The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #83: Siman 150


by Rav Asher Meir




The MB in s.k. 2 discusses the perennially upsetting question of breakaway minyanim.


The Radbaz (III:472) was asked about a group of Spanish Jews in North Africa who originally prayed together with the Ma'aravim (Western Jews - this usually refers to Moroccans who for some inexplicable reason are today referred to as "Edot HaMizrach" or Eastern Jews) but later decided to start their own minyan.  The question was whether this was permissible and desirable in and of itself, and furthermore if it would exempt the members of the new minyan from paying taxes to the original congregation.


The Radbaz begins by pointing out that proper composure is a basic prerequisite for prayer, and that it is impossible to pray if one is distracted and disturbed by personal animosity.  He also relates to the special spiritual unity (ibbur) which is achieved by Jews who are on the same spiritual "wavelength," and points out that this does not exist if, on the contrary, people are at odds with each other.  When our sages learned from the verse (Mishlei 14:28) "Be-rov am hadrat melekh" - the King's glory is in the greatness of the assembly - that our worship should preferably be in the largest possible assembly, they were referring to the case when people are indeed assembled and unified.  But if the members of the congregation are in a constant state of ill will, then there is certainly no glory to the King in their assembly.


He also likens the choice of a place of prayer to the choice of a place of Torah learning, regarding which we learn, "A person can learn Torah only in a place which his heart desires" (Avoda Zara 19a, YD 240:25).


Regarding taxes he concludes that the break-aways are required to continue to pay community taxes.  It is unclear from the responsum if taxes to support the Beit Knesset are included.


The MB also refers to the Pitchei Teshuva on Choshen Mishpat 162 (laws of shared courtyards).  The Rema there (se'if 7) says in the name of the Ribash that not only is it permissible for a group of congregants to establish their own minyan in a separate place, but we censure anyone who tries to stop them.  The only exception, says the Ribash (siman 253) is if their departure will destroy the first congregation.  In this case, he says, it is up to the community leaders to seek a way to maintain both places of worship.


The Pitchei Teshuva cites the Magen Avraham (154:23) mentioned in the MB and many other authorities who rule that the majority MAY prevent part of the congregation from forming their own minyan.  And even if the majority permit, certainly the new minyan has no right to any of the property of the existing congregation - such as the Torah scrolls and so on.


All this refers to the case when the members of the new minyan have the possibility of remaining in the old congregation but prefer to be on their own - as the Radbaz discusses.  If the existing shul is just too small to hold a growing congregation and they are obliged to split into two, then of course the two new shuls have to reach some kind of equitable distribution of the property.  The Pitchei Teshuva mentions that items which were donated by a particular family should remain in the minyan where that family will pray.


The Magen Avraham starts out with the "lenient" view of the Radbaz (lenient towards the breakaways) but then closes with the stringent opinions - leaving the impression that this is the conclusion; however, the MB first quotes the Magen Avraham and then returns to cite the Radbaz, seemingly giving greater weight to the lenient opinion.


I obviously can not give a ruling in this complicated area, but I would like to suggest the following guidelines.  The first relates to the what MAY be done, the second to what SHOULD be done.


1.  The responsa which refer to the ability to prevent splitting off seem to be referring to an existing municipal congregational structure - a kehilla.  The KEHILLA can, according to these opinions, impose on its members to remain in the SYNAGOGUE of that kehilla.  But if there is no kehilla and only a beit knesset, then there is no authority which could compel people to stay! Leaving the beit knesset is itself leaving the congregation - comparable to moving out of town - and this in itself removes the yoke of the congregation.  It seems to me that this is true even if leaving the congregation will actually damage the existing shul.  A town can not compel me to stay just because my leaving will harm the remaining residents.


Therefore, it seems that there is no actual authority to prevent a breakaway minyan in any community where there is no centralized kehilla structure - which is just about anywhere in the United States.  Of course, people can be informed that they will cease to belong to whatever congregational structure there is.  And the fact that no one can stop people from starting a breakaway minyan does not mean that it is a good idea.  It would be responsible for those considering starting a new minyan to internalize the considerations that the kehilla would weigh if such a centralized authority existed.


2.  While animosity can prevent a person from concentrating in his prayers, removing the animosity is in general a better solution than starting a new minyan - as the MB points out.  Most breakaway minyans nowadays are started over "frumkeit" (religiosity) situations - in both directions.  It is extremely important to distinguish between the "frumkeit" or "farfrumptkeit" (overly demonstrative religiosity) of the BEIT KNESSET and that of the MEMBERS of the Beit Knesset. 


