This is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for building a tabernacle, a temple and a synagogue. In addition, there are at least three more reasons for building a synagogue:

Jews can pray alone; why do we need to pray together in a synagogue? The answer is found in the tractate of Berakhot (7b-8a):

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: when is an acceptable time for prayer? When the congregation prays… Rabbi Nattan said: God does not despise the prayers of the multitude…

In other words, when we pray together as a congregation, God listens to our prayers, because we are praying for each other and for all Jews and not just for ourselves.

The other two reasons for building synagogues were beautifully expressed in the oldest synagogue inscription which we possess – that of Theodotus son of Vettenos – which dates from the Herodian period, over 2000 years ago. This Greek inscription was found on the Ophel hill in Jerusalem in 1914:

Theodotos (son of) Vettenos, priest and head of the synagogue, son of the head of the synagogue, who was also son of the head of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the Law and for the study of the precepts, as well as the hospice and the chambers and the bathing establishment, for lodging those who need them from abroad; (the synagogue) was founded by his ancestors and the elders and Simonides.

This brief inscription describes the other two main functions of the synagogue: as a place where we read the Torah and study the mitzvot; and as a place of gemilut hassadim, deeds of lovingkindness, where we give lodging to Jews visiting from afar. The modern equivalent of this last function would be deeds of social justice such as clothing drives, collecting food for the needy, and soup kitchens.

To summarize, we need synagogues for three of the most basic Jewish activities: as a place where we talk to God through our prayers; as a place where God talks to us through His Torah; and as a place where we help our fellow human beings through acts of lovingkindness.

Sometimes we forget these basic teachings and the synagogue becomes a place of strife – where people fight over honors or about halakhic issues, where balebatim fight with rabbis, and where members of the staff fight with each other.

Therefore, at this time of year, when we read the parshiyot about the building of the mishkan, we must rededicate ourselves to the three basic purposes for which our ancestors created the synagogue over 2000 years ago: as a place of: Avodah – worship; Torah – study; and of Gemilut Hassadim – deeds of lovingkindness.

If we do so, we will have truly fulfilled the verse with which I began:
“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them”.


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: mailto:golinkin@schechter.ac.il.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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