The recent Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent closing of shuls has brought Kevod Beis Haknesses at the forefront. In this week’s parashah, we read about the special status of Jewish homes of worship. How are we obligated to behave in a shul? Is eating or drinking permitted? What about sleeping – can one fall asleep during the rav’s sermon? Can it be used for communal and social purposes – for holding a meeting or a kiddush?
Shul security has also become a current-events issue, even before the shutdown. Rifle and machete bearing terrorists have targeted our shuls and issues like carrying firearms or other protective gear raise the question – can one enter a shul in army regalia?
And for some mundane issues – can one go in to a shul to avoid a sudden downpour, or cool off from the heat? Can one take a shortcut through a shul? And what if I find myself carrying too many shopping bags – can I place them in shul until I finish my errands?
Of this and more, in the following article.
Kedushas Beis Haknesses
In this week’s parashah, we are afforded a peek in to the heart of one of our nation’s arch enemies – Bila’am harasha. He is invited by Balak to curse our nation from the mountaintop, and his words, made out as blessings, expose the various ideas he had meant to use against us.
“How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Yisrael!” (Bamidbar 24:5). Rabbi Yocḥanan says: From the blessing of that wicked person, Bila’am, you can ascertain what was in his heart. G-d transformed the curses that he planned to say into blessings. He sought to say that they should not have synagogues and study halls, and he said instead: “How goodly are your tents, Ya’akov” (Numbers 24:5), a blessing on their synagogues.” (Sanhedrin 105b)
But the ultimate result of Bila’am’s words were chilling – along the course of history Bila’am “blessings” reverted to their original intention of curses, all except one: “Rabbi Abba bar Kahana says: All of the blessings ultimately reverted to be fulfilled as the curse that he had originally intended, as all of those circumstances befell the Jewish people, except for the destruction of synagogues and study halls, as it is stated: “And the Lord your G-d transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your G-d loved you” (Deuteronomy 23:6).
The midrash likens prayer in shul to prayer in the Beis Hamikdash (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehilim 257:659).
Building a shul is of paramount importance. The Rambam (Hilchos Tefilla, chapter 11:1) writes: “Wherever ten Jews live, it is necessary to establish a place for them to congregate for prayer at the time of each prayer service. This place is called a Beit Knesset. The inhabitants of a city can compel each other to construct a synagogue…”
Is a shul only a public building, a place for gathering? Is the reason for gathering in shul for prayer only in order to lend prayer a structure and framework? We all know how hard keeping a schedule was during the lockdown without regular times for prayer. Is that the function of a shul?
The Ramban (Shemos 13:16) answers this question: “The [inner] meaning of shuls and the merit of public prayer is that people should have a place to gather and thank their G-d Who created them, and they will publicly exclaim to Hashem ‘we are Your creatures’.”
A shul’s function is a merit to the Jewish people, a gift to us. It is a present which enables us to gather and proclaim our gratitude and affirm our allegiance to Hashem, our Creator.
In the past few months, our nation experienced the pain and distress of shul closures. Many still remain closed while for others; although open, the ominous possibility of re-closure remains quite real. Closure brings with it loss of that great gift, loss of the blessing. Gedoli Hador have called for reaffirming our relationships with our shuls – their kedusha and ma’ala. May we be zoche in that merit to keep our shuls open and the blessing Bila’am gave us, shall remain just that – a blessing.
Mora Mikdash – Affording Proper Honor to Shuls and Batei Midrash
Mora Mikdash, the obligation to show honor and awe of Hashem in the Mikdash, pertains to our shuls as well, as they are a Mikdash Me’at – a semblance of the Beis Hamikdash . The Chayei Adam (1:17) and the Ben Ish Chai (Vayikra Alef:Alef) derive from the passuk “You shall observe My Shabbos and revere My Sanctuary” (Vayikra 19:30), that this is a Torah commandment On the other hand the Pri Megadim interprets it as a mitzvah m’divrei kabala, learned from a navi. The prophet who speaks about shuls-the Mikdash me’at, is Yehezkeil, who prophesized that: “Although I have removed them far off among the nations and although I have scattered them in the lands, I have become for them a minor sanctuary in the lands where they have come” (Yechezkeil 11:16). That “minor sanctuary” mentioned here, is, according to the Gemara (Maseches Megillah 29a) the Batei Knesses and Batei Midrash in the lands of our exile.