If my BEIT KNESSET is just not frum enough - the mechitza is not really kosher - or if it is just too farfrumpt - they took down the mechitza and replaced it with a steel-reinforced concrete wall and now the ladies can't follow the davening - then there is a valid reason to weigh finding a more congenial prayer environment. 


But if my fellow congregants are not so frum (they read the paper during davening - I've actually seen this) or if they are too farfrumpt (the gabbais ask everyone to put siddurim and chumashim back after Shabbat davening, and someone complains to the Rav that this is "borer" - forbidden sorting) the best thing to do is MYOB (mind your own business) and remind yourself that some things you do probably also look ridiculous or questionable.  Furthermore, starting a new minyan will not solve anything, because there is no limit to people's judgmental side in these issues.


An intermediate case is discussed in an interesting responsum of Rav Moshe Feinstein (OC I:46).  Rav Moshe was asked about a congregation which put U.S. and Israeli flags on the platform.  This act disturbed some congregants so much that they wanted to start a new minyan.  The case is intermediate since it seems that the congregants were only partially bothered by the flags themselves; they were also partially bothered by the fact that they were davening together with Zionists.


Rav Moshe's answer has two main points.  First, he asserts that even if it were forbidden to put the flags in the Beit Knesset, and even if the people who put them there were transgressors (reshaim), the Beit Knesset retains its sanctity and one should preferably pray there rather than start a private minyan.


Second of all, Rav Moshe asserts that there is no prohibition to have the flags on the platform, since no one worships them.  However, he does make it clear that he thinks that it is completely inappropriate ("hevel ve-shtut" - empty nonsense) to have them there.


Here is the instructive closing of this responsum:


If it were possible to peacefully remove them from the Beit Knesset that would be a good thing, but it is forbidden to start a dispute over this.  And if we had the power without dispute to get rid of the entire subject of the flag, so that there would be no reminder of the acts of the wicked, perhaps that would also be proper, but God forbid to start a dispute over this.  [I'm not sure what this adds - perhaps he means to not have an Israeli flag even OUTSIDE the sanctuary.]


Therefore, those who want to start a new minyan in another place because of this, and think that they are doing a great thing by doing so, they are not acting considerately (ein osim ke-hogen), and this is no more than politics coming from the evil impulse and the Adversary (Satan), who owing to our many sins dances among us until HaShem will have mercy and send us the righteous redeemer and pour out upon us a spirit from on high, to go in the way of the Torah and the truth without deflecting right or left.




The Rambam (Tefilla 11:3) writes, "We erect a platform [bima] in the middle of the beit [knesset], so that the reader from the Torah, or the preacher, can ascend to it and everyone will be able to hear."  The Rema also mentions this placement of the bima.


The Kesef Mishneh explains that this is the prevalent custom, the reason being that when the reader is in the middle everyone in the sanctuary can hear him.  However, he also justifies the custom of some smaller synagogues to place the platform at the END of the sanctuary - meaning evidently at the front.  The Kesef Mishneh explains that the placement in the middle is not an obligation, and in a small synagogue where everyone can easily hear the reader it is attractive to have the bima in front.


What is the source of this custom?  We may mention three possibilities:


1.  It seems from the Kesef Mishneh that the source is not textual but practical - the need for everyone to hear the reader.  This also seems to be implicit in the Rambam.


2.  The Chatam Sofer (OC 28) suggests that the source is in the gemara Sukka 51b, which relates that the great synagogue in Alexandria had a platform in the middle.


3.  It seems to me that there is a source in the same Tosefta which is the source for the seating arrangement mentioned in the Rema - Megilla 3:21.  This Tosefta explains that the elders sit facing the people with their back towards the ark - meaning that they are at the end of the sanctuary.  Likewise, when the kohanim bless the people, they face the people with their back to the ark. But regarding the chazan (who stands beside the reader when the Torah is read), the Tosefta merely states that he faces the ark, and that the congregation also faces the ark.


There seems to be a double inference: since the Tosefta does NOT mention that the chazan has his back to the people, we can assume that he is in their midst (after all, regarding the elders, the teiva, and the kohanim the Tosefta orients their back and their faces).  Second of all, if the chazan were in front there would be no reason to explain that the people face the ark - where else could they face? But if the reader is in the middle, then we might think that congregants between the bima and the ark should face the bima; the Tosefta informs us, based on a Scriptural source, that everyone should face the ark.


The Bi'ur Halakha mentions the controversy that arose surrounding this ancient custom.  Early Reform temples placed the platform at the front of the sanctuary.  This imitated the prevalent non-Jewish custom - where a clergyman performs the service on behalf of the congregation - in form and function.  This naturally aroused the ire of traditionalists, both on account of it being an innovation, and of course because of the symbolic significance of taking the Torah out from amidst the people.  (This was also discussed in the shiur on siman 90.)