Shul Building, Part II

Question #1: One shul

“May we merge two existent shullen, when each has its own minhagim?”

Question #2: Two shuls

“Is it permitted to leave a shul to start our own?’

Question #3: More seats?

“Can there ever be a problem with adding more seats to a shul?”

Introduction:

Our batei kenesiyos and batei midrashos, the buildings that we designate for prayer and for study, are referred to as our mikdash me’at, our holy buildings reminiscent of the the sanctity of the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash.

As I mentioned in last week’s article, there is a halachic requirement to build a shul. To quote the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 11:1-2), Any place that has ten Jews must have available a building that they can enter to pray at every time of prayer.

Changing neighborhoods

An interesting teshuvah from Rav Moshe relates to a shul building that had been originally planned with a lower level to use as a social hall, with the shul intended to be on the upper floor. They began to use the social hall for davening until they built the shul on top, but the neighborhood began to change. Before they even finished the social hall, it became clear that they would have no need to complete the structure of the building. They never finished the building, and instead, directed the efforts and finances toward purchasing a new shul in a neighborhood to which people were moving. The old shul, or, more accurately, the “social hall” part of the old shul building, is at the stage where there is barely a minyan left, and the dwindling numbers imply that it is not going to be very long until there is no functioning minyan. The question is that they would like to sell the old building and use the money to complete the purchase of the new building. Furthermore, the mikveh in the town is now in a neighborhood to which women are hesitant to travel, so they want to use the funds from the old shul building to defray the construction costs of a necessary new mikveh.

Because of the specific circumstances involved, including that it is unlikely that people from the outside will drop in to daven in this minyan anymore, Rav Moshe rules that they are permitted to sell the building.

A similar responsum from Rav Moshe was when they needed to create a shul in a neighborhood where there was a good chance that the Jewish community there would not last long. Rather than declare their building a shul, they called it a library and used it as their shul. Rav Moshe suggests that they might have been required to do so, since they knew from the outset that the days of the Jewish community were numbered (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim, 2:44).

More seats?

At this point, let us discuss the third of our opening questions:

“Can there ever be a problem with adding more seats to a shul?”

There is an early responsum on the topic (Shu”t Harivosh #253), and the ruling might seem to us counterintuitive. A wealthy individual purchased several seats in the shul many years before. Probably, when the shul was built, the community had sold or perhaps even auctioned seats, at prices depending on their location (think of the relative ticket prices on theater seats, lehavdil). The seats are considered private property and are even at times rented out to others.

There is now a shortage of seats in the shul and the community would like to add new seats in empty areas of the shul. The wealthy fellow claims that this will make it more difficult for him to get to his seat, and that his own seat will be more crowded as a result. Can the community add seats, notwithstanding his claim?

The Rivosh rules that the community cannot add new seats, because the wealthy fellow already owns the right to get to his seat in a comfortable way. However, the Rivosh rules that the community may do the following to try to increase the availability of seats:

1. They may set a limit on the rental price of the existing seats.

2. They may pass a regulation that unused seats must be rented out.

Building two shuls

There is an old Jewish joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island who built two shuls, one to daven in, and the other never to walk into. Is there any halachic basis to this habit we have of opening several competing shullen in the same neighborhood?

Indeed, there are old responsa regarding this question. The Radbaz, one of the greatest halachic authorities of the fifteenth century, was asked such a shaylah (Shu”t Haradbaz #910).

A man named Yehudah Abualfas wanted to open a second shul in his town. The background appears to be as follows: The community, which may have been located somewhere in Egypt, was composed predominantly of families who originated from Tunisia, but there were individuals who had settled there from other places. The shul followed the minhag of Tunis.

Yehudah Abualfas, who was born and raised in this community with Tunisian customs, and everyone else living in the town, were members of the general community. They donated to the community’s tzedakah fund, participated in its fees and taxes, and davened in the community shul which followed minhagei Tunis.

