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Prayer in the Presence of Avoda Zara


In this week’s article we will focus on the proper place to daven. As frequent travelers can attest, the time for davening may find one facing Avoda Zara symbols, or in other problematic situations. Is it permissible to daven in a city filled with churches? A person is a patient at Holy Cross Hospital and there is a crucifix on the wall of each room.  Can he make brachos and daven? What happens when a cross-bearing person enters the room where people are davening? Is it permissible to trade or sell coins and stamps that bear crosses? Is one permitted to stare at these and other Avoda Zara icons? In which direction should one daven if there is an Avoda Zara icon in the direction of Jerusalem? Can a community rent a bar or nightclub for davening on the Yomim Noraim? Can one daven in a Reform or Conservative Temple, and what is the halachic status of a shul that considers itself Orthodox but has no mechitzah and uses a microphone on Shabbos? Does a cross-bearing individual serve as a barrier preventing one from being counted part of a minyan? Can a priest be invited to visit a shul? And can one mention Hashem’s Name near the Ganges River, revered by the Indians? Of this, and more in the coming article.


In this week’s parasha, the Torah states that Moshe “went out from Pharaoh, and entreated the Lord” (Shemos 10:18). Moshe left Pharaoh’s presence in order to daven to Hashem because, as the Midrash explains (Shemot Rabbah 12:5) he did not wish to daven in in the city because it was flled with avodah zara. This is also explains why every prophetic message was received by Moshe outside of Egypt – it was improper for the Shechinah’s dignity to appear in such an unholy place.

The Psikta Zutra (Va’era 9:29) adds some interesting information: Moshe Rabbenu had a special house, set aside for prophetic revelations outside the city. Therefore, every time he entreated Hashem, he did so in that house of worship.

The Sifsei Chachomim explains (Shemos 9:29) that at the end of the Plague of Hail, Moshe was forced to reveal this to Pharaoh in order to explain why the hail would continue falling and killing Egyptians until he reached his designated place of prayer: “And Moshe said to him, ‘When I leave the city, I will spread my hands to the Lord” (Shemos 9:29). Only after he left the city was Moshe able to entreat Hashem for the hail to stop falling.

This concept appears also in the Chizkuni (Shemos 7:9) who explains why it was necessary for Moshe to go out and warn Pharaoh about the impending plagues at the Nile and not in the royal palace: since the palace was saturated with Egyptian idols, it would be improper to mention Hashem’s Name there in order to issue the warning. Hence, not only is davening improper in the presence of idols – even reference to Him is inappropriate.

Davening in Presence of Avoda Zara

The Rama (OC 94:8) rules that preferably one should not daven in the same room with Avoda Zara. Therefore, one who is residing in a room with Avoda Zara icons should find a place to daven outside. Only if there is nowhere else to daven undisturbed can one daven in the same room with Avoda Zara, and even then it must be in a Avoda Zara-free corner. The source for this halacha, writes the Mishna Brura (footnote 30), appears in the above-cited psukim in this week’s parasha.

Davening in Cities with Churches

The Mishna Brura adds that today (in his time, in parts of Europe), whereas all our cities are filled with Avoda Zara, if there is no option of davening in an Avoda Zara-free building, one may daven there while ensuring his corner is free of Avoda Zara. The Rama and the Mishna Brura’s rulings referred to the cities in Europe which were Christian cities, and the Avoda Zara they refer to is the crucifixes or statues of various religious figures.

This Mishna Brura indicates that if one has the option to daven inside a city with churches or outside, for example when traveling, it is preferable to daven outside a church-filled city or even on the road, if possible, than to daven inside the city.

And indeed, from the wording of the Midrash (12:5) we learn that while Moshe preferred to daven outside if Egypt, it isn’t forbidden.

[Of the Chofetz Chaim we are told that he chose to live in the little town of Radin because it was so small it didn’t have a church. The Arizal is said to have resided in Tzefas for the same reason.]

Avoda Zara Pendant

One of the most practical questions is regarding a person wearing a cross-pendant – does he receive the status of Avoda Zara?

