Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Terumah 5770/ February 20, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


From Crisis to Tabernacle:

“Make Me a Sanctuary”

The Synagogue in Franco-Germany

Dr. Geoffrey Wolf

Department of Talmud


This week’s reading begins with the command to build the Tabernacle:  “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8).   The Sages viewed the synagogue as an extension of the Temple, following the words of Ezekiel (11:6):  “Say then:  Thus said the Lord G-d:  I have indeed removed them far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries and I have become to them a diminished sanctity (= mikdash me`at) in the countries whither they have gone.”

Although the plain sense of this verse is that the Lord will be a diminished sanctity for the people of Israel, i.e., His presence will be felt amongst them, [1] nevertheless the expression mikdash me`at came to be interpreted in the writings of the Sages as synonymous with the synagogue, based on the Aramaic translation of that verse in Ezekiel:  “I gave them synagogues instead of my Temple.”  This idea is expressed with more detail in the Babylonian Talmud, “I have become to them a diminished sanctity:  Rabbi Isaac said:  this refers to the synagogues and houses of study in Babylonia” ( Megillah 29a).

What did the words mikdash me`at, "a miniature Temple" as it were, mean for the average diaspora Jew throughout the generations?   To what extent did they view their time spent in the synagogue as if they had entered a “diminished sanctuary”?

The Jews of Franco-Germany (900-1300 C.E) took the identification of the Temple with the synagogue to be tangible and almost literal.   For example, Rashi held the Aramaic translation to reflect the literal sense of the text and even reinforced the idea expressed there.  In his commentary on Ezekiel (loc. sit.) he wrote:   “The synagogues in which they sat they likened to the Temple.”   Rabbi Joseph Qara, among the great literal interpreters of Scripture in France, followed a similar approach.  His use of the Sages’ interpretation (which contradicts the plain sense of Scripture) is an indication of how deeply they felt the synagogue to be identified with the Temple.

Halakhic Expression

This special attitude towards the synagogue found expression in halakhic norms, and even more so in the customs of the Jewish communities of Franco-Germany.  For one, the idea that the synagogue participated in the holiness of the Temple underlay the strict adherence to the rules of purity in all that concerned women after childbirth or during their menstrual period: they were not to enter the synagogue before purification. This is also the reason that the priests did not perform the priestly blessing every day, since they did not generally immerse themselves in the mikveh beforehand.   Finally, a man who was impure after a night pollution did not lead the prayers (shaliah tzibbur) unless he had first cleansed himself in a ritual bath. [2]

More than anything else, the view that the synagogue had sanctity commensurate with that of the Temple found expression in customs based on the assumption that the Divine Presence dwelled in the synagogue as it had in the Temple.  We shall make do with three examples:

(1) Upon entering the synagogue, people would bow, as had been the practice in the Temple. [3]   This is attested by Rabbi Judah Hassid, who mentions it in passing:

A person cleaning the synagogue floor and taking the dirt outside does not have to bow, for it says, “Bow down to the Lord in majestic holiness” (Ps. 96:9).  But after he has already taken out the dirt he should bow…  And as he leaves the synagogue walking backwards he must bow at the doorway, for it is written, “He shall then bow low … on sabbaths and new moons at the entrance of the same gate” (Ezek. 46:3). [4]

The innovation introduced by Judah Hassid was to exempt the person cleaning the synagogue floor from the obligation of bowing.   His remarks accord with the established custom of bowing upon entering and leaving the synagogue.   He alludes to a verse from Ezekiel as providing the basis for this custom.  The same verse is cited in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (a midrashic work much used in Franco-Germany) in order to explain why one had to bow at the gates of the Temple:

Rabbi Judah says that on the new moons and sabbaths Israel would sit there and see the doors opening of their own accord, and they would know that the Divine Presence was there, for it says, “because the Lord, the G-d of Israel, has entered by it” (Ezek. 44:2).  Forthwith they would bow and prostrate themselves before the Almighty.  Thus it was in the past and shall be in the future, as it is written, “he shall bow low … on sabbaths and new moons at the entrance of the same gate” (Ezek. 46:3).

