Holiness at home and in the synagogue

Holiness at home and in the synagogue

Terumah | Exodus 25:1-27:19

A well-known joke told about the Jews describes a group of explorers who find a Jew who has been stranded on a desert island for years. As he takes them around the island and shows them how he survived, they find that he built two synagogues for himself. When asked why he needs two since he is all alone, he says that one is the one he prays in, and the other is the one he would never walk into.

All joking aside, while it is true that every Jew needs at least two houses of worship, he must enter both of them: his synagogue and his home. 

Jewish worship takes place in the home to an even greater extent than in the synagogue. It is in the home that we recite grace after meals, prayers upon awakening and before bedtime, Shabbat candlelighting blessings, and countless informal prayers and benedictions. The synagogue, on the other hand, is the place for formal prayer and communal worship.

In this week’s portion, Terumah, we learn of the very first house of worship: the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. We also learn about some of the furnishings that were essential to its construction. 

The first three components mentioned are the Ark, in which the tablets with the Ten Commandments are contained; the holy Table upon which 12 breads were placed every Sabbath; and the golden Menorah. These three vessels are also prominent features of both synagogue and home. Like the Tabernacle, every synagogue today has an ark housing the Torah scrolls.

Where is the analog of the Ark in one’s private home? I maintain that the bookcase is the Ark of one’s personal dwelling, ideally containing the entire Jewish Bible along with essential commentaries and classic Jewish texts.

A similar analogy applies too, with the table. A wooden table covered over with a layer of gold occupied a place of honor in the Tabernacle. The food kept there, the “shew bread,” was distributed to the priests on duty every Sabbath, symbolizing the divine blessings of sustenance.

Every synagogue has a bima that is analogous in many ways to that table, with the synagogue’s the place from which the Torah is read. In traditional synagogues, this table is not placed up front for spectators to behold, but in the middle of the sanctuary, among the people. The message is clear: it symbolizes God’s spiritual providence and bounty and as such is something of which every member of the congregation should partake.

The table in the home, equally sacred, is the place for physical nourishment. A beautiful Talmudic expression has it that “the table is like an altar.” Whereas the Jew of old expressed his ultimate sense of worship by offering a sacrifice upon the altar, the contemporary Jew worships God by sharing the food on his table with other individuals.

Finally, there was the golden Menorah, which beautified the historic tabernacle and later Beit HaMikdash. Just about every synagogue I ever attended features a menorah in a very conspicuous place. And Hanukkah menorot occupy a place of honor in even the humblest Jewish home.

There is a symbolism to the Menorah that is even more apt when applied to these two houses of worship. The Menorah symbolizes light; the light of wisdom, intellect. Our faith is largely based upon reason and is respectful of the power of the intellect. Thus, many commentators see a connection between the seven branches of the Menorah and the seven classical sciences, or categories of knowledge. The Torah is pre-eminently sacred, but other sources of wisdom have their place.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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