Shuls in Johannesburg are sadly closed due to the third wave of Covid-19 that has swept through the Jewish community. Rather than davening in a proper Minyan, our community has been forced to run daily services over Zoom. After davening at Shul for the last six months, I never imagined that we would need to close our doors once again. However, saving lives is paramount in Jewish teachings, and this is our most important priority right now. The Shul has always been at the centre of Jewish life, and it plays an integral role in Jewish continuity. We hope and pray that we will be able to return to daven at Shul, safely, very soon.
The prophet Balaam, who sought to curse nation of Israel, also understood the importance of the Shul. While intending to curse the nation, he conveyed the most beautiful words of praise to the Jewish nation. He shared the famous words which are now incorporated into the daily prayers: “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” The commentaries on this verse explain that the tents and dwelling places refer to the Shuls where the Jewish people pray and study.
The closing of our Johannesburg Shuls, and the void that this has created within the community, gives us the opportunity to reflect on the important role the Shul plays in Jewish life. What exactly did Balaam see that made him express such beautiful poetic words?
The word ‘Shul’ is Yiddish for the synagogue. In Hebrew, the traditional name is Beit Knesset, however we do find two other names in Hebrew for a Shul, i.e. Beit Tefillah and Beit Midrash. Our rabbis teach that each of these three names alludes to a unique role the Shul plays in the community:
The Shul traditionally serves as a house of religious worship for prayer and Torah readings, as is reflected by the name Beit Tefillah, House of Prayer. In addition, the Shul is the main source of education for adults of the community, providing regular classes on Judaism and the Jewish way of life. This function of education is indicated by the name Beit Midrash, House of Study. A third function of the Shul is to be a hub of social activity for the community. Life cycle events such as Bris’, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings are often held in the Shul. This is the meaning of Beit Knesset, House of Assembly. In fact, the name ‘synagogue’ which originates from Greek, also means a place of assembly.
Describing the integral role that the Shul has played throughout the ages, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
“The synagogue was one of Jewry’s greatest creations. It sustained the Jewish people through almost two thousand years of exile. It kept them together as the only nation ever to survive an extended period without a land, a country or political power, dispersed throughout the world. It was their spiritual home, educational citadel and welfare centre, and it connected them to all other Jews through time and space.”
Although we are unable to attend Shul services at the moment, we can use this time to reconnect; to rekindle our connection to our Shul and to our community. Zoom davening-services and programmes, Facebook Live classes or Whatsapp learning groups, are some ways of remaining connected to the Shul, even from home.
“Distance makes the heart grow fonder.” We cannot let this challenging time separate us from our Shul, but on the contrary, it must bring us closer. Remember, even Balaam understood the importance of the Shul and that which it contributes to the Jewish way of life.