Kedushat Beit Midrash and Beit Keneset: An Enlightening Comparison

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When asked to picture a Jewish study hall in your mind’s eye, what mental images arise? Do you imagine a soaring edifice of majestic beauty? Is its interior a breathtaking and brilliant room with gilded walls of silver and gold? Or perhaps you are perceiving a more humble structure composed of wood and stone that is anything but imposing. The physical construction of a religious structure reveals much about its intended purpose in a broader spiritual context. It is not surprising then that Halakha has what to say on the topic of religious architecture. In order to properly assess the beit midrash’s unique and central role in Judaism, a halakhic analysis of its construct design is necessary. Ironically, I believe that the best place to begin this analysis is with a gemara that deals (perhaps exclusively) with the beit midrash’s most commonly referenced counterpart, the beit keneset.

In the Gemara Shabat (11a), Rava bar Mehasya declares that any city whose roofs rise higher than the beit keneset is destined for destruction. His proof text is taken from the book of Ezra (9:9), where Ezra praises the Almighty for allowing Jews to raise up the house of the Hashem as well as rebuild the ruins of Yerushalayim. Rava explains that the implications of this verse provide us with a dire warning: if you refuse to establish the beit Hashem as the tallest building in your city, your houses will fall to ruin. While the gemara informs us of the consequences of a city failing to upraise their beit keneset, it does not explicitly reveal why it is so important for the synagogue to be elevated beyond the houses of the city.

One common approach of the Rishonim emphasizes the inappropriateness of engaging in mundane matters above the local beit keneset. This becomes clear from the analysis of Tosfot HaRosh (ad loc. s.v. aval kashkushei). He explains that the roof of a house standing taller than a beit keneset is not inherently problematic. It is only when the roofs are used for household purposes that the destruction of the city becomes imminent. Ritva (ad loc. s.v. kol ir) also cites what he deems to be a parallel application of this ruling; one may not build a residential apartment over a beit keneset. [i] For these Rishonim, the physical height of buildings in the city is irrelevant. Lowering the roofs of houses is only to prevent potentially inappropriate behavior from occurring above the beit keneset. They seem to be drawing their approach from the gemara itself. Rava adds that it is not problematic to have towers and turrets standing taller than the beit keneset. Presumably, this is because towers are not utilized for living purposes, but rather for defense of the city.

However, a different perspective on the statement of Rava bar Mehasya is offered by other Rishonim. This law is not to protect the beit keneset’s sanctity; rather, it is to establish its chief prominence as the spiritual center of the city. Sefer HaBatim (Sha’arei HaMikdash-Sha’ar Shmini s.v. ein bonin)[ii] and Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefilah 11:2) draw a fascinating comparison between our Gemara in Shabat and another law mentioned in the Tosefta. The Tosefta (Megilah 3:23) declares that the beit keneset should be built begevoah shel ir, the highest point of the city. The source for this ruling is the verse in Mishlei (1:21), where “wisdom” cries out to the inhabitants of the city and encourages them to embrace hakhma and enlightenment. This certainly has nothing to do with the preservation of synagogue sanctity. This is about projecting a message. After quoting the Tosefta, Sefer HaBatim in the same breath delineates the ruling of our gemara in Shabbat. He then proceeds to explicitly argue on the aforementioned exemption of Tosfot HaRosh. He adamantly states that the reasoning for the ruling of Rava bar Mehasya is to make the beit keneset recognizable and known to all the inhabitants of the city, so that they may stream towards it, “veyenaharu eilav.” Regardless of whether the taller roofs of houses are being utilized for mundane matters, they will still prevent the beit keneset from achieving the prominence it deserves.

In truth, whichever of the two positions one takes, a serious question begs itself. There is one Jewish structure that seems to be left out of this discussion entirely. I’m sure the reader can venture a guess as to which structure this is. What happened to the beit midrash?! The Gemara Megilah (27a) states explicitly that the kedushah of the beit midrash exceeds that of the beit keneset. It would therefore seem illogical to make a distinction between beit keneset and beit midrash. For Tosfot HaRosh, why should the community be more concerned about preserving the sanctity of the beit keneset but not accord the same respect for the holier beit midrash?! Even for Sefer HaBatim, it would also be quite logical to argue that the beit midrash should hold equal, or even greater distinction than the beit keneset.[iii] It is astounding to find that in this context, the Rishonim seem to be entirely unconcerned with the status and stature of the beit midrash.

