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Kedushat Beit ha-keneset



Over the past two years, we have studied the laws of tefilla, beginning with the Netilat Yadayim (hand-washing) performed upon waking up in the morning, and concluding with the Keriat Shema reciting before going to sleep.


I would like to dedicate our final shiurim to the study of the primary and ideal environment for tefilla: the beit ha-keneset (synagogue). 


The Mitzva to Build a Synagogue:


Regarding the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the Torah records: "And let them make for Me a sanctuary (mikdash), that I may dwell (ve-shakhanti) among them (Shemot 25:8)."


The Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Positive #20; Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 1:1) writes that this mitzva applies not only to the Mishkan, but also to the Beit Ha-mikdash (Temple).  The Chinukh (#95) counts this mitzva as well.  The Semag (Positive #163) derives this mitzva from a different verse (Devarim 12:11):


Then it shall come to pass that the place which Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there, there shall you bring all that I command you: your burnt-offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which you vow to God.


The commentaries offer different interpretations of the term "mikdash."  The Rashbam, for example, explains that mikdash is similar to the word "mo'ed," "appointment," as God commands to build the Mishkan, promising "I will prepare Myself and I will make Myself available to speak from inside it."  According to the Rashbam, the Mishkan, as a mikdash, is primarily a place to commune with God. 


Alternatively, the Ibn Ezra explains that "mikdash" refers to a "holy place," in which God's presence dwells.  The Mishkan, and subsequently the Beit Ha-mikdash, are first and foremost places of holiness, of sanctity.


This debate, regarding the nature of the "mikdash," seems to appear in other contexts.  For example, the Rambam (Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 1:1), concerning the commandment to build a Beit Ha-mikdash, writes:


There is a positive commandment to build a house for God, prepared in order to offer within it sacrifices, and to come to celebrate three times each year…


The Rambam seems to focus on the FUNCTION of the Beit Ha-mikdash, as a place to meet God, and to worship Him.  Alternatively, the Ramban (Shemot 25:2) explains that "the primary desire in the Mishkan is [to provide] a place for God's presence, i.e. the Ark, to rest."  The Mishkan, and afterwards the Beit Ha-mikdash, provide a "home" for God's Presence in this world.  This disagreement most likely reflects a larger, philosophical disagreement between the Rambam and Ramban regarding the immanence of God and the differences between the rationalist and mystical traditions, but that lies beyond the scope of our discussion.


The Chinukh (95) adds that ultimately the Beit Ha-mikdash "prepares our hearts to worship Him… as the many and constant actions purify the thoughts of the heart, and [the people] are cleansed and purified."


In summary, the Beit Ha-mikdash serves as a place to meet and commune with God, for God to rest His presence within it, and ultimately, as a place to purify the soul which worships God.


The prophet Yechezkel (Yechezkel 11:16), comforting the Jewish people, says,


Thus says Lord God: "Although I have removed them far off among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet I have been to them as a little sanctuary (mikdash me'at) in the countries where they have come."


The Gemara (Megilla 29a), teaches: "'A little sanctuary' — Rabbi Yitzchak says, 'This refers to the synagogues and study halls of Babylonia.'"


The Metzudat David (ad loc.) explains that Yechezkel is telling the Jewish people that although God's presence will be removed from the Beit Ha-mikdash, "I will rest My presence in their synagogues, and as [the Jewish people] are far away from MY Beit Ha-mikdash — i.e. the great Beit Ha-mikdash in Jerusalem — they will have in its stead little sanctuaries."


While one may argue whether there is technically a mitzva to erect a beit ha-keneset; (see Rambam, Hilkhot Tefilla 11:1; OC 150:1); whether it is derived from the mitzva to erect the Beit Ha-mikdash (Zohar, Ra'aya Meheimana, Beshalach 59); whether the precise nature of its kedusha (sanctity) is similar to that of the Beit Ha-mikdash (as we shall discuss later); the gemara cited above certainly implies that a beit ha-keneset (along with a study hall, a beit ha-midrash) shares common qualities and characteristic with the Beit Ha-mikdash.  Rav Chayyim Chizkiyya Medini (1833–1904) summarizes the opinions regarding the mitzva to build a beit ha-keneset in his Sedei Chemed (Kelalim, Ma'arekhet Bet, 43-44).


