Shabbat-Table Talks: Balaq

To read last year's Table Talk  click here.

By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <>


Value: Respecting the Bet Knesset (Synagogue). When we enter the Bet Knesset we enter holy space. What does holy mean? The Bet Knesset is special and our behavior there is different than it is anywhere else. It is a place connected with Hashem and His Torah. We create the holiness there by our decision to act in a special way there. Respecting the Bet Knesset and its services is essential for inspiring Torah observance.


Background: Bne Yisrael had just defeated two formidable kings, Sihhon and ‘Og and were facing Balaq the king of Moab. His fear led him to call in the master sorcerer Bila’am from “across the river” to curse Bne Yisrael. Bila’am, persisting after Hashem’s initial refusal, goes to curse Israel but ends up praising and blessing Bne Yisrael instead. One of his praises is the following verse:


Text: Bemidbar 24:5

Ma tobu ohalekha Ya’aqob, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.


Analysis: The straightforward meaning of the verse is clear from the verses introducing Bila’am’s parable. Those sentences inform us that Bil’am “lifted up his eyes and saw Israel, dwelling by their tribes” (24:2). The orderly way in which Bne Yisrael camped in the wilderness impressed Bil’am and earned Israel his praise.


Hazal (Our Sages, of blessed memory) explained the verse as referring to Israel’s houses of learning and to its synagogues. It is customary to say this verse upon seeing and entering the synagogue. According to Hazal, the verse refers to the beautiful synagogues. Not only is the physical beauty important, but also the decorum and the nature of the service.


One thing that can ruin the aura of holiness of the synagogue is when idle chatter disturbs prayers in the sanctuary. Imagine how distracting discussions about sports or “the market” can be to anyone who is taking their tefilla seriously. (However, the way the market has been lately, talking about it might actually make people pray harder! J)



(Note: Use the familiar word for synagogue. Most popular is the Yiddish word “Shool” which is similar to the word “school.” One can use the Arabic word “knis.” I prefer the Hebrew Bet Knesset.)


What are proper things to do in the Bet Knesset, in the place where we pray? (praying, learning, thinking about God, concentrating, repenting--an easy question to start the discussion).


What kinds of things are not right to do in the Bet Knesset?

This could be done as an activity, going around the table with each person gives a suggestion of improper synagogue behavior and why it is wrong. (talking, running, playing, fighting, etc.)


FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions).

Q. But it is very hard to see my friend and not talk to him.

A. If you have to talk with him, walk outside the place where people are praying and talk to him there where it will not disturb other people.


Q. What should I do if my friend starts talking to me.

A. Ask him if it is urgent, or could it wait a few minutes. Ask him to step outside if it is urgent, so as not to disturb other people.

Q. But even adults talk when they really shouldn’t?

A. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Admit that he is right. And say that we hope that they would learn the proper way to behave in the Bet Knesset.)

Q. What do you do if your child is disturbing while the whole synagogue is in the middle of the Amidah?

A. This is a vexing problem. On the one hand, you do not want to interrupt your own prayer. On the other hand, many people are being distracted by your child’s behavior. Half measures, like signaling him to stop making noise, etc, are often ineffective or even counterproductive. They just get your child more frustrated and increase the decibel level of the disturbance. My advice (to be confirmed with your Rabbi, of course) is to do the action that would decrease the total disturbance as quickly as possible. Stop your own prayer, pick up your child and escort him lovingly outside the sanctuary. Do this with love and the confidence that one day he will learn. You do not have to teach him the whole lesson on this occasion. Do not give in to the temptation to get angry with him--even if you explained this to him many times. Remember, it is more important that your child has a good feeling about synagogue.


What are some things that could be done to make the Bet Knesset more children friendly? Having children’s groups, with Torah stories and games is a good idea; as well as having dynamic young people leading these groups. Most successful are parent-child groups that encourage participation of the older children.


Additional Discussion: Value--accept truth from whoever says it. The statement discussed in most of this article is originally Bil’am’s whom the Rabbis call “the evil one.” How can this idea be used in Judaism if such an unsuitable person stated it? The fact that this statement is said in our liturgy, illustrates the point that we should accept truth from whoever expresses its. 


It is customary to say the verse “ma tobu ohalekha ya’aqob…” (How goodly are your tents…) when we enter the synagogue. It is also customary to say Psalms 5:8 upon entering the Bet Knesset.

But I, through Your abundant love (berrob hhasdekha), enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy temple.

It was not to long ago that Jews were prevented from entering their Bet Knesset to pray, in places like the former Soviet Union. It is a kindness that Hashem shows us by allowing us to enter the Bet Knesset to pray. We pray that just as we enter the Bet Knesset today, we will one day be able to freely enter the rebuilt Temple and to worship there.


To read last year's Table Talk click here.


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