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Parashas Vayakhel – The “Mini-Temple”—Halachos of Shuls

The life of a Jew revolves, to a great degree, around the shul. Aside from the thrice-daily prayers, the shul serves as a center for Torah study and lectures. Shul is the place for social gatherings to mark both joyous and sad occasions. The laws that pertain to a shul, however, are seldom studied.

This week’s parashah deals with the Tabernacle and its vessels. A shul is also termed in halachamikdash me’at” – a mini-Temple. This prompts us to examine and discuss the laws of the shul, most of which are extracted from its status. Our discussion will seek to establish the parameters of this comparison, and study the halachos that are derived from this analogy.

Awe and Respect in the Mini-Temple

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 151) begins to relay the laws of shul with a number of rules that result of its holiness: “One may not act with lightheadedness in shuls and in houses of study. One may not laugh, joke, or idly chatter; nor may one eat or drink in them… stroll in them, or use them as shelter from the sun or rain….”

Mishnah Berurah (151:1) explains that the reason for these laws is that the shul is a mikdash me’at. Just as the Torah commands us of mora mikdash — to be in awe of the Temple, so we must be in awe of today’s “small sanctuary”—the shul.

Mora Mikdash in Shul: Torah or Rabbinic Law?

According to Yere’im (409), the obligation of mora mikdash in shul is a Torah obligation, and disrespectful behavior in shul is a full Torah transgression.  This principle is derived by the Gemara (Megillah 29a) from the verse (Yechezkel 11:16) “I will be for them as a small sanctuary.” The ruling of Yere’im is cited by Chayei Adam (17:6).

Other rishonim, however, imply that the kedushah of today’s shuls is not mandated by Torah law, but rather by rabbinic injunction. The Ran (Megillah 8a) in his quotation of the Ramban clearly states this. The Pri Megadim (Mishbatzos Zahav, beginning of 153), based on the Ran‘s statement, explains that there is a fundamental difference between the kedushah of a shul, which is rabbinic in nature, and the kedushah of a sefer torah, which is mandated by the Torah.

Breaking off a Stone

A possible ramification of this discussion is raised by the Toafos Re’em (commentary to Yere’im), who quotes from Sefer Ha-Eshkol (I, no. 24) that there is a prohibition to break off a stone from a shul. The Nahal Eshkol (commentary to Eshkol) explains that this prohibition is derived from the similarity between today’s shul and the Temple. With reference to the Temple, the Torah prohibits breaking off its stones: “You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d.”

Toafos Re’em himself, however, writes that even if the kedushah of shuls is mandated by the Torah, there is room to distinguish between the different levels of kedushah. Therefore, we can safely assume that the prohibition of breaking stones does not apply to shuls. On the other hand, Divrei Chaim (Orach Chaim 3) writes that even if the kedushah of a shul is rabbinic, the Shechinah’s presence could deem it a Torah prohibition.

The question is discussed in Shevet Halevi (III, no. 13), who was consulted concerning breaking off stones from the outer wall of a shul for the purpose of building a Sukkah. After weighing up the sides of the debate, he rules that one may be lenient, adding that the act of breaking the stones should be done by a non-Jew.

The Obligation of Building a Shul

The Sedei Chemed (Letter Beis, no. 63) debates the obligation of building a shul. Based on the above ruling of the Yere’im and others, he writes that the mitzvah is included in the Torah obligation of building the Temple. (Although the mitzvah of building a shul is not mentioned in the Torah or listed as a Torah mitzvah.) The Sedei Chemed adds that this is the ruling given by Rav Chaim Palagi (Tochechos Chaim).

The Shulchan Aruch, in Orach Chaim 150:1 writes that the obligation of building a shul is imposed on members of the community. According to the above mentioned opinion of the Yere’im, the obligation to build a shul is strictly halachic and not only a general obligation to participate in communal needs. It is derived from the verse “You shall build Me a sanctuary.”

However, Yad Yemin (50), which is also cited in Sedei Chemed, states that the obligation to build a shul is a requirement to meet communal needs. Where there is no leader to enforce members of the community to fulfill their obligation, there is no personal mitzvah—Torah or rabbinic—to build a shul.

Doors and Hallways

The interior design of a shul is halachically prescribed, and also relies heavily on comparison to the Temple.

Tosefta in Megillah 3:14, teaches that the doors to a shul must be constructed on the eastern side. Just as the doors of the Temple opened westwards, so too, the doors of a shul should open to the west. In the Temple, this design ensured that upon entering, one would bow before the inner chamber. In a shul, one must do so in the direction of the Aron Ha-Kodesh – the ark containing the Torah scrolls. From this Tosefta, the Shulchan Aruch (150:5) derives that doors to a shul must be positioned so, that one who enters is facing the direction of the Aron. (The Aron’s location is determined based on the direction of prayer in the specific area.)

An interesting addition to this is found in the rulings of the Chasam Sofer.

The Bach (Orach Chaim 90) learns from the Yerushalmi that a hallway must be constructed as an entranceway to a shul. This halachah is also quoted by Magen Avraham (35) and Mishnah Berurah (61). Based on comparison with the Temple entrances, the Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim 27) rules that the doors to the hallway should not be aligned with the doors to the shul itself, but should rather be to the north and south (assuming that the doors of the shul are in the east).

In reality, it seems that not many shul architects are familiar with this halacha.

