Monday, November 14, 2011

What Frequent Attendance at Services Says About You

By Susan Esther Barnes

Fellow blogger Heshy Fried recently posted something titled, “Are You Just a Jew on Shabbos?

Setting aside the grammatical error – the title seems to ask whether you are also something other than a Jew on Shabbat (such as, for instance, an American or a mother), from the context of the post it is clear he meant to ask whether you are Jewish only on Shabbat, and not during the rest of the week.

It’s a fair question. If you only go to Shabbat services and do nothing else Jewish during the week, then, I suppose, you are, to his way of thinking, a Jew only on Shabbat. However, the post goes on to talk only about attending services during the week, as if attending services is the only way to be Jewish.

Look, I’m a big fan of synagogue services, for many reasons. They bring people together. They help build community. There are some prayers, like the Mourner’s Kaddish, that we only say when we have at least 9 other Jews with us, and the synagogue is a convenient place to gather those people. Rabbis are professional teachers, and through their sermons they can help us discover insights we might never find alone. The list goes on.

However, to imply that going to services is the only way to be Jewish is way off base. The majority of Jewish ritual practice has traditionally taken place in the home. Chanukkah is celebrated as we light candles at home. Pesach (Passover) is celebrated with a ritual meal and the telling of the Exodus story at home. Shabbat candles are lit at home every week. Sukkot are built, eaten in, and slept in at home.

Even prayers are often said at home, or wherever we happen to be. There are morning and evening prayers. There are prayers over food before and after we eat. There are prayers for when we go to the bathroom, when we see a rainbow, when we encounter someone we haven’t seen in a long time, etc.

There are all sorts of things we are commanded to do throughout the day, no matter where we are. Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind. Be kind to the widow and orphan. Don’t say hurtful things. There are, literally, hundreds of mitzvot, most – I would argue all – of which do not require one’s presence in a synagogue.

There are people who attend synagogue frequently because it is a commandment to say certain prayers that require a minyan. Some attend frequently because it brings them closer to God. Some attend frequently for the feeling of community they get. Some attend frequently but don’t believe in God, or they are unsure of God.

Different people attend services for different reasons. So what does frequent attendance at services say about you? It says you attend services frequently. That is all. To read any more into it would be a mistake. Nobody knows your reasons unless you talk with them about it, and even then they may not truly understand.

Attendance at services does not equal being Jewish. If that were all there were to Judaism, what a poor, sad bunch we would be. Being Jewish includes many, many things, and God willing, we will all spend our lives exploring the possibilities, without judging others based on one small piece of it, such as whether they show up at the synagogue during the week.


  1. Perhaps we can assume that those that attend frequently show more interest and commitment to the community (not necessarily frumkeit) than those that don't come at all.

  2. Our synagogue has several school board members who don't come to services often, and I'd say they show a lot of interest and commitment to the community. So I'd advise against drawing that conclusion as well.