As we shall discuss, there are other indications which point to the relationship between the sanctity of the Beit Ha-mikdash and that of a beit ha-keneset.  For example, the Yere'im, Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (Ch. 324), citing a beraita (Torat Kohanim, Parashat Bechukotai 6:4) and the aforementioned gemara in Megilla (ibid.), rules that the obligation to revere the Beit Ha-mikdash (mora mikdash - see Vayikra 26:2) applies to synagogues and study halls as well.  The Rambam (Minyan Ha-mitzvot, Negative #65) implies that the prohibition to destroy the Beit Ha-mikdash includes destroying a beit ha-keneset, as we will discuss.


The Nature of Kedushat Beit Ha-keneset:


What is the nature of kedushat beit ha-keneset?  The Ramban (Megilla 26a) begins a lengthy discussion of this topic by citing a number of passages which, in his opinion, imply that a beit ha-keneset has inherent kedusha.  For example, the Mishna (Megilla 3:1) teaches that the residents of a city, when selling a beit ha-keneset, may only use the money to purchase an Ark for the Torah.  Furthermore, the Gemara (26b) also explains that although one may, under certain circumstances, sell a beit ha-keneset, it may not be rented out, as "it stands in its sanctity."  Finally, the Gemara (ibid.) also cites a debate regarding whether a beit ha-keneset may be given as a "gift."  The Gemara explains the reasoning for the prohibiting opinion: "How will its sanctity be removed?"  In other words, since nothing is given in exchange, the kedusha is not transferred to a different object. 


The Ramban, however, forcefully rejects these implications and argues that if a beit ha-keneset were really "inherently sanctified," it might be permitted to transfer its kedusha onto money (as with ma'aser sheni, the second tithe), which would then be used to purchase sacred objects.  Rather, the Gemara ONLY speaks of sale or another legal transfer of ownership, not "redemption."  Therefore, he suggests:


They made [the sanctity of a] beit ha-keneset like [the sanctity of] tashmishei mitzva (objects used for the performance of a mitzva), like a lulav and a sukka, which may be thrown away AFTER the mitzva can no longer be performed; their sanctity [during the mitzva's performance] is only out of RESPECT.


He argues that as long as the residents of the city are still interested in the beit ha-keneset, it is treated with sanctity, even after being destroyed.  However, if the community decides to sell the beit ha-keneset, and they are no longer interested in keeping it, then even the obligation to treat the beit ha-keneset with respect is no longer applicable.  Indeed, the Gemara teaches that if the "seven leaders of the city" in the presence and with the consensus of the community, all agree to sell the beit ha-keneset, it may be used even for drinking in, as it is akin to tashmishei mitzva after their mitzva has been performed. 


The Yere'im apparently disagrees.  As mentioned above, he (409) equates the obligation of mora in the Beit Ha-mikdash to the obligation of mora in a beit ha-keneset.  Furthermore, he argues (104) that:


Just as it is prohibited to benefit from hekdesh (Temple property), similarly it is prohibited to benefit from synagogues and study halls, which are designated for prayer and study, as they are also considered to be like hekdesh… the rule is that one should not benefit from them for the sake of a mitzva…  Therefore, a person should not benefit from the stones of a synagogue, its wood, or its dirt without [paying] money.  Furthermore, one may not even use the dirt from the [ruined] walls of a beit ha-keneset to cover streets and alleys, as ALL ITEMS OF HEKDESH ARE CONSIDERED TO BE HOLY UNLESS THEY HAVE BEEN REDEEMED WITH CASH.


Apparently, the Yere'im believes that the sanctity of a beit ha-keneset is not functional, but rather inherent, similar to tashmishei kedusha (accessories of sanctity).  Regarding tashmishei kedusha, the Gemara (ibid. 26b) teaches:


The Rabbis taught: "Tashmishei mitzva may be discarded; tashmishei kedusha must be buried.  And these are tashmishei mitzva: a sukka, lulav, shofar and tzitzit.  And these are tashmishei kedusha: cases of books (Torah scrolls), tefillin and mezuzot; a bag of a Torah scroll; the sack of tefillin and their straps.


