Parshat Re’eh: “The place that the Lord will choose”
Does halakha prefer prayer in the synagogue?
During the Corona pandemic street minyanim cropped up in Jewish communities worldwide, allowing many people access to regular services. People could pray on their block or even listen to Torah reading through a window while sitting on their couch in their living room. In some cases there were no mekhitzot (dividers between men and women), in others they were there to ensure that women had a comfortable place to pray as well.
Some people lamented the return to the clearly delineated, fixed location of the synagogue, while others claimed that perpetuating the scattered minyanim was like worshiping God on bamot (altars outside of the Tabernacle or Temple).
Which avodat HaShem (Divine service) is preferable? Serving God in accessible, scattered locations (since God is everywhere)? Or is one central location preferable to “on every tall hill and beneath every blooming tree?” Where does the synagogue fit into this system?
God of the heavens and God of the land
God is called “God of the heavens,” but in the land of Israel “God of the land” is used as well. In the Book of Shemot the Tabernacle moves from place to place, the Torah teaches us to “make Me an altar from earth,” and also cryptically states, “in every place I mention My Name I will come to you and bless you.” Yet it’s still not clear if God’s Presence is in “every place” or only places God chooses to “mention My Name.”
The Book of Devarim is clearer – in the land of Israel we are commanded to serve God exclusively in “the place He will choose,” as opposed to the nations we are commanded to displace who worship anywhere. So it seems that the sacrificial service is meant to be limited to one location. While the reality was that the Israelites offered sacrifices to God on other altars called bamot, scattered throughout the land – at times the Bible criticizes this form of service, at others it does not. Moreover, even the verses that teach us to serve God in one as-yet-to-be-specified place mention that this was contrary to the current situation: “Do not do as you are doing here today, each person according to what is right in their eyes.”
This leads us to the understanding that there was a time when people were allowed to serve God as they saw fit, and not just in one chosen place. The sages concluded that in the absence of a clear “place that God will choose” – a fixed location with a Sanctuary housing the Ark of God, as there was when the Tabernacle stood in Shilo and the Temple in Jerusalem – serving God on bamot was permitted. Most rabbinic opinions add that bamot were prohibited from the point that Jerusalem was chosen and the First Temple was built, so even when there is no Temple and no ark, the only place sacrifices are permitted is on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Indeed, this is the agreed upon halakha.
Temple vs. Synagogue
In a way serving God in only one place can be seen as a testament to the One God, as opposed to the nations we are commanded to conquer, who served many gods in many places. In addition to a religious center, the place served as a social center that unified the people through the communal sacrifices no matter where they were, and through the pilgrimage festivals that brought them together in one place to be seen before God. In general, it seems that the Torah values the sacrificial service, but does not want it to be the main aspect of our Avodat HaShem, which is why it is limited to one place.
Yet even when the Temple is standing, prayer is possible anywhere, and synagogues can be found “on every high hill.” But we still direct our prayer to God in the direction of the chosen place within the chosen city. Jews all over the world pray in the direction of the Temple, just as King Shlomo instructed in his prayer during the Temple’s dedication, the mishna recorded, and halakhic practice confirms.
As we discussed in Parshat Va’eira, it’s also preferable to pray in a synagogue because it has the advantage of being a structure and a set place. An additional advantage is that the synagogue, being a Place of Assembly, provides an invaluable opportunity for community unity, a small taste of the pilgrimage experience at the Temple.
The Gates of Prayer are never closed, but we can say that at any given moment God leaves one specific gate open to the heavens, located in Jerusalem, in the place God chose and established in the time of King David. This allows us to pray in any place, by way of the (singular) place the Lord chose. Since the sacrificial service was originally limited to “the place the Lord will choose” it makes sense that offering sacrifices on external bamot would remain prohibited once the First Temple was built. And so we pray for “our eyes to see Your merciful return to Zion” and the city of Jerusalem fully rebuilt. May we merit to see its fulfillment.
 A criticism of decentralized, pagan worship.
 See Bereishit 24:7; Yona 1:9.
 Shemot 20:20.
 Devarim 12.
 For example: Shoftim 13:20; Shmuel I 7:9 as opposed to Melkhim I 14:23 and Melakhim II 14:4.
 Devarim 12:8.
 Mishna Zevakhim 14:4-8; TB Zevakhim 118a-119b.
 See the discussion TB Megila 10a.
 Melakhim I 8; Mishna Berakhot 4:5-6; TB Berakhot 30a.