With Shavuoth past, can Sukkoth and Shemini Atzereth be far away?

by David Holzel

Beth Shalom, Kansas City

What does the unconscious know from logic? I was absentmindedly scanning an announcement in a Jewish newspaper. "Call Beth Jacob for more information,'' it read. And in the instant it took me to recognize the name of the congregation, I wondered, Beth who?

But with so many synagogues—Beth Shalom, Beth Tikvah, Beth Israel, Beth El—sharing the same first name, I'll pose the question anyway: Just who is this Beth?

Beth, it seems, is a transliteration of bet, yud, tav, pronounced beit in modern Hebrew and means "house'' or "house of.'' So why the lisp? It's a result of an older form of transliteration reflecting the belief that the letter tav was pronounced "th'' in some hazy earlier epoch.

And although no one speaks this way now, the tradition remains alive to confuse nascent Hebrew speakers, thanks to thouands of thynagogueth and templeth named Ahavath Achim, Kol Emeth and Agudath Israel. Thuffering Thuccotash!

Beth Shalom is unquestionably the John Smith of synagogue names. So many communities have one it's surprising no Association of Rabbis of Congregation Beth Shalom exists. It's extremely popular in the Conservative movement. Florida has the most Conservative Beth Shaloms of any state—8. Delaware has two Conservative synagogues; both are Beth Shaloms.

The moniker is also an excellent example of the role irony plays in the naming of synagogues, according to Rabbi David Nelson of suburban Detroit's Beth Shalom franchise. "It usually means that there once was a knockdown dragout fight at a synagogue, and people quit and called their new synagogue Beth Shalom''—"house of peace." Rabbi Nelson hastens to add that neither strife nor irony were factors in the formation of his Beth Shalom.

Beth Sholom, Memphis

Future home of Beth Sholom, Las Vegas

"A hundred and fifty years ago they really got nasty,'' he says, warming to the subject of the subtext of synagogue names. He recalls the Jews who abandoned the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and called their new synagogue Chizuk Amuno—"strengthening the faith''—were implying that those they left behind weren't.

On the Reform side, Temple Emanu-El—"God is with us"— has the same ubiquitous quality as Beth Shalom (Four in Alabama alone). According to Stanley Davids, rabbi of Atlanta's Temple Emanu-El, the concept of a temple—as opposed to shul or synagogue—was a declaration by the early Reform movement that their houses of worship were "a full replacement for the [destroyed] Temple in Jerusalem. It was a rejection of nationalism, a rejection of [animal] sacrifices." Nowadays, he says, those distinctions have faded, and the terms synagogue and temple are often used interchangeably.

Some Jews disparage the use of "temple'' because the English word sounds goyish, says Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl of Temple Emanuel in Baltimore. They much prefer "synagogue'' which, he points out, is "a nice Greek word."

So what are we to call that place of rabbis, sisterhoods and building funds? Israelis use the Hebrew beit knesset, "house of gathering." But that only covers one-third of the institution's functions, Rabbi Buchdahl says. The others are beit tefillah, "house of prayer," and beit midrash, "house of study." Many otherwise enlightened folk swear by shul, which is German/Yiddish. I don't like it because it smacks of nostalgia for the shtetl, that place millions of our ancestors left to escape grinding poverty and remorseless oppression.

Undoubtedly, synagogues retain their lisp because of the rule by which many of them live: "We can't stop doing that because we've always done it that way, and we can't start doing that because we've never done it before." Either nostalgia or inertia is behind the endurance of another pronunciation of the "soft tav"—the Ashkenazi "s," from which derives mitzvos and matzos. Every Pesach I wonder about the smart cookie who gazed upon this apparently English suffix and decided to singularize the word by removing the final "s." Thus was born the matzo.

And every year I have to figure whether I'm celebrating Shavuoth or Shavuos, and if Shemini Atzeres is one day and Shemini Atzereth two, or the other way round. I wonder, too, if our Hebrew schools should begin teaching declensions:

matzah, matzot, matzoth, matzos, matzo

mitzvah, mitzvot, mitzvoth, mitzvos, mitzvo

But I've wandered far from Beth Shalom. Surely we can name our congregations with more imagination and dazzle. Hebrew is awash in poetry and metaphor. I once belonged to a chavurah that was founded with the commendable intention of proclaiming its commitment to Judaism by choosing a Hebrew name. Trouble was they did it by committee, which included some committed and passionate people who didn't let the fact that they didn't know any Hebrew stop them from influencing the decision. They picked a name in English and translated it into Hebrew. The result was a clunky jalopy of a name.

With my prayerbook open before me, I often come across poetic phrases that would make knockout congregation names. One is Sukkat Shalom—"booth/shelter of peace"—an image found in the Hashkiveinu evening prayer. Another is Chafetz Chayim—"desirer of life," a name for God found in the high holiday Amidah prayer. Or how about Oneg Shabbat—"the delight of Shabbat," or "the one who delights in Shabbat." Surely the world doesn't need another Beth Shalom.

But maybe we should ask Beth about that.

Beth Shalom, Livingston, NJ

What would you name your synagogue?
(Remove NOSPAM from address)


Thanks to Rabbi Mark Raphael of Kehilat (not Beth) Shalom
in the heart of Montgomery Village, Md.

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