Placement of the Bimah

Rema (Orach Chaim 150:5) cites the ruling of Rambam (Tefillah 11:3) whereby the bimah must be placed in the center of a shul. The reason for this is explained by the Kesef Mishnah. He explains that this ruling does not contradict the common custom in his time, which was to construct the bimos at the end of the shul. The purpose of a central bimah was to ensure that all those present in shul would hear the reading of the chazzan.

According to this interpretation, there is therefore, no obligation to place the bimah in the center of the shul, and this was done for practical reasons only. In the shul of Alexandria, where thousands of Jews prayed, the bimah had to be central (Sukkah 51b, quoted by the Biur Ha-Gra); for smaller shuls, this location is not obligatory.

However, the Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim 28) makes the central placement of the bima a universal obligation. He writes that the bimah represents the altar in the Temple. Just as the inner altar (of the ketores) was situated in the center of the Temple between the shulchan and menorah, so too, the bimah must be placed in the center of the shul.

Chasam Sofer, as we know (see Biur Halachah, end of 150), fought fiercely against the Reform movement. Since these reformers wished to convert the shul into a “modern” prayer-hall, they insisted on placing the bimah in the front of the shul. The Chasam Sofer argued that this new practice was forbidden. The principle, as Chasam Sofer concludes, is that “chadash (novelty) is forbidden from the Torah.”

Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim II, no. 41) wonders why the Chasam Sofer compares the bimah to the inner altar, and not to the external altar. This question arises from the Chasam Sofer‘s own writings. He writes that the reasons for the comparison are because we read of the sacrifices from the bimah, and because we circle around the bimah on Sukkos. Both of these reasons would justify a comparison with the external altar, and not the inner altar.

As a matter of practicality, both alters would necessitate placing the bimah in the center of a shul.  Rav Moshe concludes that because this is only a question of custom, there is no need to be stringent and squeeze the bimah into the center of a shul. In another teshuvah (42), Rav Moshe adds that it is permitted (when the need arises) to pray in a shul whose bimah is not centered. The Chasam Sofer‘s staunch opposition on the matter was meant for his generation and for the battle against Reform.

Additional Customs

A number of other customs are mentioned in connection with the shul as a “small sanctuary”:

Candles: The Shulchan Aruch (151:9) writes that it is customary to light candles in order to honor the shul. The Mishnah Berurah (27) explains that this corresponds to the practice in the Temple. He goes even further and rules (514:31) that although it is prohibited to light a candle at home on Yom Tov during the daytime (because the light is superfluous), it is permitted to light candles in shul. The Shelah (Tetzaveh 33) adds that candles should stay lit throughout the prayers, comparing this to the ner tamid in the Temple.

Trees: Rabbi Akiva Eiger (glosses to Shulchan Aruch 150:1) quotes Rav D. Arama who prohibits planting trees in the courtyard of a shul. This corresponds with the prohibition of planting trees “adjacent with the altar of Hashem.” Authorities discuss this prohibition (see Piskei Teshuvos 150:19, note 90), which applies specifically to trees (and not to bushes or flowers). Some adopt a more stringent position and some a lenient stance.

Paroches: Rav Ovadyah Yosef (Yecheveh Daas vol. 6, no. 9) was asked if it is acceptable to take down the ornamental curtain in front of the aron ha-kodesh, replacing it with elaborate gold plating on the aron itself. His response (based on Zera Emes, Orach Chaim 26) was that it is preferable to leave the paroches in place. The reason for this is that aside from adorning the aron, the paroches corresponds to the curtain that separated between the Holy and the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

Attic: The Shulchan Aruch (151:12) rules that an attic directly above a shul should not be used for disrespectful purposes. He goes further to express doubt as to whether it may be used for any fixed purpose. Mishnah Berurah (40, based on Beis Yosef) explains that the issue depends on whether the shul attic is compared to the attic above the main hall of the Temple (azarah), or whether it is compared to the attic above the inner chamber, which was sanctified with the kedushah of the Heichal.

Architecture: The Noda Biyhuda (tinyana, Orach Chaim 18) writes that there is no formal obligation to build the shul with four walls in correspondence with the design of the Temple. He permits building a shul in any shape, provided that the intention is for reasons of space and convenience, and not to emulate non-Jewish architecture.

Giving Due Respect

In conclusion, it is worthwhile returning to the issue of honoring the shul with which we began. The comparison with the Temple, which is the source of so many halachos of the shul, urges us to treat the shul with due respect. Indeed, Mishnah Berurah (150:1) warns (quoting from Semak) that if attendees treat a shul with disrespect, it will end up a house of idolatry. Tragically, after their closure, many of the old shuls in America turned into Churches.

Let us end on a more positive note. Rav Chaim Palagi (Tochachas Chaim, p. 173) writes that one who is careful to refrain from speaking any idle speech in shul merits great reward: “During his lifetime he will see offspring, live long, Hashem will grant him success in all matters… and his bread will not be lacking. Even after his death, his spirit will rest in peace in his grave, and neither his bones nor his flesh will rot.”

May we merit to punctiliously fulfill the halachos of the shul, to grant our “small sanctuary” its due respect, and to beautify and adorn it to the best of our abilities. Thus, may we speedily see the rebuilding of the true Sanctuary with the coming of the Redeemer, speedily and in our days.

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