What is Sacred Space?

Image: The ark with the Torah Scrolls at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX.

One of my favorite blogs is The Cricket Pages by Rachel Mankowitz. If you are a dog lover, it’s a must. She writes beautifully about many different topics, running all of it through the prism of her little dogs’ lives; there’s nothing else on the web quite like it. She posts about once a week, and I look forward to it as much as my Gabi and Jojo look forward to dog treats.

This week Rachel wrote about Sacred Space, and I loved her take on it. First she wrote about a class she’s attending at her synagogue, and then looked at the different ways her dogs make sacred space for themselves. Truly, read it, it’s a treat!

Sacred space has long been a topic that piqued my curiosity. As a child, I noticed that different churches affected me differently: in one, I always felt like I was surely doomed, but in another I thought I could feel the love of God. Some other worship spaces didn’t feel holy at all. The most holy place I knew growing up was inside a mountain laurel grove on a hill on the farm. I loved to sit in there on a mossy log and look at the sky and listen for God.

My early graduate studies were all about sacred space; my first master’s thesis was an analysis of a baptistery in Ravenna, Italy.  I was curious about the fact that people seemed to find certain places holy and other places not. I never really puzzled it all out, but I learned a lot of interesting things in the process.

As an adult, I find that I am harder to awe with architecture. There are certainly many beautiful synagogues and other places of worship, but real awe, Yirat Hashem, the Awe of God, is both easier and harder to find. I have found it at the bedside in an intensive care unit. I’ve felt it looking at the night sky.  Buildings rarely do it for me, but viewing the Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls left me in tears. Reading from a Torah Scroll, hearing the shofar blast, praying the words of the service, I am transported out of myself.

Places become holy for me from the things that happen there: the Abramov Library at HUC Jerusalem will always be sacred space, because I studied there with Rabbi André Zaoui z”l, (about whom I really should write sometime.) Another sacred space: the chapel at the Los Angeles Jewish Home where a little minyan of Holocaust survivors lovingly taught me how to lead services the way they liked from an Orthodox prayer book. My teacher and friend Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler’s kitchen table is sacred space to me: she taught me Torah there and comforted me when I was distraught.

I strive to make my home a sacred space; that’s an ongoing project.

Are there places that are truly sacred space to you? I hope that some of you will share in the comments where those places are, and if you have an idea why, that you’ll share that, too.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

9 thoughts on “What is Sacred Space?”

  1. Sacred space for me is outdoors, enjoying nature’s bounty and beauty. It is easy to meditate and pray there. My dog Joey love to join me on a blanket in a shady corner for a short while. I often wonder if he also meditates and prays…I think he does! We are both blessed!

    1. Sheila, you are not alone. There are many people for whom the outdoors is the most sacred space, whether it is in a garden or in the wilderness. I love that Sukkot carries us outside!

      Sukkot sameach – Happy Sukkot!

  2. Rabbi Adar, I love this question!! At my former synagogue there were two spaces that were sacred to me, and neither was the main sanctuary. One was a small chapel with glass windows that faced east, which was where I met and studied with my rabbi, and where I had my bat mitzvah. The other was another chapel where a friend and I met daily for years to pray and meditate. Neither of those places was sacred to me before my experiences in them . . . and that, for me, is what makes spaces sacred — their ability to provide a “safe space” in which I can open to my Infinite and Eternal Gd.
    There’s also an abandoned lot on my way to work . . . if I can stop to snap a picture of it on my way to work, I’ll finally post what I wrote two weeks ago about why I find it sacred.
    Chag Sukkot Sameach! jen

    1. Jen, I always appreciate your reflections on these things!

      By the way, some of my Intro students who are considering conversion were looking for 1st person accounts by converts to Judaism. Your blog was one of the things I recommended to them. You really do have an insightful mind and a way with words.

  3. Thank you very much, Rabbi, for your kind words. If my story and reflections can help just one of your students, then my blogging will have been time well spent!! In my experience, Judaism is like the world… the more we open our hearts to interact with it, the more sacred spaces we find within it’s landscape!!

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