Wembley Rosh HaShanah Message 5775
As well as looking ahead for a new year, Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection on the previous year.
In Jewish law there are two distinct types of synagogues, the Beth Knesset and Beth Midrash. A Beth Knesset means a house of gathering and assembly, typically for prayer and supplication. Indeed, the various terminologies used by Sephardic Jews from different backgrounds for ‘synagogue’ have always referred to a Beth Knesset. Whether its sinagoga for Spanish Jews, esnoga for Portuguese, Kenesa for Persian or Knis for Arabic-speaking Jews, they all have the same meaning – a place of gathering with the principal purpose of entreating G-d through prayer. Even the English word ‘synagogue’, with its origins in Greek, means a house of gathering, thus referring primarily to the Beth Knesset. A Beth Midrash conversely, is very different. It is a place of study and scholarship, of enhancing knowledge and awareness of one’s Jewish identity. The Beth Midrash is where one comes to a deeper and more profound relationship with G-d through Torah study.
The difference between these two sanctuaries is not merely semantics; there are actually various halachic ramifications of a synagogue being a Beth Knesset or Beth Midrash. So whilst generally speaking one may not sleep or eat in a Beth Knesset, in a Beth Midrash one may.
I think there is a profound message here: a place of study is the home of a Jew. So just as one sleeps and eats at home, so too in the Beth Midrash one sleeps and eats.
Education has always been central to Jewish tradition. Lord Sacks puts it beautifully in his book The Dignity of Difference: “Throughout the centuries, when the vast majority of Europe was illiterate, Jews maintained an educational infrastructure as their highest priority. It is no exaggeration to say that this lay at the heart of the Jewish ability to survive catastrophe, negotiate change and flourish in difficult circumstances.” We have much to learn from our Ashkenazi brethren who have traditionally referred to the synagogue as ‘shul’, cognate with the German Schule, meaning a school. Our synagogues should be our schools of education and learning.
For many of us, it may be decades since we left school or formal education, but as Jews, school never really ends – our daily or weekly trip to the synagogue should make us wiser and more knowledgeable of our beautiful tradition and culture.
Looking back on the previous year, I am immensely proud of the progress we have made together as a community. Apart from our synagogue being a vibrant place of worship, it has additionally become a hub for Torah education and study in Brent. Our monthly topical lectures, Q & A sessions and educational children’s and youth services are to be admired. I think we can truly say that this past year our synagogue has been transferred from a Beth Knesset to a Beth Midrash.
My New Year’s challenge to us all is to take our synagogue this year from being an esnoga in to a shul!
With warmest wishes for a happy, healthy, sweet and prosperous year ahead,
Rabbi Danny & Tamar Kada
P.s. I must take this opportunity to thank all the wonderful and kind-hearted individuals who give so much of their time and effort to ensure the smoothing running of our synagogue. May G-d bless them all to go from strength to strength in health and happiness.