I believe that another halakhic discussion of beit keneset and beit midrash may reveal a new facet in the nature of kedushat beit midrash which can offer a solution to this problem. The Gemara Menahot (33a) explains that the passageways through which various Talmudic sages walked to enter the beit midrash had mezuzot on the doorposts. This leads the Rishonim into a major debate: is one obligated to place a mezuzah on the doorpost of the beit midrash? Utilizing various gemaras throughout the Talmud, the Ba’alei HaTosafot (ad loc. s.v. veha hahu) prove that normally a beit midrash is not obligated in mezuzah. It is only in the particular instance of the Gemara Menahot (where the passageway into the study hall was directly connected to a house) that one would require to place a mezuzah on the doorpost. They quote the Gemara Yoma (11a) as support for their assertion. The gemara there explains that the word “beitekha” in the verse that describes the obligation of mezuzah indicates that the house must be meyuhad, set aside for a particular individual’s usage, in order to be obligated in mezuzah. Presumably, this comes to exclude both beit keneset and beit midrash from mezuzah.

However, Mordekhai (Hilkhot Ketanot-Perek Teheilet 761) famously argues. He insists that the beit midrash is obligated in mezuzah, in contrast to the beit keneset which will be exempt unless someone (such as the hazzan) has actually taken up residence in the building. He seems to be drawing this approach from his Rebbe, Maharam Merutenborg (a prominent 13th century German Tosafist and prime instructor of both Rosh and Mordekhai). Rosh (Hilkhot Ketanot-Hilkhot Mezuzah 10) tells over a fascinating story. He notes that Maharam Merutenborg was accustomed to taking afternoon naps in his study hall. His sleep was consistently disturbed by a ruah ra’ah, an evil spirit, until he emplaced a mezuzah at the opening of the beit midrash. This story is essential for several reasons. For one, it offers a desperately required source for what is conventionally referred to amongst benei yeshivah as the “beis nap.” It also may indicate that the protection the mezuzah offers is a valid obligating consideration in halakhic discussions of mezuzah. But most importantly for our purposes, it makes clear that Maharam became convinced that beit midrash is obligated in mezuzah. In fact, it seems that it is due in part to Maharam that the Mekhaber (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 286:10) rules that one should place a mezuzah on the doors of the beit midrash, albeit without making a berakhah.

While Maharam establishes a clear distinction between beit midrash and beit keneset, his reasoning remains unclear. Shakh (the famed 17th century commentator to the Shulhan Arukh) offers a deceptively simple explanation: given the fact that students reside in the beit midrash from morning to night, the study hall is considered to have the status of a dirah, a residence. Shakh is touching upon a singular and unique definitional aspect of the beit midrash. The beit midrash is not a temple or shrine; it is a home.

Beit keneset is exempt from the obligation of mezuzah because it is not meyuhad, designated for an individual. A minyan must always be available in the beit keneset of a city (Megilah 3b, 21b). It is the place of the tsibbur, the congregation. It is the epicenter of the public sphere, not a home. But the beit midrash is exactly that. The study hall is the place where Jews come to study, grow, and reside in the shadow of the divine presence. Every individual finds a personal place in the confines of the study hall’s walls. The experience of the beit midrash is one that is warm and intimate. Talmidim study in paired havrutot with the Almighty himself silently paying an attentive ear to their discourse.[iv]

This understanding of the beit midrash can perhaps elucidate the first distinction between beit midrash and beit keneset that we discussed. We noted that Halakha demands that the beit keneset be placed at the highest point of the city, towering over all other buildings in its vicinity. It is the citadel, a structure that proclaims a message to the street wanderers below, be-rosh homiyot tikra (in the language of Mishlei 1:21).[v] It glorifies the name of the Rebono Shel Olam to all who witness its majestic beauty, leromem et beit elokeinu (to borrow from Ezra 9:9). For some authorities, the beit keneset should be constructed from the most precious materials that a community is capable of acquiring, to the point of covering the building with gold, silver, and marble (Sha’arei HaMikdash-Sha’ar Rishon s.v. umitsvah, Sefer HaMaspik l’ovdei Hashem 25). Their opinions are drawn from the standards of construction for the beit hamikdash. The beit keneset is the public expression of God’s sole divinity. The beit hamikdash stood as the ultimate example of the Boreh Olam’s continued presence and influence in this universe to all the nations of the world; the beit keneset serves as a humble replacement. This is why the beit keneset has played (and continues to play) such an essential role in the spiritual life of Jews in a long and bitter exile. It is the rallying point and pride of every Jewish community. It is therefore not a surprise that it is considered demeaning when one performs mediocre tasks above the roof the synagogue. These actions are antitheticalto what a shul stands for, an inherent contradiction to kedushat beit keneset.