The Shulchan Aruch lists the halachos that constitute the practical implication of this mitzva:
Kalus Rosh – Frivolity
Shuls and Batei Midrash are not places to behave with kalus rosh – laughter and jokes. The Ben Ish Chai writes that one must conduct himselfwith awe, reverence and respect. The Olas Tamid writes that one must not sit disrespectfully, such as with his legs stretched out in front of Him, etc. The Misha Brura (151:1) adds a chilling admonishment – for the sin of behaving frivolously in a shul, the building is repurposed as a house of idol worship. This is quite noticeable in the U.S. where unfortunately many former shuls have become houses of prayer for other religions.
Speech in shul should be confined to davening and Torah learning. Although speaking about mitzvos such as chessed, making a living and supporting one’s family – albeit being quite serious topics of discussion and an encouraged matter of conversation in other settings, in shul one should refrain from having such conversations (Mishna Brura 151:2). The Zohar (Parashas Vayakhel) expounds on the severity of this sin. Needless to say that prohibited speech such as lashon hara, rechilus and machlokes are, besides being horrible offenses in a regular setting, in a shul they consist of a major offense – sinning at home is bad enough, but rebelling against the king in his own palace displays complete disregard for Hashem’s holy presence and is a terrible aveira.
All mundane activities are assur in shul (Mishna Brura 151:3). This includes self-beautification (read: brushing one’s hair); resting; doing business calculations; using the building for shelter.
Calculations for a d’var mitzva such as tzedakah or pidyon shevuyim, though, are permitted in shul. All other calculations, even if pertaining to the tzibbur, may not be done in shul, even if there is no other place to gather.
Hesped – Eulogizing
One must not hold a hesped for the deceased in a shul, unless the deceased is one of the leaders of the city or his relative or a talmid chacham, for whom the entire city should gather to mourn. Today, since most hespedim contain Torah ideas, mussar and chizuk, it has become accepted to be lenient and hold eulogies in shul.
Eating – Drinking – Sleeping
Eating, drinking and sleeping are prohibited by the Mishna Brura (Biur Halacha 1), but he adds that the accepted custom is to be lenient with regard to drinking water, relying on The T’nai. What is The T’nai? The Gemara in Megillah (28b) relates that the synagogues in Babylon were erected with a t’nai – a condition that people can use them. Some say this condition enables the use of the synagogue for personal use in specific moments of need, or after the synagogue becomes defunct. Therefore, in synagogues outside of Eretz Yisroel, while one must show the same respect there, nevertheless, certain activities such as drinking water, is permitted. For shuls in Israel, where this condition is irrelevant, even drinking water is not permitted. Talmidei Chachomim, though, who learn Torah in shul, or even a layman who is sitting in shul for purpose of Torah study, may drink water if refraining from doing so will cause him to stop his learning to go out and drink.
People whose regular Torah learning takes place is in shul have a special heter to eat and drink there. According to the Shulchan Aruch this heter is valid only during a sha’as ha’dchak – if they don’t eat and drink in shul they will be forced to stop their learning. According to the Rama, though, the heter for eating in a Beis Midrash is valid even when it is not a sha’as had’chak – for talmidei chachomim the Beis Midrash is their home.
