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The Value of Praying Where One Learns, and Praying in the Synagogue

The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (8) tells that Abayeh would learn Torah at home and then go to the synagogue for prayers, but he then changed his practice upon hearing the following teaching of Rav Hiya Bar Ami, in the name of Ula: "Since the day the Bet Ha’mikdash was destroyed, all the Almighty has in His world is the four cubits of Halacha." Meaning, after the destruction of the Bet Ha’mikdash, G-d’s presence resides where Torah is studied. Upon hearing this teaching, Abayeh decided that he would pray only where he learned – meaning, at home. Since the Divine Presence rests where one learns Torah, one’s prayers are more powerful and more likely to gain acceptance at that location.

The straightforward reading of the Gemara seems to suggest that Abayeh decided to pray privately in the place where he learned, rather than go to the synagogue so he could pray with a Minyan. Accordingly, Rabbenu Yona (Spain, 1200-1263) cites the ruling of the "Hachmeh Ha’Sorfatim" ("French scholars") that it is preferable to pray privately in the place where one learns than to pray elsewhere with a Minyan.

An allusion to this view may be found in King David’s cry to G-d in Tehillim (5:2): "Amarai Ha’azina Hashem, Bina Hagigi." Literally, this means, "Listen to my words, O G-d; understand my thoughts." The plain reading of this verse is that David asks G-d to listen to both his words and his thoughts. Not always are we able to articulate our thoughts and feelings. Knowing that Hashem hears not only our voices, but also our silent thoughts and emotions, David begged Hashem to accept both his verbalized prayers and also that which was left unspoken. Additionally, however, Rav Shelomo Zarka (Tunis, d. 1876) suggested that the word "Amarai," which is written in the singular form ("my words"), could be understood as referring to prayers recited privately. David asks G-d to accept the prayers he recited alone, not in the presence of a Minyan, because "Bina Hagigi" – this is where he studies Torah. (The word "Hagigi" can refer to learning, as in the famous verse, "Ve’hagita Bo Yomam Va’layla" – "you shall engage in it day and night"). Following the ruling of the "Hachmeh Ha’Sorfatim," David prayed privately in the place where he learned Torah, rather than pray with a Minyan elsewhere, and so he asked G-d to accept his prayers in this merit.

In any event, the Rambam (Rav Moshe Maimonides, Spain-Egypt, 1135-1204) understood Abayeh’s practice differently. In his view, Abayeh had a Minyan in his home, and so he decided to pray with a Minyan in his home rather than pray in the synagogue. Rabbenu Yona explains that according to the Rambam, Abayeh preferred praying with a small Minyan, consisting of just 10 men, rather than praying with a large crowd in the synagogue. The principle of "Be’rob Am Hadrat Melech" establishes that we should endeavor to perform public Misvot in large assemblies, as this brings greater honor to Hashem. However, Abayeh felt that the value of praying where one learns overrides the value of "Be’rob Am Hadrat Melech."

Halacha follows the Rambam’s view. Therefore, it is preferable to pray with a Minyan than to pray privately where one learns, but it is preferable to pray with a small Minyan where one learns than to pray with a large crowd in the synagogue.

The ideal practice, of course, is to pray in a synagogue where one also learns Torah. This way, one receives all three advantages – praying at the place where he learns, together with a large crowd, and in a synagogue, which has special sanctity. Having all three advantages makes our prayers all the more powerful.

Further insight into the connection between prayer and Torah learning can be gleaned from the Gemara’s comment, "Somebody who turns his ear away from listening to Torah, even his prayer is an abomination." The Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) explained this as referring to somebody who "turns his ear away" when the Rabbi begins speaking about a subject which he has already studied. Our Sages teach us that we must be open and eager to review material which we have already learned, as this enables us to learn new material. The Gaon thus explains the Gemara to mean that if somebody is uninterested in listening to Torah material which he has already learned, dismissing it as unnecessarily repetitive, then G-d reacts to his prayers the same way. Each time this person recites the Amida prayer, G-d dismisses the prayer, saying, as it were, that He has already heard this prayer…

This insight reinforces for us the link between Torah learning and prayer, as reflected in Abayeh’s practice to pray in the place where he learned.

In conclusion, it is worth emphasizing the importance of praying specifically in a synagogue, and the great privilege we are given to have this opportunity. King David says in Tehillim, "Va’ani Be’rob Hasdecha Abo Betecha, Eshtahaveh El Hechal Kodshecha Be’yir’atecha" – "I come to Your home in Your abundant kindness; I bow to Your sacred sanctuary, with fear of You." The ability to come to the synagogue is a "Hesed" – a great act of kindness granted to us by G-d. We do not deserve this privilege; it is given to us as a Hesed. And so when we come, we must, as David says in this verse, "bow" in gratitude and exhibit "fear of You" – conduct ourselves with reverence, as befitting G-d’s home. Certainly, when we invite guests to our home, we do not expect them to sit with their shoes on the couch. By the same token, when we come as guests to G-d’s home, we must conduct ourselves with proper decorum, respect and reverence.

Even after the restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic were lifted, many people remained unable to attend the synagogue, either due to legitimate concerns about their health, or because distancing regulations limited the number of people who could pray in the synagogue. As a result, many people have continued praying in yards or porches. While this is understandable under the circumstances, it must be emphasized that praying in a synagogue is a great privilege, one which everyone should relish and should want to take advantage of. Even if praying elsewhere is more convenient, every effort should be made to pray specifically in a synagogue when this is possible.

Summary: There is great value in praying in the place where one learns Torah, but if one must choose between praying privately where one learns and praying with a Minyan elsewhere, he should pray with a Minyan. If, however, one must choose between praying with a small Minyan where he learns and praying with a large Minyan elsewhere, he should pray with the small Minyan where he learns. The ideal place to pray is a synagogue where one learns, as he then benefits from three advantages – there is a large Minyan, it is a synagogue, and it is where he studies Torah.

 


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