The beit midrash however is not intended to be a beautified, towering structure. It is not meant to cry out a religious message to itinerants catching a distant glimpse of its significant splendor. To somewhat borrow from Éamon de Valera, the beit keneset is a place of frugal comfort. The study hall exists in the more private universe of the home. To be sure, a home is not closed off from visitors who seek shelter. The ultimate paradigm for the Jewish home comes from none other than Avraham Avinu himself, whose tent was open on all four sides to any weary travelers seeking sustenance and divine guidance. The home of the study hall remains the pulsating heart of the Jewish community, the humble base from which all religious inspiration and wisdom must be drawn. The beit midrash possesses greater kedushah than the beit keneset, but this holiness possesses a distinctive quality. Ironically, the intimate qualities of this kedushah contribute to both its greatness and flexibility. This is why it is not nearly as problematic to perform household tasks over the roof the beit midrash. This intimacy is even more palpable for the yoshvei beit hamidrash, the talmidei hakhamim. This may be why Torah scholars are permitted to eat, drink, and (of course) sleep in a place with such an intense presence of shekhinah.[vi] Talmidei hakhamim establish the beit midrash as their own place of residence, thereby obligating the beit midrash in the mitsvah of mezuzah. It is the Torah scholar who more than all others recognizes the intimate relationship with God that is engendered through Torah study.

May we all be zokhe to perceive the warm embrace of the Ribono Shel Olam as we study his Torah in the holiest of places, the beit midrash.[vii]

Robbie Schrier is a senior in Yeshiva College. He is majoring in psychology and Jewish studies.

[i] With regard to halachik practice, Mekhaber (Shulhan Arukh, Oreh Hayim 150:2) rules like Tosfot Rosh. A roof that is not usable due to its incline may rise higher than the roof of the beit keneset.

[ii] Sefer HaBatim was written by a 13th century Provencal rosh yeshivah by the name of David ben Shmuel HaKokhavi. The comments of Sefer HaBatim can be found in the Koveitz Shitat Kamai to Masekhet Shabat 11a.

[iii] The reader is encouraged to view Aruh HaShulhan’s (Oreh Hayim 150:6) beautiful and concise explication of this question.

[iv] See Avot 3:2 and the statement of Rabi Hanina ben Tradyon there.

[v] It should be noted that there are several possible messages that the prominent synagogue is intended to send. It may be that the Beit keneset’s conspicuous construction insures that all Jews in the city will see it and constantly be reminded of its importance. As Sefer HaBatim (Sha’arei HaMikdash-Sha’ar Shmini s.v. ein bonin) explains, they will stream towards it, seeking guidance and prayer. However, other positions quoted by Sefer HaBatim indicate that the purpose is to send a message of religious dominance; the Jewish temple stands tallest of all other buildings in the city as a testament to the greatness of Judaism. Anyone familiar with the history of the recently reconstructed Hurvah Shul in Jerusalem will know that the matter of height is a sensitive area of symbolism between conflicting religions. This may be why some (quoted by Sefer HaBatim) believe that as long as the Jews are under the control of some other nation, preventing them from constructing taller synagogues, they are even permitted to build their houses taller than the beit keneset. Once the shul will not stand taller than the temples of the surrounding culture, there is no purpose to raise the roof of the beit keneset at all.  This could also explain the leniency mentioned by Sefat Emet (Shabat 11a s.v. kol ir). He claims that as long as one beit keneset stands taller than the roofs of the city, there is no concern for raising Jewish homes above the other smaller shuls. Presumably, he believes that one enormous synagogue sufficiently expresses the greatness of Judaism.

[vi] Shulkhan Arokh, Oreh Hayim 151:1. See Rama there who paskens that talmidei hakhamim are permitted to eat even when it is not currently difficult for them to proceed with their learning without sustenance.

[vii] I would like to extend thanks (and credit) to the chavrutot with whom I studied these sugyot: Yonatan Melhman and my brother Elliot.