Two days from now we will mark the septennial mitzva of Hakhel — the assembly, the gathering.
On the feast of Booths, at the prescribed time in the year for remission which comes at the end of every seven-year period, when all Israel goes to appear before the LORD, your God, in the place which he will choose, you shall read this law aloud in the presence of all Israel. Assemble (Hakhel) the people — men, women and children, as well as the resident aliens who live in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to fear the LORD, your God, and to observe carefully all the words of this law. (Deut. 31:10-12)
The Aramaic rendering of Hakhel is Kenosh, the same root as bei kenishta. You may be more familiar with the Hebrew cognate, beit kenesset, or the Greek-derived equivalent, synagogue. In any case, they all mean the same thing: gathering-place, house of assembly, locus of coming together. This is the essence of Jewish prayer and of a Jewish house of prayer.
In the Talmud (Hagiga 3a), Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah famously expounds, “If the men came to learn,the women came to hear, but wherefore have the little ones to come? In order to grant reward to those that bring them.” But are the children dragged along merely to give extra credit to their parents, since watermelons rarely throw tantrums? The biblical commentator Keli Yakar demurs:
I find it untenable, as if he would command them to bear logs and stones to the House of God “in order to grant reward to those that bring them.”
Rather, the whole purpose of Hakhel is for renewal (teshuva), as the Sages say (Lev. R. 30:7) that the first day of Sukkot marks the commencement of a new spiritual reckoning…
Now, when Israel repents, we beg God to forgive our sins, asking for mercy in the name of our blameless children, if we are undeserving. Thus, we ask in the prayer Our Father, Our King, “Pity us, our sucklings and our infants,” and similarly we ask, “Act for the sake of the little children,” etc.
This is what we mean by “in order to grant reward to those that bring them.” They say to God: Act on behalf of these little ones who have been brought to the House of God! This is similar to what Joel speaks of (2:16): “Gather the people, sanctify the assembly; collect the elderly; gather the children, even infants nursing at the breast; [let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her bridal tent].”
The message is clear: in a time of crisis, in a time of climax, we belong together. That is why it is so troubling when the beit kenesset is used to divide rather than unite, to exclude rather than include. Some flip this argument on its head: children don’t belong in synagogue because they’re disruptive, and since men “have to go to shul” and women don’t have to, those little ones are the “problem” of the latter.
The true “problem” here, however, is that this view, while held as axiomatic by far too many observant Jews, has no basis in the classical sources:
Communal prayer is always heard. Even when there are transgressors among them, the Holy One, blessed be He, does not reject the prayers of the many. Therefore, a person should join community and should not pray alone whenever it is possible to pray with the community. (Maimonides, Laws of Prayer 8:1)
One should endeavor to pray in the synagogue with the community, but if circumstances prevent one from doing so, one should should specifically pray at the time the community prays. (Shulhan Arukh, OH 90:9)
Praying with the community is undoubtedly preferable, but no one calls it a binding commandment; on the contrary, the likely eventuality that one may not be able to attend is immediately apparent (considering what Maimonides says about his own busy schedule, this may be from personal experience).
Well, OK, maybe it’s not a mitzva mitzva, but still it’s a guy thing, right? Actually, Maimonides starts off the Laws of Prayer (1:1-2) by explicitly stating that women are just as obligated as men in the biblical command to pray to God daily. Is there a reason that women should not also avail themselves of the great merit of communal prayer? A stunning legend told in the midrashic compendium Yalkut Shimoni (871) talks about a very elderly woman who was kept alive solely by the merit of attending synagogue at sunrise every morning; without it, she died within three days. And it’s not just haggadic; Rabbi Moses Isserles writes quite poignantly in a halakhic context (Shulhan Arukh, OH 88:1) about the pain that women feel at being literally shut out from the High Holiday services in the name of excessive “purity.”
Put simply, is there something different about the female soul? Not according to our tradition. After all, it’s Hannah, mother of Samuel, whose prayer in the House of God is the template for what we do every day.
There is no doubt that prayer has evolved over the centuries, especially in the absence of a Temple. Prayer has been formalized and regulated by the rabbis. But that cannot touch the essence of God’s command that all seek him in prayer, male and female. In the context of the month of Tishrei, prayer is in the category of mitzvot equally binding on man and woman, like repentance, like fasting, like Hakhel itself. Woe to him who makes a daughter of God feel unwelcome in our place of assembly, for it is her house too.