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Pay to Pray

Daniel Halper, paying to pray.

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By DANIEL HALPER
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A ticket to see the Washington Redskins play costs $95.

Pay to Pray

Photo Credit: David Gothard

A ticket to hear Lady Gaga in concert costs $176. 

A ticket to attend Rosh Hashanah and, a week later, Yom Kippur services at the 92nd Street Y in New York City will set you back $220—discounted from the normal $400.

Just last month, I went through the strange ritual again, presenting a ticket to a doorman (doubling as a security guard) to get into Rosh Hashanah services. The ticket, a big yellow piece of paper, wished me a happy new year in transliterated Hebrew and told me where to sit. Had I not been able to produce it, presumably I would have been turned away. 

Now, as far as I’m concerned, expensive tickets make sense for something exciting—concerts, baseball games, travel, plays, comedy acts. They should gain you admission to a much desired event. But who wants to go to synagogue for an hours-long service to hear a boring rabbi pontificate? Buying a ticket for synagogue is about as delightful as paying a ticket for speeding. Sure, you probably deserve it—you no doubt sinned in the course of the year and have good reason to observe the Day of Atonement. But who wants to admit guilt? Or, worse, pay? 

You’d think all those wise rabbis through the ages would have explained this. Over the last 3,000 years, they’ve produced whole libraries of commentary on the Torah. There’s the Mishnah, for example: the oral tradition associated with putting the law into practice, eventually written down some   2,000 years back. But it, too, proved to require interpretation, so the Gemara was written. Together, Mishnah and Gemara make up the Talmud, a work that exists in two versions. The more popular Babylonian Talmud takes nearly seven and a half years to read at the rate of one page (front and back) a day, as is customary among some Jews. 

And—you guessed it—there are multitudes of commentaries on the Talmud. 

With its concurring and dissenting opinions, not to mention partial concurrences and partial dissents, Jewish law could be compared to casebooks and commentary on Supreme Court rulings. But, at least since the days of the Great Sanhedrin, rabbis have hardly waited to be nominated and confirmed before issuing their opinions to a waiting world.

Yet, for all that has been written and pondered and argued over, it seems the rabbis have given very little thought to this business of ticketing. Why? Wouldn’t it be better to include people who want to come to services than to discourage them by charging them a fee? 

Rabbis: I don’t often ask for this—in fact, I’m pretty sure I never have before—but perhaps some commentary on the subject could be clarifying. If a person wants to pray, why must he buy a ticket? Shouldn’t synagogues encourage folks to attend, not put obstacles in their way?

I suspect the answer I’ll get is that the reasons for requiring tickets are purely practical. A lot of congregants skip prayer most of the year but show up on special occasions. Synagogues want to know how many seats will be needed on the high holidays so that visitors and regulars both will be able to sit down. 

And there’s the matter of money. Jewish law—here we go again—forbids Jews to handle money on these holidays, so it’s not as though a collection plate could be handed around for contributions.

But answers like that won’t satisfy me.

Where I grew up, in Athens, Georgia, no tickets were required for services. The Orthodox Jewish community was too small. In fact, the congregation—a generous term, considering how few people actually attended—was grateful when it could scrape together more than a minyan, the quorum of ten Jewish men needed for certain religious obligations.

Still, I learned about the practice of ticketing from a family story. My grandparents emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Canada in the 1970s, fleeing the Communists. On their first Rosh Hashanah in Toronto, they did what most Jews don’t do the rest of the year: They showed up at synagogue. How could they have known they would be asked for tickets? 

Even if they had known, they wouldn’t have had the money, having left nearly all of their possessions behind in Prague. So they were turned away at the door.

Now, all these years later, I, their grandson, am assimilated, yet this one custom still rankles. Or maybe it’s just that a tradition of dissenting and grumbling is coming to the fore in me.

Daniel Halper

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