In this week’s special Haftarah portion for Shabbat Parah, Ezekiel mandates rules for ideal behavior in the Temple. He regulates the sacrificial rites, assigns tasks among the priests and attempts to command orderly traffic patterns among worshippers. Among these ordinances, Ezekiel rules: “But when the common people come before the Lord, in the festive seasons, whoever enters by the north gate to bow low shall leave by the south gate, and whoever enters by the south gate shall leave by the north gate. They shall not go back by the gate from which they came in, but shall go out by the opposite one.” (Ezekiel 46:9)
Rashi informs us of the rationale for this ordinance: “It is a mitzvah for [those who enter the Temple] to make a proper appearance in the Temple court.” Another commentator elaborates: “For he (someone who enters and exits from the same point) appears like one who turns [from God], for he turns his face and his back toward the holy precinct when he turns to leave, but when he exits in the opposite direction from which he came in, he turns and bows, turns sideways and leaves.”
In other words, the worshiper must exhibit a reverence for the sacred space. The Temple was not like any other building, and a mission to the Temple should not reflect any ordinary errand. After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis of the Mishnah elaborated on this practice. “One should not make of it (the Temple Mount) a kapandria” (Mishnah Megillah 9:5), namely, one should not use the Temple Mount as a throughway to get from one place to another. Although the directions seem to contradict Ezekiel, the spirit is the same – do not treat sacred space as you would ordinary space. In another Mishnah, this same rule is applied to synagogues: “One should not make it (the ruins of a synagogue) into a kapandria (a throughway), as it is written: ‘I will … make your sanctuaries desolate’ (Lev. 26:31), synagogues even in their desolation retain their sanctity.”
Finally, in the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Joseph Karo codifies this accommodation as the law: “In a synagogue which has two entrances, one should not enter one with the intention to exit the other in order to shorten one’s way, but if the synagogue was built over a short cut then one can enter it in order to shorten one’s way or if one entered in order to pray then one can enter one way to exit the other.” (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 151:5)
Our tradition wants us to see our visits to our congregations not as something we are seeking to avoid, but as an experience we are excited to fulfill. Synagogues should not serve as a “shortcut” but should be a special place that we enter mindfully. It can be easy to forget the sacred nature of our space when we spend much time coming and going for reasons other than to pray: for Hebrew school; bar or bat-mitzvah lessons; to drop something off in the front office; for a committee meeting.
Perhaps what we can learn from these laws is that all our congregational work is sacred.
SARAH MACK is rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Providence and president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.