While today we think of the word synagogue as being a Jewish word, it is interesting to note that originally this word originates in the Greek. The word for our communities is not Hebrew, it isn’t even Aramaic; instead it comes from a language and culture, which is completely foreign to Judaism. The word itself was chosen because — at the time when synagogues developed the Jewish community was strongly influenced by — and the word synagogue literally means –.
Today, especially in America, we often refer to synagogues by the name Temple, a link back to the original Temple, which once stood in Jerusalem, and also a way of making a statement about the permanence of the community. In other groups the name used is often Shul, a link to the German or Yiddish word for a school, associating the synagogue with one of it’s primary functions as a center of education.
The Hebrew is equally revealing about the synagogue function. Sometimes a synagogue uses the name Beit HaMidrash – a House of Study, and also a name frequently associated with centers of Jewish learning or Yeshivot. Alternatively it may also be a called a Beit Sefer – a School, just like the word Shul, with its link to education. However, it is most often called a Beit Knesset, which can most readily be translated as a House of Assembly, a reference to the congregation of a community of people in the synagogue.
With the synagogue linking back to the Temple, and the Temple itself a descendant of the Tabernacle, this weeks Torah portion is therefore significant.
Following on from the commandments in Mishpatim, Terumah begins by God instructing Moses to collect an offering from all of the Israelites whose heart moved them to give (Exodus 25:1). The reason given is that the people should ‘make for me a Mikdash [a Tabernacle] so that I may dwell amongst them’ (Exodus 25:8). At first glance it therefore appears that the purpose of the Tabernacle was to bring God into the world.
As the Torah portion continues, further details of the Tabernacle are given, including the items which are to be created for use in the service of God. However, amidst all of these descriptions, we were also told: ‘You are to make the courtyard of the tabernacle’ (Exodus 27:9). This is followed by detailed instructions about the courtyards to the south, north, west and east, and the decorative elements of each one (Exodus 27:9-18). The total ‘length of the courtyard is to be one hundred fifty feet, and the width seventy-five feet’ (Exodus 27:18), an area of 11,250 square feet.
Did God require all of this space to dwell in the Tabernacle, or was there some other reason for the courtyard?
While the Torah portion seems to suggest that God required the building, maybe something else was needed. The courtyard allowed for the people to gather together in the Tabernacle, alongside God. It wasn’t just the building, but it was the congregation of the people in that space. The courtyard is a reminder that our relationship with God is simultaneously individual and communal.
Traditionally we cannot pray without ten adult Jews gathered together and the name Beit Knesset is a reminder of the need for the synagogue to house a community. Of all the Beit names, which the synagogue has, it is significant that the one which is absent is Beit El – a House of God. The synagogue is about bringing people together, before we relate to God, and the courtyard of theTabernacle reminds us that it has always been about a community in relationship with each other, and then with God.