Interestingly, the Ran (Megilla 8a (Rif), s.v. U-man) explains, "since [the synagogue's] primary function is to recite within it holy matters (Kaddish, Kedusha, etc.), the Sage impose upon it rabbinically-mandated sanctity."  The Ran, as is apparent from the rest of the passage, agrees with the Yere'im regarding the nature of the sanctity, yet disagrees regarding its source.  This debate may be crucial to understanding another prohibition as well: the prohibition to destroy a synagogue.


The Gemara (Bava Batra 3b) teaches:


Rav Chisda said: "A synagogue should not be demolished before another has been built to take its place." 


Some say the reason is lest the matter should be neglected, others say: to prevent any interruption of religious worship.  What practical difference does it make which reason we adopt?  There is a difference if there is another synagogue.


Ravina asked Rav Ashi: "Suppose money for a synagogue has been collected and is ready for use, is there still a risk?" 


He replied: "They may be called upon to redeem captives and use it for that purpose."


[Ravina asked further:] "Suppose the bricks are already piled up and the lathes trimmed and the beams ready, what are we to say?"


He replied: "It can happen that money is suddenly required for the redemption of captives, and they may sell the material for that purpose…"


This rule [about demolishing a synagogue] only applies if no cracks have appeared in it, but if cracks have appeared, they may pull down first and build afterwards.  A case in point is that of Rav Ashi, who, observing cracks in the synagogue of Mata Mechasya, had it pulled down.  He then took his bed there and did not remove it until the very gutters [of the new building] had been completed.


This passage teaches that one should not destroy one beit ha-keneset before building another.  In addition, it addresses cases in which it may or may not be permitted. 


However, the assumption of the Gemara, which pervades the entire passage, is that one may not destroy a beit ha-keneset.  What is the source and scope of this prohibition?  Seemingly, the Ramban, cited above, would simply explain that just as one may not destroy an object which facilitates the performance of a mitzva, similarly, one should not destroy a beit ha-keneset, which facilitates communal prayer.  The Yere'im, cited above, however, might equate destroying a beit ha-keneset with one who destroys the inherently holy Beit Ha-mikdash.  Indeed, the Torah teaches (Devarim 12:2-4):


You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations that you are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree.  And you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their sacred trees with fire; and you shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and you shall destroy their name out of that place.  You shall not do so to Lord your God.


Rashi (ad loc.), citing the Sifrei (61), explains, in his second interpretation, that the verse refers to "one who erases the Name [of God] or one who destroys a stone from the Altar or the Courtyard."


The Rambam, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (Negative #65), writes that the verse prohibits "smashing and destroying houses of worshipping God (battei avodat ha-Kel), as well as destroying the Books of the Prophets and erasing the Holy Names." The phrase "battei avodat ha-Kel" may refer to the Beit Ha-mikdash only.  However, in his Minyan Ha-mitzvot (Negative 65) the Rambam explicitly writes that the prohibition refers to "destroying the Beit Ha-mikdash OR SYNAGOGUES OR STUDY HALLS."  The Ra'avya (Megilla 590) also argues that the prohibition to destroy the Beit Ha-mikdash applies to synagogues as well.


The possibility of selling synagogues which no longer attract worshipers has been discussed throughout the centuries.  The Mishna Berura (152:9), for example, cites the Taz, who discusses a case in which a beit ha-keneset, located outside the city walls, was left without worshippers after the Jews were permitted to move inside the city walls.  Similarly, after World War II, many synagogues were left without congregations.  The Posekim discuss whether they may be sold, and for which purposes.  Often, a community would sell the beit ha-keneset and use the money to acquire another beit ha-keneset or other tashmishei kedusha, such as the Ark for the Torah (see Mishna Berura 123:11 and 33).  The Chatam Sofer (OC 31) even raises a meta-halakhic consideration: how will the non-Jews relate to our places of worship if we express our willingness to sell them?


