Question: If a person has a number of personal concerns that need to be thought out and analyzed, can he go to shul to do this?
Answer: The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayim 151:4, based on the Mechaber, 151:1) writes that if a person wants to go to shul for the sole purpose of meeting someone, he should make sure to read a bit of Chumash or halacha in the shul before meeting his friend. If he can’t read or learn, he should ask a child to read a verse for him, and he should sit in the shul for a short period of time since sitting in a shul is a mitzvah, as is written (Tehillim 84:5) “Praiseworthy are those who sit in Your house…” (He may also stand [see Bach ibid.] since the Hebrew word “yoshvei” also means “to remain.”)
In other words, being in a shul, even without davening or learning, is a mitzvah. Accordingly, we may suggest that a person who has to think through a number of issues should indeed do so in a shul since he will thereby fulfill a mitzvah (even just by sitting there).
Many years ago, I came to shul in the evening; there were no lights on in the sanctuary. As I walked to locate the switch, I tripped over someone. It was one of the shul’s members. I asked him what he was doing sitting in the dark. He responded that he had a number of important issues to resolve and decided that the solemn silence of the sanctuary would be the most suitable place to think and meditate. What a unique role for a shul!
Most people think that a shul is only for davening, saying Tehillim, or learning Torah. But what about thinking? What about meditating? Somehow we Jews look upon such sensations as “goyish” – certainly not for frum people. But the Maharal interprets the word tefillah as machshavah, thought. Thus, thinking through concerns is evidently intertwined within the fine fabric of prayer itself.
A scholarly rav once challenged my idea that a shul can serve for thinking through one’s problems by citing the following midrash. Shemot Rabba states that a domed building was set up outside of Jerusalem for people to think through issues of life so as to avoid people entering the holy city with these “heavy” thoughts that may lead to depression and distress. Doesn’t this midrash indicate that contemplating difficult problems is improper in a holy place like a shul?
I don’t think so. Jerusalem is a separate category. Isaiah (66:10) says, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her.” Thus, there is a special mitzvah of simcha within Jerusalem. This is not the case regarding a shul.
The Rema notes that a person sitting in a makom kadosh should “contemplate his affairs.” The Mishnah Berurah writes that this means that “he should examine his actions…to ascertain whether there is an aspect of transgression in his dealings. He must consider whether he did not stumble into possible robbery, excessively deviate from the proper value of a transaction, take interest….” These sources seem to support my thesis.
Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, has published a number of books on Jewish law. His latest work, “Jewish Prayer The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas,” is available at Amazon.com and Judaic stores.