Are House Minyanim Kosher?

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by R. Gil Student

People arrange a minyan in their home to accommodate someone sick, elderly or otherwise unable to attend synagogue. When I was a teenager, we had a Shabbos mincha/ma’ariv in someone’s basement because the mile-plus walk uphill to the nearest shul was, for many, too long to do twice on a Shabbos. But sometimes people attend a house minyan out of sheer laziness or the desire to pray quicker and maybe a little bit earlier. A century ago, entrepreneurs would open “mushroom shuls” for the High Holidays in theaters, often praying while the theater was preparing for the next show and/or selling tickets. [1]According to this article (Dan Judson, “Mushroom Synagogues” in The Jewish Week, May 23, 2011), NY State’s 1934 law against selling tickets to non-legitimate places of … Continue reading Is praying in these alternative venues allowed? [2]See also this article by R. Aryeh Leibowitz.

To answer this, we need to turn to an episode that occurred in St. Louis in 1951. [3]This timeline is my reconstruction based on the few dates provided in the halakhic literature but I am trying to confirm the year. The quickly growing Young Israel rented a social hall in a local hotel in which to hold their high holiday prayers. The long-standing Beth Medrash HaGadol objected to this larger venue, which would draw many paying members from the larger and more established synagogue, and brought the issue to the attention of Rav Menachem Eichenstein, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of St. Louis. Rav Eichenstein wrote a responsum forbidding the Young Israel from holding prayers in the rented hall. He sent this responsum to leading authorities who replied with their own responsa, generally agreeing with his conclusion. Among the illustrious respondents were Rav Yonasan Steif, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Rav Bentzion Meir Uziel and Rav Moshe Feinstein. The exchange of letters takes up the first section of the March 1952 issue of the rabbinic journal Ha-Pardes, and was republished in the 1955 jubilee volume for Rav Eichenstein, titled Berakhah Li-Menachem.

I. Praying At Home And At Shul

The Gemara (Berakhos 6a) quotes the following: “Abba Binyamin says: A person’s prayer is only heard in a synagogue as it says, ‘To hear the singing (rinah) and the prayer (tefillah)’ (1 Kings 8:28) — the place of singing should be the place of prayer.” Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 4b sv. keivan) explains that if you pray alone but at the same time as the prayers in the synagogue, then your prayer is at a middle level–not rejected. But when you pray in a synagogue, your prayer is always at a higher level–heard. Similarly, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Tefillah 8:1) writes that you should always go to a synagogue. Lechem Mishneh explains that Rambam is ruling that even if you have to pray without a minyan, you should pray alone in a synagogue. This would seem to render a house minyan less than ideal.

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhos 4:4) quotes R. Yochanan as saying that someone who prays in his home is as if he is surrounded by iron. R. Yochanan seems to be saying that it is good to pray at home. The Yerushalmi challenges this from the saying of R. Chiya in the name of R. Yochanan that you must pray in a place designated for prayer, i.e. a synagogue. According to R. Yochanan, is praying at home good or bad? The Yerushalmi answers that one saying refers to praying with a congregation and the other refers to praying alone. Penei Moshe (ad loc.) explains that if you are praying alone, without a minyan, you should pray at home in solitude to improve your concentration. However, the Gilyon Ha-Shas (ad loc.) points out that this interpretation contradicts the ruling that you should always pray in a synagogue, even without a minyan.

Rav Uziel explains the Yerushalmi’s resolution in the opposite way. A minyan can pray in a private house and be confidently surrounded by iron. However, an individual, praying alone, must pray in the synagogue. The Rif and Rosh quote R. Yochanan as saying that a person’s prayers are only heard in the synagogue; therefore you must pray at the time that a minyan is praying. Rav Uziel explains that if an individual prays at home but at the same time as the minyan in synagogue, it is as if he prays with minyan. With this, Rav Uziel explains the Rambam in a different way than the Lechem Mishneh quoted above. Rambam (ibid.) writes that you should always try to pray with a minyan, if possible, and that you should go to the synagogue morning and evening because prayer is only heard from the synagogue. The first part, Rav Uziel explains, refers to a minyan, which can pray anywhere. The second refers to someone praying alone, which preferably must be done in a synagogue.

Based on the opinion of Rav Yechezkel Landau (Tzelach, Berakhos, ad loc., sv. ein), Rav Eichenstein explains the Yerushalmi differently–that both cases refer to prayer without a minyan. If a minyan is in the synagogue but has finished prayers, you should pray in the synagogue alone because you are still with a congregation. But if the synagogue is empty, then pray at home without fear, as if you are surrounded by iron. [4]Surprisingly, Rav Eichenstein quotes an interpretation offered by Prof. Louis Ginzberg, although he proceeds to disagree with it.