The question of destroying synagogues became a reality in August 2005, during Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, known as the Disengagement (Hitnatkut).  The Israeli government, determined to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and relocate its Jewish residents, faced the dilemma of whether to destroy the synagogues, as they destroyed all of the houses and public buildings, or to leave then intact, knowing that the Palestinian population would most certainly violate them.  Despite the initial decision, after concluding that they could not be successfully relocated, to destroy the synagogues, the rabbinic community passionately debated the question; in the end, due to popular pressure, as well as a request from the Chief Rabbinate, the government changed its original ruling, and the synagogues were left intact.  After Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip on September 12, 2005, the Palestinians desecrated and destroyed the synagogues and study halls left in Gaza. 


Difference between the Kedusha of the Beit Ha-mikdash and that of a Mikdash Me'at:


While we have discussed the quantitative differences between the sanctity of the Beit Ha-mikdash and that of a beit ha-keneset, the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, cited by Rabbi Herschel Schachter (see Eretz Ha-tzvi, Ch. 12), explains the qualitative difference.


The Rav, as he was known by his students, explains that both the Beit Ha-mikdash and a beit ha-keneset are places to encounter God.  However, the Beit Ha-mikdash, fundamentally, is the "House of God," and visiting the Beit Ha-mikdash is akin to visiting the "House of God."  A beit ha-keneset, however, fundamentally, is "our house," which God "visits" in order to communicate with us.  Indeed the Gemara (Berakhot 63a) explains:


[The synagogue is] on the same footing as a man's house: just as a man objects to his house being made into a shortcut, but does not object to the wearing of shoes or to spitting there, so in the case of the synagogue, using it as a shortcut is forbidden, but wearing shoes and spitting in it is not forbidden.


Incidentally, the Mishna Berura (Sha'ar Ha-tziyyun 151:15) comments that for those people who object to spitting in their homes, it would be prohibited to spit in a beit ha-keneset.  Furthermore, the Rav insists that one should not enter a beit ha-keneset in galoshes, as it is customary to remove them before entering a home. 


Prohibited Activities in a Synagogue:


The Talmud discusses numerous activities which are prohibited in a beit ha-keneset.  For example, the Mishna (Megilla 3:3) teaches:


And Rabbi Yehuda also said: "One does not offer a eulogy in a destroyed synagogue; and we do not twist ropes in it; and we do not set traps in it; and we do not spread fruits on its roof; and we do not make it a shortcut; as it says (Vayikra 26:31) 'And I will make desolate your holy places' - they retain their holiness even while desolate."


The Tiferet Yisrael notes that activities prohibited after the beit ha-keneset has been destroyed must certainly be prohibited while it is still standing!


Regarding "making a shortcut" through a destroyed synagogue, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 11:8) and the Shulchan Arukh (151:5) rule that if a beit ha-keneset has two doorways, one should enter through one and exit through the other in order to save time.  In his Bei'ur Halakha, the Mishna Berura discusses, and ultimately prohibits, using a beit ha-keneset as a shortcut while traveling to perform a mitzva. 


The Gemara (Megilla 28a) teaches that one should not even "stroll around in them [or] enter them in the summer because of the sun or in the winter because of the rain."  In fact, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 11:8), cited by the Magen Avraham (151:6), rules that one should only enter a beit ha-keneset in order to perform a mitzva.  The Gemara (Megilla 28b) adds:


Rav Acha son of Rava said to Rav Ashi, "If one needs to call someone from the synagogue, what [should he do]?"


He said to him, "If he is a young rabbinical student, he should recite a halakha; if he is a scholar of Mishna, he should recite a mishna; if he is a Biblical scholar, he should recite a verse.  If not, he should say to a child, "Tell me your verse," or he should tarry a little and then get up.


The Shulchan Arukh (151:1) cites this halakha.


The Gemara (ibid., 28a-b) lists other activities which are prohibited within a beit ha-keneset:


The Rabbis say: "We do not act in synagogues in a lightheaded way: we do not eat in them, and we do not drink in them; and we do not groom ourselves in them, and we do not stroll around in them; and we do not enter them in the summer because of the sun, or in the winter because of the rain; and we do not eulogize a private eulogy in them.  But we study the Bible and the Mishna in them, and we eulogize a public eulogy in them."