The Shulchan Aruch (3) writes that temporary sleep is permitted in the Beis Midrash (so it’s OK to nod off in the middle of a lecture…) but not regular sleep – shnas keva. In a Beis Knesses in which Torah study does not take place, even temporary sleep is prohibited. The Mishna Brura (15-16) writes that a full-time Torah scholar is also permitted to sleep his regular sleep in the Beis Midrash if it is necessary for maintaining his Torah study schedule. The Shulchan Aruch also writes that if there is a need to house a regular security guard in the Beis Knesses, that guard is permitted to eat and sleep in the shul, but his bed may not be placed in the sanctuary.
The Mishna Brura writes that if a community needs space to host poor visitors and there is no other place besides the shul, during a sh’as ha’dchak it is permitted.
Additionally, the Mishna Brura (20) allows holding a seudas mitzva in shul without alcoholic beverages. Nevertheless, when making a siyum, if there is no other large venue for the celebration, even if alcohol is served one should not condemn those who use a synagogue. It is important to note that during the seudas mitzva the participants will not be permitted to engage in frivolous conversation. This is reson to think twice about using a shul for a seudas mitzva since participants may fail to heed this prohibition, which we have seen has such dire consequences.
Walking into shul for purposes other than prayer or Torah study is prohibited. Therefore, one who walks into a shul to call someone out (remember, cell-phones should be shut off!) should sit down and learn something, or read a passuk. If he doesn’t know to read he should ask someone else to tell him some words of Torah before fetching the person he needs. If that too is impossible, one should sit down for a short time (the exact time span is the time it takes to walk 80 centimeters) as even sitting in shul is a mitzva – “Ashrei yoshvei beisecha – Glad are those who sit in your house…” (Tehilim 84:5).
The same is true for one who is walking on the street and finds himself caught by a sudden downpour or heatwave – a shul is not a weather shelter to be used to get off the street! The Mishna Brura writes (4) that if one can use another place (store, mall) for shelter one may not walk into the synagogue, even if he will read a passuk or say a halacha. Obviously, if one wants to utilize his wait time for Torah study or prayer, he may enter, and it is a mitzva.
One may not use the shul to shorten his way – to pass from one road to the other through the shul’s two entranceways, for example. Passing from one room to the next through the main sanctuary is a common mistake that people often make.
Entering the synagogue with a weapon or long knife is forbidden. Since the synagogue is a place for prayer which lengthens one’s life, weapons that shorten one’s life have no place there. If it is still necessary, the knife or weapon may be covered over. If the knife is necessary for a meal (one that is permissible) one may use it, and then cover it over as soon as possible.
It is considered lack of reverence to walk around bareheaded inside a synagogue. Head covering arouses awe of heaven, a must for us in a shul.
One should be careful to clean off his shoes and clothing from dirt and mud before entering a synagogue.
Levels of Sanctity
As we saw above, different activities may be permitted or prohibited, depending upon the level of sanctity of the shul. The obvious difference is between shuls in Eretz Yisroel and outside of it, but there are, in addition, a number of other subtle differences in the sanctity of the shul. Here we will discuss four different levels of sanctity a shul carries and the differences between them.
The different levels of sanctity are disputed between the poskim and this article cannot provide a full scope on the matter. Before making use of a specific shul, it is recommended to investigate the level of sanctity the shul has with the local rabbi.
1) A shul without t’nai – unconditional shul. A shul that was sanctified without any conditions carries the highest level of kedusha. Eating and drinking is prohibited as well as any other use besides prayer. One may not even place his packages in the corner in order to pray.
Most congregations refrain from consecrating their shul in this manner so as not to be machshil anyone in the aveira of Mora Mikdash.
Communities that are not under the leadership of a certified rabbi may not have made the condition properly before sanctifying their synagogue. In this case, the shul must be revered more than all other shuls. Another such synagogue may be one belonging to a community whose members believe they are on the spiritual level that will enable them to maintain proper Mora Mikdash, and they consecrated their shul unconditionally.
