Shiur #03: Beit Knesset and Mikdash

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Talmudic Methodology
Yeshivat Har Etzion



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 Shiur #03: Beit Knesset and Mikdash

 By Rav Moshe Taragin



            Distinctive laws govern the treatment of, and experience in, a Beit Knesset (shul).  This shiur will explore the sources for these halakhot and their applications. 


            When listing the punishments for betraying the will of Hashem, the Torah writes (Vayikra 26:31) ‘I will destroy your Mikdashim (holy places),’ implying that multiple structures will be affected.  Presuming this statement to be a reference to multiple TYPES of buildings rather than just multiple Temples, the Sifra comments that our Batei Knesset and Batei Midrash will also be destroyed as punishment.  This Sifra clearly establishes the identity of a Beit Knesset as a type of Mikdash.  This association is also drawn by the gemara's comment in Megilla (29a) upon a pasuk in Yechezkel (11:16) where Hashem promises to be [or provide] a miniature Mikdash during the period of galut (exile).  The gemara interprets this pasuk as a reference to the presence of Batei Knesset in galut.  These two sources clearly confirm the status of a shul as an extension of the Mikdash model.  Of course neither of these pesukim dictate halakhic parameters of a shul and these sources may easily be dismissed as pesukei asmakhta which describe a GENERAL spirit or attitude, and not a definable halakhic reality. 


Halakhic Nature


            However, there is a gemara (Shabbat 12a) which may stretch the aforementioned sources in a halakhic direction.  The gemara warns that any town whose residences tower above the height of the Beit Knesset will ultimately be destroyed.  In defending the superior height allocation for a shul the gemara cites a pasuk in Ezra (9:9) in which Ezra suggests "raising the [Mikdash] of Hashem."  By applying this pasuk – which discusses the Mikdash itself - to the situation of a shul, the gemara in Shabbat appears to be applying the halakhic status of Mikdash to a shul.  This latent Mikdash status determines that the shul must be the highest building in a city. 


            It is nevertheless important to note that the gemara spoke in a judgmental tone.  It did not LEGISLATE against residences taller than a shul; it merely COMMENTED that cities which do not display this sensitivity are doomed.  The Tosefta in Megilla (chapter 3) DOES articulate a legislation against raising the height of residences above a shul but does not cite the Mikdash-based pasuk of Ezra that the gemara in Shabbat cites.  The Rambam however, in Hilkhot Tefilla (Chapter 11), cites the legislation against buildings higher than a shul and does, in fact, cite the pasuk in Ezra - suggesting that he believes a shul possesses a latent Mikdash identity which determines actual halakhic restrictions. 


            Several others agreed with the Rambam's position.  Most notably, the Yereim (Mitzva #409) and the Semak (in his own listing of the mitzvot), assert that the mitzva to treat the Mikdash with awe includes the treatment of a Beit Knesset with similar awe.  According to these positions, violating decorum in a Beit Knesset would constitute a biblical prohibition! 


Halakhic Scope


            An interesting comment by the Mordechai in Megilla extends the Mikdash comparison in defining the scope of the kedusha (holiness) of a shul:  Do the kedusha and the accompanying issurim (prohibitions) extend to the lofts and roofs of a shul? [This question had particular relevance in communities which hosted guests in the lofts of the local shul.]  The Mordechai claims that just as the roofs and lofts of the heichal (the central hall of the Mikdash) possessed kedusha, similarly, lofts of shuls are included within the scope of kedusha.  This also reflects his acknowledging the identity of Mikdash within a shul. 


            Regarding the minhag of lighting candles in a shul, the Kol Bo (chapter 17) comments that this practice is meant to evoke the spirit of Mikdash in which the menorah was lit.  Although most non-Chassidic shuls do not adhere to this minhag, halakha DOES demand candle lighting in a Beit Knesset on Chanukah – with a berakha.  Rav Soloveitchik zt"l suggested that this Chanukah lighting was designed to capture the symbolism of the menorah of the Mikdash, by lighting in a shul which encapsulates the spirit of the Mikdash.  As such, it is the only mitzva which is REPEATED in shul!


            Perhaps the most graphic application of this theory, can be traced to the Rambam himself.  Based upon a Sifri, many rule that dislodging a stone from the Mikdash or otherwise damaging Mikdash property is Biblically forbidden (based upon a loose interpretation of the verse "Lo ta'asun kein la-Hashem Elokecha" which demands we do not vandalize Mikdash property in the same manner that we are commanded to destroy pagan items).  Accordingly, the Rambam (in his abbreviated list of mitzvot negative commandment #65) claims that a person who vandalizes a shul by dismantling or removing stones has violated the Biblical prohibition of "Lo ta'asun kein"!


            It is interesting to analyze this position of the Rambam in light of his famous decision that tefilla is a Biblical commandment.  Based upon a gemara in Ta'anit, the Rambam claimed that the basic notion of prayer is de-oraita.  Perhaps this same logic dictated a view which attributes quasi-Mikdash quality to a shul.