Abualfas’s family originated from a place where they followed the customs of the Spanish communities, not those of Tunisia. (Ashkenazim tend to group Sefardim and Edot Hamizrah together as one group. Technically, Sefardim are those whose antecedents once lived in Spain, whereas there were Jewish communities from Morocco to Iran and even farther east whose ancestors never lived in Spain and should be called Edot Hamizrah.) Abualfas and his friends had begun to develop their own community, consisting of members who identified as Sefardim and not as Tunisians, and they wanted to create their own community following minhag Sefard.

Shul versus community

The Radbaz divides the question into two topics: May the Sefardim establish their own shul, and may they establish their own community?

Regarding the establishing of their own community, which would mean that they would no longer participate in the tzedakah fund and other taxes and fees of the general community, the Radbaz rules that, once they have individually been paying as members of the main community, they cannot separate from that community and create their own. As individuals, they are bound to continue contributing to the main community.

However, regarding whether they may create their own shul, the Radbaz rules that they may, for the following reason: since they do not want to be forced to daven with the rest of the community, their desire to have their own shul will disturb their kavanah while davening. The Radbaz discusses at length the issue of davening with kavanah. He notes that one is not permitted to daven when one is angry, and that the Gemara states that, if the amora Rav Chanina ever got angry, he did not daven that day. Furthermore, we see that any distraction is a reason why one should not daven, even that of an enticing fragrance. Therefore, one may not daven when in the presence of people that one does not like. The Radbaz further suggests that just as there is a halacha that one will study Torah properly only when he is interested in the topic, a person will be able to concentrate in his davening only when he is praying where he is happy. For these reasons, the Radbaz rules that people who are not satisfied praying with the rest of the community are permitted to organize their own shul. However, he rules that it is within the community’s prerogative to ban the forming of other shullen, when this will harm community interests.

Berov am hadras melech

The Radbaz then discusses the halachic preference of berov am hadras melech, a large group of people (attending a mitzvah) honors the King (Rosh Hashanah 32b). This means that it is preferable that a large group of people daven in one shul, rather than split among several smaller shullen. The Radbaz concludes that, indeed, it is preferable for everyone to daven in the same shul but, when people will be unhappy, that factor permits them to open their own shul.

The Radbaz closes this discussion with the following:

“Do not interpret my words to think that I believe that dividing into different shullen is good. G-d forbid… However, we are required to try as hard as possible that everyone pray with a full heart to his Father in Heaven. If it is impossible to pray with a full heart when davening in a shul that one does not enjoy, and the people will constantly be arguing, having different shullen is the lesser of the two evils.”

An earlier authority, the Rivosh (Shu”t Harivosh #253) mentions the same ruling — individuals who want to establish their own breakaway minyan cannot be stopped, and that it is improper to prevent this. However, if the members of the existing shul claim that their shul requires the income or membership to keep going, one should examine whether the claim is truthful. If, indeed, it is, one should work out a plan that accommodates the needs of both communities. (See also Rema, Choshen Mishpat 162:7.)

Two shuls

At this point, we can now address the second of our opening questions: “Is it permitted to leave a shul to start our own?”

The short answer is that there are circumstances when this is permitted, although, in an ideal world, it is not preferred.

One shul

At this point, let us examine the first of our opening questions: “May we merge two existent shullen, when each has its own minhagim?”

The answer is that, because of the rule of berov am hadras melech, it is preferable to merge shuls into a larger entity, but, as I explained above, this will depend on circumstances (see also Shu”t Binyan Tziyon 1:122). If the members understand that it is a greater honor to Hashem to have a large shul with many people davening together, that is preferred.

Conclusion

Understanding how much concern Chazal placed in the relatively minor aspects of davening should make us more aware of the fact that davening is our attempt at building a relationship with Hashem. As the Kuzari notes, every day should have three high points — the three times that we daven. We should gain our strength and inspiration for the rest of the day from these three prayers.

The power of tefillah is very great. Man was created by Hashem as the only creation that has free choice. Therefore, our serving Hashem and our davening is unique in the entire spectrum of creation. Remember that we are actually speaking to Hashem, and that we are trying to build a relationship with Him. Through tefillah, one can save lives, bring people closer to Hashem, and overturn harsh decrees. We are required to believe in this power. One should not think, “Who am I to daven to Hashem?” Rather, we must reinforce the concept that Hashem wants our tefillos, and He listens to them!

