By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
Notwithstanding the many Hebrew terms for Jewish houses of worship (See “Say Little, Do Much: Synagogue,” January 25, 2019), one of the most intimate and affectionate names for the synagogue is the Yiddish “Shul.”
Derived from the German “Schule” – school – “Shul” stresses the time-honored role of the synagogue as a place of shared learning, a center for passionate Jewish study. The synagogue – the “Shul” – is where the Jewish community affirms: study is the highest form of worship.
A fanciful, alternative interpretation of “Shul” is that it is an acronym formed by the initial letters of the phrase in the liturgy: SHibchu V’hodu L’shmo – “They offered praise and thanksgiving to God’s Name.” (Shin-Vav-Lamed: Shul!) In Shul, we praise God, gratefully acknowledging our many blessings (See Abraham Chill, “The Minhagim,” p. 3; Sefer Ha-Matamim, p. 12).
Thinking of a synagogue as a “school” echoes Victor Hugo, who said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” Jews have long recognized that knowledge is liberating. Studying our past and its accumulated wisdom, spiritual guidance, and moral insight frees us to realize our fullest potential.
Whatever political vicissitudes and persecution Jews have endured over the centuries, we have celebrated the freedom we found in Shul. For that precious blessing alone, we “offer praise and thanksgiving to God’s Name!”
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)