For most of my years of teaching, I have found the three-part classical description of a synagogue sufficient, namely a bet Midrash/place for Torah study, a Bet Tfilah/a locale for group prayer, and a Bet Knesset/a gathering place, a place to be with other Jews.
I have found the third aspect to have been somewhat the neglected one, in a way, relegated to that status in the face of the ever-increasing rise of the other two. To some degree, I think this is unfortunate, though I by no means intend to minimize Torah study or communal prayer.
Of late, I have enjoyed walking into a synagogue where I am going to speak and found three or four tables of mahjong happily and enthusiastically being enjoyed by a dozen people. Or, on the tour of the building, being brought by my host into the kitchen where the 4th grade class is baking chocolate chip Challah. Or to see an entire committee of people decorating the social hall like it was prom night, in preparation for the Sunday night bash in honor of the Rabbi’s 25th anniversary with the synagogue.
I believe those activities are, as they say, gut far di yidden, good for the Jews.
Recently, three other texts that I was familiar with seemed to fall into this category of what make a shul a shul:
Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said: You should always pray in a place where there are windows. (Berachot 31a) Whenever I ask my audience about this text, the participants AND students have a long list of answers, among them: to see the time of day (for which service to recite); to notice nature as one of God’s wonders and blessings; to people passing by or standing, going about their doings, and to remember there is a world out there with which the people inside should be engaged; to make sure that people out there, including the psychics and pessimists who say Judaism is dying can look in and see the it is alive and well.
II. Making Kiddish in synagogue
Why do we make Kiddish in synagogue [when we assume people are also going to say it at home]? For the wayfarers who are going to eat and drink there. (Maimonides, Hilchot Shabbat 29:8)
I think a student of Jewish history could list many examples of periods when wayfarers, wanderers, and homeless Jews in abundance from pogroms, expulsions, disastrous economic fluctuations, and other unfortunate circumstances. Since the assumption was that people who had homes would make Kiddush at home, the one in synagogue was for the benefit of those who would be eating, drinking, and sleeping there.
Indeed, Rabbi Yosef Kapach, the late pre-eminent Yemenite Rabbinical scholar in Israel, indicated in his monumental commentary to Maimonides, that synagogues in Yemen were built with the explicit condition that they would be used to house and feed wayfarers. Thus, in America today, with so many homeless and hungry people, there is good precedent for allowing synagogues to be used as soup kitchens and shelters. Some do, providing shelter on a rotating basis with local churches, others have a food bank on the grounds.
III. Money Belts
A person should not pray while wearing a money belt. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 91:5)
My initial reaction was that wallets should not be worn in the sanctuary during services because of the potential distraction… but a wallet with bills and credit cards secured in a pocket or purse wouldn’t necessarily break someone praying’s concentration.
As it happens, a friend told me that paper money only came into common use after the time of Yoseph Karo in the 17th century, and until then, the money was coins, money that weighs much and makes noise when a person shifts his or her weight. That can be very distracting.
Again I repeat what I have often said before: I never learned these texts growing up which have so much to teach us. I’m not angry that no one taught me.
I’m just writing it down now, hoping that it won’t happen again in the next generation or two down.