Shul Building

Question #1: One shul

“May we merge together two existent shullen, when each has its own minhagim?”

Question #2: Two shuls

“Is it permitted to leave a shul to start our own?’

Question #3: Old shul

“In our town, almost everyone has moved away from the ‘old neighborhood,’ which has now, unfortunately, become a slum. The sprinkling of Jewish people still there can no longer maintain the shul. Are the people who used to live there still obligated to maintain the old shul building?”

Question #4: New shul

“We have been comfortably davening in different people’s houses, three times a day, seven days a week. Now, some individuals are clamoring that they want us to build a shul, which is a huge expense. Isn’t this chutzpah on their part, when we are all struggling to pay our mortgages?”

Introduction:

Our batei kenesiyos and batei midrashos, the buildings that we designate for prayer and for study, are referred to as our mikdash me’at, our holy buildings reminiscent of the the sanctity of the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash.

There is a halachic requirement to build a shul. To quote the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 11:1-2), Any place that has ten Jews must have available a building that they can enter to pray at every time of prayer. This building is called a beis hakenesses(synagogue). The members of the community can force one another to build a synagogue, to purchase a sefer Torah and books of the prophets and of the kesuvim. When you build a synagogue, you must build it in the highest part of the town… and you must elevate it, until it is taller than any of the courtyards in town.

We see from the words of the Rambam that it is not sufficient to have an area available in which one can daven when necessary – it is required to have a building designated specifically for this purpose, even if the shul will be empty the rest of the day (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim, 2:44). Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that a community is required to have a building designated to be their mikdash me’at.

Since it is a community responsibility to have a shul building, the minority of the membership of a community may force the majority to raise the money to build a shul (Rema, Choshen Mishpat 163:1). In earlier generations, communities had the authority to levy taxes on their members. Since building a shul is a community responsibility, they could require people to provide the funds necessary for this project.

Must we build a shul?

At this point, let us address one of our opening questions: “We have been comfortably davening in different people’s houses, three times a day, seven days a week. Now, some individuals are clamoring that they want us to build a shul, which is a huge expense. Isn’t this chutzpah on their part, when we are all struggling to pay our mortgages?”

The answer is that, not only is it not chutzpah on the part of those individuals, the halachic right is on their side. The community is required to have a shul, and it is unsatisfactory that the minyan takes place in a home that is not meant to be a beis tefillah. Therefore, individuals can certainly force the rest to build a shul.

I cannot resist telling over the following story from my experience as a shul rav. At one time, I was invited for an interview to a new shul that was located in an affluent area. I made a trip to meet the shul search committee, which was very interested in engaging me as their rav. They showed me the converted house that they were using as the shul, and mentioned that when they had renovated the building, they did so in a way that there would be an apartment in the building for the rav to use as his residence, since they did not have much money for a respectable salary. In their minds, since the rav could now save himself mortgage or rent money, that was a hefty part of what they intended for his salary.

I noted to them that in the position I had at the time, I could devote myself fully to rabbinic duties, something that would be quite impossible in the circumstances that they proposed. Their response was that although they understood my predicament, this was all they could afford, since most of their members were paying very huge mortgages for the zechus of living in this neighborhood. I made a mental note that none of them seemed to feel that the apartment part of the shul building that they were proposing was certainly nothing that any of them would consider suitable residential accommodations, nor would they consider the shul building representative of the high-class lifestyle that they had chosen for themselves.

How do we assess?

In earlier generations, the Jewish community had the ability to levy taxes and other fees on its membership. Virtually all Jewish communities had fairly strong authority over its membership because the community levied taxes and also was responsible for collectively paying taxes to the local monarch.

When assessing individuals for the construction of a local shul, do we charge according to people’s financial means, or does everyone share equally in the costs of the building?