The Shulchan Aruch (YD 141:1) writes that a ceremonial cross used for worship is Avoda Zara, but a pendant hanging from the neck only for decoratorial purposes, is not. The Shach writes (footnote 6) that this is only true if we know that the pendant was never used for worship. If it was used, even once, either because it was removed and bowed to or kissed, or if another person bowed to it, it should be considered Avoda Zara. Har Tzvi (OC I, 85:1) learns from this quote that a cross pendant hanging from a necklace is considered safek – suspected — Avoda Zara.

In any case, the Shulchan Aruch ruled (OC 113:8) that bowing down in davening to Hashem when facing a cross is forbidden due to mar’is ha’ayin – it might seem to the observer as if he is davening to the cross.

The Gemara recounts the story of Channa and her Seven Sons (Gittin 57b). After killing her first six sons, the king offered to spare the youngest’s life if he’d just bend down to lift up his ring so it would appear as if he was bowing to the idol. However, the youngest refused the offer and gave his life al kiddush Hashem.

Coins and Stamps

The Gemara (Avoda Zara 50a) terms Rabbi Menachem ben Rabbi Simai “son of the pious ones” because he would not look at coins with an effigy of Avoda Zara. The Tosefos (Shabbos 149a) understand that a regular person can gaze at Avoda Zara which was created for decoratorial purposes and only ceremonial pieces are forbidden.

In light of the above, the Igros Moshe (YD, I, chapter 69) rules that collecting or dealing in stamps with crosses is not forbidden because they are simply symbols, not objects of worship. However, not looking at them is praiseworthy. This is in addition to the fact that the cross is not seen as a deity but as a symbol of it. The source for forbidding a cross is to stay away from abomination, but it isn’t actual Avoda Zara.

Davening towards an Avoda Zara

In which direction should one daven if there is crucifix in his room in the direction of Jerusalem? The Mishna Brura (94:30) quotes the Chayei Adam (23:5) that while usually one should daven in the direction of Eretz Yisroel (or in Eretz Yisroel – towards Jerusalem), in this case one should daven in the opposite direction, while in his heart he should direct his thoughts to the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem.

A Hospital Patient

She’arim Hametzuynim B’halacha (chapter 18:8) discusses a patient in a hospital where there is a crucifix on the wall of every room. He quotes poskim who permit davening with his eyes shut in his bed, even facing the Avoda Zara. In this situation one should not bow in Shemone Esrei at all, and if possible, he should tilt his head to another direction.

Reform Temple

The Igros Moshe (OC III, 25) writes that renting or otherwise using part of a Reform or Conservative Temple for davening is forbidden because they do not believe in the fundamentals of Torah and distort the Torah’s meaning, categorizing them as minnim. He derives from the pasuk: “Distance your way from her and do not draw near to the entrance of her house” (Mishlei 5:8) that one must not associate with them. The Gemara (Avoda Zara 17a) writes that entering this type of establishment is forbidden because one could appear as a regular patron. In addition, if both establishments are housed in the same building, shul-goes may accidently hear the sermons given in the Reform temple, which are on the most part, total kefirah. For further elaboration on the topic see Tzitz Eliezer (volume V, introduction 82).

An orthodox community that fails to adhere to halachic guidelines, though, is judged differently. Even if they don’t have a mechitza or use a microphone on Shabbos, it is not because they don’t believe in the Torah but due to practically failing in these areas of Torah observance. Therefore, although it is certainly forbidden to daven there, renting a room from them for separate services is permitted on condition the other minyan is clearly indicated – either by written announcement or by a separate entrance.

As to informing them of their shortcomings – if they might take heed and change, it is certainly encouraged, but if they will not, it is preferable they continue sinning unknowingly than on purpose.

Bars and Nightclubs

The Igros Moshe (OC I, 31) was asked if it would be proper to rent a beer hall for davening on the Yomim Noraim. He answered that it would be improper to daven in a place where people behave immorally. Only if it had originally been a shul would such behavior not lower its sanctified status. Therefore, one may conduct davening in desecrated shuls in Europe, for example, but renting a bar for a few days of davening is not permissible. A building that was once a nightclub can be used for a shul if the change is permanent, and it will no longer revert back to its former use.