(2) Shekhina in the Synagoge

The Mishnah (Megillah 24b) states:  “A priest whose hands have blemishes may not raise his hands [for the priestly blessing].   Rabbi Judah says:   Moreover one whose hands are stained with woad [a plant yielding a deep blue dye] or madder [a root producing a red dye] may not lift up his hands because the people would gaze at him.”  According to the Tosafists, who follow the Jerusalem Talmud in this matter, The reason for these proscriptions is that blemishes on the hands of the priests would distract the people being blessed from attending to the blessing. [5]

Rashi, however, interpreted this quite differently:  Because the people would gaze at him – it says in Hagigah (16.1):  ‘Whoever looks at the priests when they are lifting up their hands loses his eyesight, since the Divine Presence rests on their hands.”  Rashi apparently assumed that the Divine Presence itself actually hovered over the priests’ hands, both in the synagogue and in the Temple.   Therefore it was not befitting for blemished priests hands to serve as a place on which the Divine Presence would rest.   This interpretation, like many of Rashi’s special interpretations, reflects the view, widespread among the Jews of Franco-Germany, that the Divine Presence dwelled in all its glory in the synagogue. [6]

3) Sefer Maharil (by Jacob ben Moses Moellin), speaking of mourning customs, says:

Also Austrian Jews sit with him [the mourner] in the synagogue courtyard, just as the Jews of the Rhineland do.  He further said that he heard from his rabbi, Maharash (of Neustadt), that as he took leave of the mourner he would say, “May He who caused His Name to dwell in this House comfort you.”  They asked him, “What does ‘He who caused His Name to dwell’ have to do with our synagogue, as if to say we were in the Temple?” ... He responded that the synagogue is like a diminished Temple.

This custom, too, originates from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (end of ch. 17), and was noted by Ra'avyah.   Hence it can be assumed to have been in existence at least since the early 12th century. [7]   It, too, is based on the assumption that the Divine Presence dwells in the synagogue.  Substantiation for this conclusion comes from the fact that Germany Jewry used the same phrase to console mourners as was used in the Temple:   “May He who caused His Name to dwell in this House console you.”  In other words, this action not only recalls the Temple ( zekher le-miqdash) but also treats the synagogue as the Temple itself, a place where the Divine Presence actually dwells.

Such a strong sense of Divine immanence in their midst gave the Jews of Franco-Germany a special experience when they gathered to spend time in their houses of prayer.  Their deep and sincere faith that “wherever they were exiled, the Divine Presence was with them” (Megillah 29a) contributed greatly to the strength of this religious community to withstand times of trouble and everyday tribulations.  The query we saw above addressed by the Jews of Austria to Maharash of Neustadt in the second half of the 14th century (“What does ‘He who caused His Name to dwell’ have to do with our synagogue?”) marks a decline in this belief, in the wake of the great hardships experienced by the Jews of Germany in those days, as the Jewish population shifted eastward.  Nevertheless, regarding the diminution of the idea that the synagogue was actually the Temple in miniature, we should ask what spiritual price did the Jews and their descendants pay for losing this belief?


[1] See Radak, loc. sit.

[2] This is treated in my article, “Beit ha-Knesset be- Ashkenaz:  Dimui ve-Halakhah,” Knishta, 2 (2002), pp. 9-30.   Also see Y. Ta-Shma, “Mikdash Me`at:   ha-Semel ve-ha-Mamashut,” Knesset Ezra:  Mehkarim ha-Mugashim li-Khvod Prof. Ezra Fleischer, ed. S. Elitzur et al., Jerusalem 1995, pp. 351-364.  The subject matter is dealt with in greater depth in my book, to be published shortly.

[3] Compare Maimonides’ remarks in Hilkhot Temidin u- Musafin 3.7; 17. 

[4] Sefer Hassidim, ed. J. Wistinetzki and J Freiman (Frankfurt am Main) par. 492.  Current scholarship generally agrees that  many sections of Sefer Hassidim reflect accepted norms among the Jews of Franco-Germany and are not necessarily innovations introduced by the school of Rabbi Judah Hassid.

[5] Cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 4.8 (75c), and Tosfot, Hagigah 16a, s.v. ba-Cohanim.

[6] Cf. A. Grossman, Emunot ve-De`ot be-Olamo shel Rashi, Alon Shevut 2008.  Rashi’s interpretation caused so much disquiet that an addition was made to his commentary with the aim of limiting his remarks to the Temple alone.   Cf. A. Arend, Perush Rashi le- Masekhet Megillah, Jerusalem 2008, p. 226, n. 5.

[7] Ra'avyah, Part III, pp. 549-550.