The Rema rules that when raising the money for a shul, we take into consideration both the resources of the individuals and also who will be using the facility. Therefore, when assessing people for the building of a shul, the costs are allocated both according to the financial means and according to individuals. Thus, the wealthier members of a community will be paying a somewhat higher percentage of the costs.

Rent a shul

If the community does not have the resources to build or purchase a shul, they can force one another to put up enough money to rent a place (Mishnah Berurah 150:2)

Where not to rent

In a responsum in Igros Moshe (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 3:25), Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked the following: There is no orthodox shul in town, and they have been davening in houses. Now, they want to rent space from a local conservative congregation. May they do so?

Rav Moshe prohibits this for two reasons:

1. This arrangement provides some credibility to the conservative congregation.

2. When people see the orthodox people entering or exiting the building of the conservative temple, they may think that these people are intending to pray in the conservative facility, which is prohibited. This involves the prohibition of maris ayin, doing something that may raise suspicion that one violated halacha.

Changing neighborhoods

Let us now address a different one of our opening questions: “In our town, almost everyone has moved away from the ‘old neighborhood,’ which has now, unfortunately, become a slum. The sprinkling of Jewish people still there can no longer maintain the shul. Are the people who used to live there still obligated to maintain the old shul building?”

This question was asked of Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 3:28).

In the case that he was asked, the shul had already opened a new facility in a nicer area and, until this point, the expenses of the old shul were being covered from the budget of the new shul. However, the members no longer saw any gain from doing so, since it was only a question of time until the old shul would no longer be at all functional. They would like to close down the old shul and sell the building. Are they permitted to?

The general rule is that a shul is considered communal public property and, as long as it functions as a shul, no one has the right to sell or modify its use. This is because the “owners” of the shul include anyone who might visit the area and want to find a minyan in which to daven. This is true, providing that there are still minyanim that meet in the shul on a regular basis — they cannot sell the building or close it down (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim III #29).

In the case at hand, Rav Moshe rules that those who have moved out of the neighborhood of the old shul have no responsibility to pay for the upkeep or repairs of the shul building that they are not using. The fact that the community has been treating the two shul buildings as one institution does not change this. Rav Moshe then mentions that, since the old shul is in a bad neighborhood, they may have a responsibility to remove the sifrei Torah from the shul, and perhaps even the siddurim, chumashim and other seforim, in order to protect them. He concludes that, since those who still daven in the old shul have no means of their own to keep the shul going, it is permitted to shutter the shul building and sell it. He also mentions that, if the bank will foreclose on the mortgage and re-possess the building, this does not require them to continue paying the mortgage. Nor does the bank’s decision as to what it will do with the shul property after the foreclosure require them to continue paying the mortgage.

Regarding those who still live in the old neighborhood, Rav Moshe rules that they should conduct the minyanim in a house where the sifrei Torah and the other seforim will be secure (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim III #28).

An interesting teshuvah from Rav Moshe relates to a shul building that had been originally planned to have a lower level to use as a social hall, with the shul intended to be on the upper floor. They began to use the social hall for davening until they built the shul on top, but the neighborhood began to change, and it became clear that they would have no need to complete the structure of the building. They never finished the building, and instead, directed the efforts and finances toward purchasing a new shul in a neighborhood to which people were moving. The old shul, or, more accurately, the “social hall” part of the old shul building, is at the stage where there is barely a minyan left, and the dwindling numbers imply that it is not going to be very long until there is no functioning minyan. The question is that they would like to sell the old building and use the money to complete the purchase of the new building. Furthermore, the mikveh in the town is now in a neighborhood to which women are hesitant to travel, so they want to use the funds from the old shul building to defray the construction costs of a necessary new mikveh.

Because of the specific circumstances involved, including that it is unlikely that people from the outside will drop in to daven in this minyan anymore, Rav Moshe rules that they are permitted to sell the building. A similar responsum from Rav Moshe was when they needed to create a shul in a neighborhood where there was a good chance that the Jewish community there would not last long. Rather than declare their building a shul, they called it a library and used it as their shul. Rav Moshe suggests that this was a good suggestion, since they knew from the outset that the days of the Jewish community were numbered (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim, 2:44).

We will continue this article next week…