Respect in the Synagogue

Rabbinic restrictions on behavior in the synagogue reveal continuing tension between ordinary Jews' sense of being at home and at ease there, and the desire of rabbis to set it apart as a sacred place.

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The reason why the Shulhan Arukh treats the "house of study" more leniently than the synagogue is because scholars spend a good deal of their time in the former, so that a dispensation is required in order to enable them to study without interruption. Otherwise, in the rabbinic view, the "house of study" possesses a greater degree of sanctity than the synagogue, a typical illustration of the high significance the [talmudic] rabbis attached to the study of the Torah above all other religious obligations

Appropriate Synagogue Behavior is a Socially Determined Concept

 Curiously enough, the Shulhan Arukh rules that it is permitted to spit in the synagogue provided the saliva is erased with the foot or where there is an absorbent material there so that the saliva is not seen. This ruling obviously has to be seen against the social background of the times. In these matters it is generally held, nowadays, that Western standards of decorum should be preserved, on the grounds that Jews should not behave less decorously than Christians do in church.

For this reason Orthodox Rabbis forbid smoking in the synagogue (but not in the "house of study") [even on days when Sabbath and holiday prohibitions do not apply]. While there is no actual prohibition against smoking in the synagogue, the sources being compiled before tobacco had been brought to Europe, since Christians do not smoke in church, for Jews to do so would suggest that they have less respect than Christians for the place in which they worship.

It was the common practice in the Middle Ages for pious folk to donate candles to the synagogue, not as votive offerings, of which Judaism knows nothing, but in order to keep the building well lit. Nowadays, when illumination is provided by electric lights, this practice is no longer in vogue, although in some synagogues tallow candles are still used in front of the reader's desk.

Selling an Unused Synagogue Building

The question of selling a synagogue that is no longer used has been much discussed. As stated above, the question is discussed in the Mishnah (Megillah, Chapter 3) and in the talmudic elaboration of the Mishnah. The final ruling is that when a synagogue can no longer be used it may be sold, on the grounds that synagogues are sanctified on condition that they are used as such, so that once the synagogue is no longer used it loses its sanctity and may be sold. The Talmud does make a distinction between a synagogue in a village and one in a large city. A synagogue in a village belongs to the villagers and can be sold by them. But a synagogue in a large city does not belong solely to the citizens, since the frequent visitors from other towns have presumably contributed to the building and are thus part-owners, so that the town council has no right to dispose of their share.

Later authorities, however, hold that since, nowadays, each synagogue has its own members who contribute to its upkeep, these members are the sole owners and the synagogue may be sold when it is no longer used as such even where it is in a large town. For this reason a synagogue may be sold to be used as a church or a mosque, although here it is common practice to sell the synagogue indirectly through a third party. The accepted opinion among the authorities is that, conversely, it is permitted to buy a mosque or a church to be used as a synagogue, though, in the case of the church, the building must not contain any symbols of the Christian faith, built-in crosses for example.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.