Beit Midrash

  • Prayer
To dedicate this lesson
Chapter three-part one

The place of prayer

There is a special place for prayer? what is the meaning of ?the synagogue


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1. The Mitzvah to Pray in a Synagogue
When a person prays in a synagogue with a congregation, his prayer is heard (see Berachot 6a). Even someone who missed praying in a minyan has a mitzvah to pray in the synagogue, since it is a permanent and special place of holiness in where prayer is more accepted (Shulchan Aruch 90:9).
However, when the minyan is held in a different place, it is preferable to pray with the minyan rather than individually in the synagogue. If there is a small minyan in the synagogue and a larger minyan elsewhere, although there is merit to praying in the company of many, the value of praying in a synagogue is greater (Pri Megadim; Mishnah Berurah 90:27-28).
Every community has an obligation to fulfill the mitzvah of building a synagogue which will be their mini-sanctuary (mikdash me’at) and where people can pray in a minyan. As it is written (Ezekiel 11:16), "I have been for them a small sanctuary," and Rabbi Yitzchak interpreted, "These are synagogues and study halls" (Megillah 29a).
Reish Lakish says whoever has a synagogue in his city and does not pray there is called a bad neighbor. Moreover, he brings exile upon himself and his descendants. Those who arrive early to synagogue to recite Shacharit and are late to leave after praying Ma’ariv merit long life (Berachot 8a; Shulchan Aruch 90:11).
It is a mitzvah to run to synagogue just as it is a mitzvah to run to perform every mitzvah, in order to express one’s passion for matters of sanctity, as it says (Hosea 6:3), "We will race on in order to know Hashem." Likewise, when one leaves the synagogue, he should walk slowly, so that he not appear happy to leave the synagogue (Shulchan Aruch 90:12).

2. Establishing a Regular Place to Pray
It is a mitzvah to choose a synagogue and pray there regularly. One should not change his place of prayer needlessly. This was the custom of Avraham Avinu who designated a place to pray, as it is written (Genesis 19:27), "Avraham woke up early in the morning [to go] to the place where he had stood before God," implying that he had a regular place where he would stand before Hashem. The designation of a place of prayer illustrates that one’s connection to Hashem is absolute. Everything else in the world can change, but one’s connection to Hashem is the most permanent and stable reality and should therefore transpire in a permanent place. The Chachamim say, "Whoever assigns a set place to pray, the God of Avraham helps him, and his enemies fall beneath him" (Berachot 6b, 7b; see Maharal, Netiv HaAvodah, chapter 4).
However, it is not sufficient to designate a synagogue in which to pray. According to most poskim, even within the synagogue, every person must designate a permanent place to pray (Shulchan Aruch 90:19). The primary importance of establishing a place to pray pertains to the recital of the Amidah prayer (Ben Ish Chai, Miketz 4). When there are benches that move back and forth slightly, it is not necessary to measure one’s seat in centimeters, rather the whole radius of four amot (approximately two meters; approx. 6.56 ft) is considered one place. However, when every person has his own chair, l'chatchilah it is best to sit specifically in one’s regular seat and to pray the Amidah near it. 1
Sometimes a guest sits in the seat of one who prays in the synagogue regularly. If there is no reason to suspect that the guest will be insulted, he may be asked to move to another seat. However, if there is a chance he may be hurt, it is better to sit elsewhere instead of possibly humiliating him. Ideally, the gabba’im (synagogue coordinators) should greet the guests and find them seats.
The mitzvah to establish a set place to pray does not obligate a Jew to live his whole life in the same location in order to continue praying in his designated seat. Rather, if a person needs to move to another home, or thinks he may be able to pray with more kavanah in a different synagogue, he should change his place of prayer, and choose a new regular seat for himself.
If a minyan does not assemble in one’s regular place of prayer, he should go pray elsewhere, for the virtue of praying in a minyan is more important than the virtue of establishing a regular place to pray. 2 If, while one is praying in his regular seat, his concentration is disrupted by children playing nearby, it is preferable to switch to a different seat for the duration of that prayer service (Aruch HaShulchan 90:22; Kaf HaChaim 118).
A person who needs to recite Shacharit in one area and Minchah and Ma’ariv in another and designates one place to pray Shacharit and a different place for Minchah and Ma’ariv is still considered one who has established a place for prayer. Similarly, one who needs to designate a place in one synagogue on Shabbat and in another on weekdays is still considered establishing a place for prayer (Halichot Shlomo 5, note 2).