According to Rav Eichenstein and the sources he quotes (Rav Landau and the Lechem Mishneh), you have to pray in a synagogue if possible, which rules out house minyanim as a regular option. According to Rav Uziel, you can pray anywhere with a minyan. Of course, this is all about the best practice. When you cannot attend synagogue, as a temporary situation, you still have to pray and may gather a minyan almost anywhere.

II. Other Places

Rav Uziel adds that every community must establish a permanent place for prayer. While temporary prayer with a minyan is allowed elsewhere, permanent prayer must take place in a designated area. Rav Uziel quotes Yoma (9b) which says that the first Temple was destroyed because it was used for two things–worship to God and worship to idolatry. While idolatry is certainly a terrible sin, the focus of the Gemara on the dual usage of the Temple implies that any other usage is inappropriate. The Temple, and a synagogue, must be designated solely for divine worship.

People are obligated to build a synagogue. The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim (150:1) rules that townspeople can force each other to build it. Rav Uziel quotes the Chida in Machazik Berakhah (cited in Sha’arei Teshuvah 90:4) who says in the name of Malki Ba-Kodesh that someone who prays with a minyan in a house is not called a bad neighbor (see Berakhos 8a). However, he has not fulfilled the obligation to build a synagogue unless the place where they pray is a permanent place of holiness. Rav Henkin (in his responsum, later published as Gevuros Eliyahu, vol. 1, no. 24, sec. 5) writes similarly, based on his own understanding. Therefore, praying in a living room or a basement used for other things is inappropriate on a permanent basis. If you want to have a minyan in your house, you have to designate that area solely for prayer.

However, another consideration is praying in a place where frivolities and even sins take place. Taz (Orach Chaim 154:1) rules that you may not rent a room for prayer if the room above it is unclean. Doing so shows disrespect to the prayer. Rav Eichenstein explains that “unclean” refers to spiritual, as well as physical, uncleanliness. Rav Eichenstein quotes Rav Moshe Schick (Responsa, Orach Chaim, no. 7), who rules that you may not turn an animal pen into a synagogue because it shows disrespect to the mitzvah of prayer. Disrespect of a mitzvah is biblically forbidden, as we see in Shabbos (22a) regarding the biblical commandment to cover the blood of a slaughtered animal. We are not allowed to push dirt over the blood with our feet, because that would be disrespectful to the mitzvah.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (in his responsum later published as Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim, vol. 1, no. 31) quotes the Ba’eir Heitev (151:1) in the name of Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi as saying that a synagogue does not lose its holiness if someone sins it. In that case, a communal functionary had consorted with a young lady in the synagogue. Despite the desecration, the synagogue’s holiness remains intact and may continue being used for prayer. Rav Feinstein offers suggestions why that is true but points out that the question assumes that generally we should not pray in a place where sins take place.

Rav Yonasan Steif adds that the first verse in Tehillim says: “Blessed is the man… nor sits in the seat of the scornful.” Even when the sinful activity has ended, we may not sit in their seats and certainly not pray there.

III. Conclusion

Most house minyanim are not held in a room where blatant sins take place. However, they may be held in a room of frivolity, for instance a living room with a television. One can debate whether that is an appropriate place for prayer. However, it is not an appropriate place for ongoing prayer, such as a weekly minyan. That should be held in a place designated for prayer. Of course, these rules are such that extenuating circumstances allow for exceptions. If the synagogue is very far away, and many people may refrain from praying with a minyan, or if someone sick or elderly cannot attend synagogue, there may be room for leniency. In such cases, you should consult a rabbi.

These responsa address a number of other issues, such as:

  • At what point does a room used for prayer become a synagogue?
  • Is there an obligation to pray with a minyan (Rav Henkin and Rav Feinstein disagree)?
  • Are you allowed to break away from one synagogue and create another?

For space considerations, we will have to leave these issues for another time.

Rav Eichenstein mentions at the end of his responsum in the 1952 journal that the Young Israel accepted his ruling and acted accordingly. In the 1955 version of the responsum, published in Rav Eichenstein’s jubilee volume, he added that the Young Israel had since bought a large building which has plenty of room for the congregants. Rav Eichenstein concludes with a prayer that the Young Israel continue to grow in size and to influence the youth to follow the path of the Torah. Rav Eichenstein also noted that while he prohibited the Young Israel from renting the hall, he denied that the Beth Medrash HaGadol had any claims against the other synagogue for taking away members. People can choose whichever synagogue they want.

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1According to this article (Dan Judson, “Mushroom Synagogues” in The Jewish Week, May 23, 2011), NY State’s 1934 law against selling tickets to non-legitimate places of worship “effectively eliminated” the phenomenon. If so, why was Rav Yosef Henkin, in the responsum discussed below, complaining about them in 1952?
2See also this article by R. Aryeh Leibowitz.
3This timeline is my reconstruction based on the few dates provided in the halakhic literature but I am trying to confirm the year.
4Surprisingly, Rav Eichenstein quotes an interpretation offered by Prof. Louis Ginzberg, although he proceeds to disagree with it.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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