Minyan in Presence of a Avoda Zara

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 55:2) rules that one who sees a minyan, even from a distance, can join in and be counted as part of it for purpose of reciting kaddish and kedushah. This halacha was put in widespread use for the past two years when people were quarantined at home and joined outdoor minyanim via this halachic mechanism. But it also has practical ramifications for our issue on hand: if Avoda Zara or another unclean item stands between a man and his minyan, he cannot be counted as part of it even if he hears the chazzan and sees all the members.

The poskim are disputed as to what is considered a barrier that separates a minyan. The Magen Avraham (55:15) opines that only the Avoda Zara can serve as a barrier, but an idol worshipper does not. However, many Achronim (Levush OC 55:20; Elya Raba OC 55:18; Pri Megadim Eshel Avraham 55:15; and others) are of the opinion that even an idol worshipper is a barrier. The Mishna Brura (55:65) follows this opinion.

Nevertheless, the Mishna Brura (55:62) notes that the Shulchan Aruch writes this halacha under the title of yesh omrim – a second opinion. This indicates that there those who differ on this halacha. Therefore, although it is preferrable nothing should stand between one joining a minyan, bedieved he should answer amen and kedushah, but not barchu. The reason is that there are opinions that he cannot join, and the latter two include Hashem’s Name which one must ensure not to mention in vain.

Priest’s Visit

Har Tzvi (OC I, 85) and Shevet Halevi (II, 59:3) expound on the prohibition to invite priests in full ceremonial regalia to visit shuls, especially during davening. Nevertheless, one must act wisely not to arouse undue animosity. Har Tzvi adds, that in extenuating circumstances, if they entered on their own, one is not obligated to remove them.

The Nile River

The Chizkuni writes that Moshe Rabbenu was commanded to warn Pharoah about the upcoming plagues early in the morning when he went to the Nile, not in the city or in the Pharaoh’s palace. The reason was in order to refrain from mentioning Hashem’s Name in an idol-saturated surrounding. Since the Egyptians worshipped the Nile River, why wasn’t mentioning Hashem’s Name there problematic? And Pharaoh himself was also regarded by the Egyptians as a deity.

In light of the above halachic discussion, it is clear that while inappropriate and clearly discouraged, mentioning Hashem’s Name in presence of Avoda Zara is not forbidden. Therefore, when necessary, such as to fulfill a direct order from Hashem, Moshe was permitted to mention Hashem Who had sent him to deliver the warnings.

River or Mountain

Regarding the Nile River, which was (relatively) the cleanest place in Egypt in terms of Avoda Zara, there is another reason for leniency. This is relevant even today for people who visit the Ganges River in India or Mount Olympus in Greece. In general, prominent mountains are favorite places for cults and religious worship, particularly when they are isolated as island mountains, mountains with snowcaps, or uninhabited high mountain ranges.

The Mishna (Avoda Zara 3:5) writes that anything that is part of the ground cannot become Avoda Zara, and cannot become forbidden even if people worship it. The Shulchan Aruch (YD 145:1) cites this as the reason that public rivers and springs don’t become forbidden. The Achronim are split regarding the meaning of this ruling – the Levush (1) understands this is because anything that is part of Earth cannot become Avoda Zarah. However, the Prisha (ibid) understands that it depends upon ownership – a single idol-worshipping person cannot render a public place forbidden due to its being an item of worship. However, one who worships his own private river or mountain – or, if all the residents of a country regard their river as a deity, it does have the status of Avoda Zara and cannot be used.

In light of the above, apparently, the status of the Nile River depended upon the above dispute. Practically, today, despite the fact that most of the residents of India worship the Ganges River, there is room for leniency because the Shach (footnote 2) follows the Levush in his halachic ruling.

The Nile River

When Moshe approached Pharaoh in the morning, the Nile River could not have been an object of worship. How is this possible?

The dispute described above regarding the possibility of a natural river becoming Avoda Zara includes two possible intentions people have in worshipping it – either they see the river as representing higher powers; or they worship the actual waters that are presently passing in the waterway. If the Egyptians worshipped the spiritual powers that were linked to the Nile – the river itself did not become Avoda Zara. And if they worshipped the actual waters – Moshe appeared to Pharaoh early in the morning before anyone had a chance to worship anything. The waters that had been worshipped on the day before had already passed in the river and spilled into the Mediterranean, and the new waters hadn’t yet been worshipped and become an Avoda Zara.

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