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Going to Shul on Shavuos by Esther Zibell

We agree with the studies mentioned here  at PsychCentral, which indicate that regular “shul” (synagogue) attendance is  “among the most reliable predictors of measures of physical and mental health” for Jewish people.

What we (respectfully) don’t agree with is Dr. Jeff Levin’s suggestion that “These findings nicely reinforce the inherited Jewish folk wisdom that going to shul (synagogue) is ‘good for you…”

Yes, Jewish wisdom teaches that prayer and meditation, both private and with a group, are indeed good for you.

But calling it “folk” wisdom may not be hitting the mark.

Of course, much folk wisdom is indeed true wisdom, and is worthwhile attending to. But folk wisdom is not religious scholarship and doesn’t begin to convey the breadth and depth of our tradition’s myriad texts on the topic of Jewish prayer, texts which span thousands of years. There are volumes upon volumes of works containing deep commentary on the topic.

Exploring Hidden Meanings

Both ancient and modern Jewish sages and scholars offer highly detailed instructions, explanations, and reasons for praying with others regularly (as well as the importance of praying alone.) These teachings have been gleaned from layer upon layer of coded meaning embedded in the Bible as well as from other traditional ancient texts. Just as important is the fact that these teachings are also rooted in wisdom gained from the many hours the sages spent in meditative prayer, in which they experienced heightened states of spiritual consciousness and connection.

In addition to the directives and explanations for communal prayer, the sages also reveal numerous insights into the benefits conferred on a person who regularly prays with others—three times a day (every day) is standard in Judaism, plus there are additional prayer services on holidays, as well as private prayerful-meditation.

There are the obvious benefits such as bonding with others, forming supportive friendships and strengthening communities, as well as simply taking delight in singing together and meeting good friends.

Naturally, there are spiritual benefits, too, which the sages elaborated on extensively. They spoke about the myriad benefits to the soul.

My True Self

Jewish wisdom teaches that the soul is our essence, our real self. We learn that the soul reflects and is bound up in our unique personality, cognition, imagination, thoughts, and other facets of our psychological being.

The soul factor is one reason (and for us, the main reason) why praying in a group (and alone) improves mental and emotional well being.

It’s important to point out that non-Jewish Westerners and many others don’t need convincing that praying regularly with a group is beneficial, as this recent NY Times article suggests. There have been several studies which show that for people of many religious backgrounds, going to a public religious service regularly and praying, living with faith and belief, benefits mental and physical health.

But of course, you don’t need to tell those who attend prayer services this. They already know.

Suggested links:

Painting “Going to Shul on Shavuos” is courtesy of Esther Zibell, a well-known Hasidic painter whose exuberant use of color and light convey the spirituality present in every day life and special occasions. We recommend visiting her web site and viewing her paintings—they’re gorgeous!