3. In Which Synagogue Is It Preferable to Pray?
When a person chooses a permanent synagogue, he must take into consideration several factors. If the choice is between a beit midrash (study hall) and a synagogue, it is better that he establish his place in a beit midrash, for it is holier, and prayers recited there are more accepted (Shulchan Aruch 90:18). Even when there are fewer people praying in the beit midrash than in the synagogue, the beit midrash is preferable (Mishnah Berurah 90:55). However, if he cannot assign a set seat for himself in the beit midrash, it is better that he designate a place in the synagogue.
When he has the option of praying in either of two synagogues, he should choose the one that offers more Torah classes, since it is considered more like a beit midrash. In addition, it is preferable to join the congregation that places greater emphasis on Torah study.
If there are two synagogues, one in which many people pray and the other in which few pray, a person should prefer the one with many, for "B’rov am hadrat Melech" ("In a multitude of people is a King’s glory.") However, if it is difficult to hear the chazan clearly in the larger synagogue, it is better to choose a synagogue in which one can properly hear the chazan (Mishnah Berurah 90:28). Therefore, as a general rule, it is best that synagogues be as large as possible, so as to augment the respect of Heaven. Nevertheless, there is a limit, since when there are more than a few hundred congregants it is difficult to hear the chazan clearly.
If in one synagogue people regularly chatter during prayer and in another they don’t, a person should opt for the synagogue that shows more respect for prayer, for he will be able to concentrate better there (Sefer Chassidim 770).
The most important element of prayer is one's kavanah. Therefore, above all other rules established by the Chachamim, the place in which one can personally concentrate better is the appropriate place to choose (see Radvaz, part 3, 472).
Similarly, it is proper for a person to pick a synagogue in which the congregation prays in his family’s nusach. However, if he knows that in a different synagogue he will have more kavanah, he should choose the synagogue in which he can have proper kavanah (see further in this book 6:3).
A person is rewarded for every step he takes on his way to synagogue. Therefore, even if the preferred synagogue is farther away from his house, he should not be concerned with the trouble that it takes to walk there, because he is rewarded greatly for each step. 3
^ 1.The Mishnah Berurah 90:60, based on the Magen Avraham, writes that within four amot is considered one place, because ones place cannot be measured exactly. However, it seems that when each person is assigned his own specific seat, the feeling of the permanent place pertains to that particular chair, as is written in the responsa of Yosef Ometz, 30. Nonetheless, if a guest takes a person’s place and there is an empty seat next to him, in order not to make the guest feel bad, he should sit in the empty seat alongside the guest, since as long as he is within four amot, he is considered to be sitting in his regular seat.

^ 2.However, the Eshel Avraham Butshatsh, Tinyana Edition, 90:19, is uncertain about this ruling. In extenuating circumstances, one may rely on that uncertainty and pray in his permanent place rather than in a minyan. Also see Halichot Shlomo 5:2, who writes that if a person is late for prayer, it is preferable that he skip Pesukei d’Zimrah in order to pray in his regular synagogue, instead of going to a different place where he could pray all of Pesukei d’Zimrah.
^ 3.We learn about the reward gained for steps taken to come to pray from the story of a widow who walked to Rabbi Yochanan’s distant beit midrash (Sotah 22a). It is implied from many Acharonim, among them the Mishnah Berurah 90:37, that if a person has to choose between two synagogues, all things being equal, there is an enhancement of the mitzvah in opting for the one farther away in order to merit the reward for steps taken. However, some Acharonim write that only if the farther synagogue is preferable anyway – whether it is because it has more people, or because it is a beit midrash, or because he can concentrate better there – he gains the reward for steps taken to walk there. However, when there is no advantage in going to the farther one, he does not receive reward for his steps taken to walk there (Petach Einayim, Sotah 22a; Divrei Malkiel 5:19; Maharshag 1:27).
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