Regarding eating and drinking, the Shulchan Arukh (151:1) also rules that one may not do so in a synagogue.  However, he adds (151:4), those gathered for the sake of the beit ha-keneset, or for the sake of another mitzva, may eat.  The Acharonim discuss which types of meals may be eaten in a beit ha-keneset.  The Magen Avraham (151:5), for example, cites the Semak who permits holding a small se'udat mitzva, a meal related to the fulfillment of a mitzva, in a beit ha-keneset.  The Mishna Berura (20) seems to allow any se'udat mitzva


Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe OC 1:45) also records that the custom is be lenient and permit any meal with a minimal mitzva component, such as se'uda shelishit (the third Shabbat meal) or a celebration for a groom or a bar mitzva.  In fact, he writes the Chasidim would permit eating to commemorate a yarzheit, the anniversary of a death.  Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechavveh Da'at 3:10) also allows eating se'uda shelishit in a beit ha-keneset, as long as it is accompanied with words of Torah.  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (151:6), on the other hand, seems to allow only meals associated with learning Torah, such as a meal upon the completion of a section of Torah (se'udat siyyum). 


This question may be related to a broader and fundamental issue regarding the sanctity of a beit ha-keneset: may a beit ha-keneset be built on the condition that it may be used for other activities?


The Gemara (Megilla 28b) teaches: "Rav Asi said: 'Synagogues in Babylonia are built conditionally; nevertheless we do not act light-headedly in them.'"  Though lightheadedness may be forbidden, certain leniencies may apply. 


The Rishonim debate whether these leniencies apply when the synagogue is operational or only if it lies in ruins.  The Ran (Megilla 9a, s.v. Battei) cites the Ramban, who seems to allow the poor to eat and drink in a beit ha-keneset (see Pesachim 101a) based upon the aforementioned gemara.  Indeed, in Sha'ar Ha-tziyyun (151:14), the Mishna Berura explains that since according to some Rishonim, the synagogues in the Diaspora are sanctified "conditionally," even while they are standing, this condition allows one do eat in them for certain reasons. 


Other Rishonim (Tosafot, Bava Batra 3b, s.v. Ve-aileih; Tosafot, Megilla 28b, s.v. Battei; Rosh, Bava Batra 1:4; Mordekhai, Megilla 829) limit the Gemara's apparent leniency to synagogues outside of Israel, and only after they have been destroyed.


The Shulchan Arukh (151:11) rules in accordance with Tosafot, the Rosh and the Mordekhai.  The Mishna Berura (Bei'ur Halakha, s.v. Aval; Sha'ar Ha-tziyyun, cited above) writes that those who are lenient rely upon the Ramban's view.  Interestingly, the Tosafot Rid (2nd ed., Pesachim 101a, s.v. Le-afukkei) applies this leniency to synagogues in Israel as well!


We should note that regarding Torah scholars and their students, their ability to eat and drink in a beit ha-keneset or beit ha-midrash may not be due to the conditional kedusha of a synagogue, but rather to the nature of the sanctity of a study hall or special exemptions made for Torah scholars and their students.  The Gemara (Megilla 28b) teaches that when it comes to eating, drinking and grooming:


Rava said: "Sages and their students are permitted;" for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: "Why [do they call the study hall] bei rabbanan?  [Because it is] the rabbis' house."


The Rashba explains that the beit ha-midrash is fundamentally different from a beit ha-keneset.  Since the teachers and students are there constantly, the beit ha-midrash is "like their house, and they may eat and sleep in them."  The Magen Avraham (151:2) seems to disagree, as he explains that scholars and their students may eat and drink even in a beit ha-keneset, when necessary, as if not, they would have to constantly interrupt their learning in order to tend to their physical needs. 


The Shulchan Arukh writes that Torah scholars and their students may eat, under extenuating circumstances, in a beit ha-keneset.  The Rema adds that in a beit ha-midrash, they may eat even under normal circumstances.


There is much more to discuss regarding the proper behavior within a beit ha-keneset.  I have attempted to merely mention a few of the major points, especially those which relate to the unique nature of the beit ha-keneset.



Next week, we will discuss the role of the "mechitza" (partition) in a beit ha-keneset.

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