2) Beis Midrash al t’nai – a conditional study hall. Most shuls nowadays are consecrated as a Beis Midrash, with the condition. This enables certain activities for talmidei chachomim, as well as some public functions. According to many poskim, this condition is not effective in Eretz Yisroel. For this reason, many communities, despite having consecrated the main Beis Midrash with the t’nai, still hold kiddushim and other events in other rooms, allowing only events that are explicitly part of the services, such as a short Kiddush on Simchas Torah in the main sanctuary. Regular kiddushim are held in side rooms.
3) Rooms intended for prayer but were not sanctified – this level allows one to be lenient and hold kiddushim or rother social events in them. Some communities are careful to specifically not sanctify certain rooms off the main shul so these rooms can be used for social gatherings. Although these rooms may be used for prayer during high-traffic times (Like bein hazmanim when many minyanim are needed), nevertheless its kedusha is lesser. Despite the leniency, using the room for a private event such as sheva brachos should be discussed with a rabbi.
4) Shteiblach – Beit Chassidim – due to the severity of kedushas Beis Haknesses, certain chassidic courts are careful not to call their shuls Beis Knesses or Beis Midrash but “shtieblach”, meaning small house in Yiddish. This is to enable them to gather and enjoy each other’s camaraderie, sitting and talking together. This “little house” is used for all their communal needs, whether holy — such as prayer or Torah study — or social. Therefore, they eat and drink there, even meals that have no connection to the services: they serve regular breakfasts, regular sleep, and anything else.
This is in no way meant to indicate that all establishments labeled as “Beit Chassidim” or “shtieblach” are the same. Different Chassidic courts have different customs. Before using a place one should be careful to investigate how the place was sanctified. Despite the above, even in places with a proper condition in place one may not speak frivolously or behave disrespectfully.
The source for this approach to kedushas Beis Haknesses in shtieblach is found in the Divrei Chaim (Choshen Mishpat II:32) where the laws of inheritance of a Beis Chassidim is discussed. He adds there, “And it seems simple that the Batei Midrash the tzaddikim dedicate in their homes don’t have the status of Batei Midrash–Beit Knesses in their holiness, for we see these places are used for activities we are not permitted to perform in a regular Beis Midrash even one with a t’nai – wedding receptions and meals in which people behave joyously as is the accepted custom – behavior which is not permitted in another Beis Midrash. People also sleep there sheinas keva and other uses, as it is known. The reason for this is that the tzaddikim build this room just to serve as a gathering spot to be able to rejoice together at mitzva-related occasions, and for guests. They also pray there, but the place does not have the sanctity of the Beis Knesses.”
This practice carries a benefit and disadvantage, says the Ridvaz (Part III:472). The benefits are the social meetings, cohesion of the community, in addition to the concept “one does not pray but where his heart wishes to”, i.e.: prayer occurs where the heart is. In a place that brings joy, camaraderie and happiness, the heart is open to prayer, and members don’t sin with failing in respect of the Beis Knesses. On the other hand, they forfeit the great gift of prayer in the Beis Knesses. In general, the rabbis of every locale consecrate shuls and shtieblach in the way that best suits the locals and the times.
There are halachic ramifications that result from the differences in the levels of sanctity. Examples are whether there is a requirement to affix a mezuzah; if the laws of bar meitzra exist or not; matters of inheritance and ownership, among others.
Get Ready for Moshiach!
Every day is one step closer to the coming of Moshiach and consequently increases our need to prepare ourselves, says the Chofetz Chaim in Zachor L’Miriam (chapter 18). To be prepared includes having the correct attitude towards holy places. In the Beis Hamikdash one must behave in complete awe and reverence, executing total control over his behavior. Already now, before Moshiach arrives, we must exercise similar caution in the Beis Knesses, the Mikdash Me’at. One must be extra cautious in our generation for two reasons. One is that it serves as a preparatory exercise and the second to attone for not having shown appropriate reverence to the Beis Hamikdash when it existed. The result will be that then the Moshiach will come, speedily in our times, amen.