Three Shul-Related Responsa for 5 Shevat

This past Sunday was the fifth of Shevat, for which I found three different responsa regarding issues connected to shuls. The first was written by a young R. Azriel Hildesheimer, in 1846 (when he was 25-26 years old and not yet a communal rabbi; he would later be the rabbi in Eisenstadt, Hungary and in Berlin, and in 1874 established a rabbinical seminary in Berlin that became very well-known and trained generations of rabbis).

We’re going to deal with only one of the four short questions he published in Shu”t R. Azriel Hildesheimer 1;Orach Chayyim 12. The questioner was confused as to how Berachot 6b could characterize Hashem as becoming angry when He arrives at shul and finds no minyan, since on the other side of that page the Gemara had said that Hashem arrives at shul first to greet ten who pray together.  If Hashem beats them there to welcome them, He necessarily arrives to find no minyan.

Hashem Gets to Shul First

  1. Hildesheimer (from now on: RAH) starts by asking his friend to ignore the lack of a flowery opening, omitted for lack of time, and encourages his correspondent to do the same in the future. He also says he reviewed all the issues raised in the question, but will answer briefly, leaving it to the recipient to fully unpack the answers.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen respondents plead lack of time, but RAH’s using it as the reason he left out the honorifics strikes me as particularly hollow.  How long would it take to put in a few blandishments? I wonder whether this was a way for him to work to reduce or eliminate that whole aspect of Jewish letter-writing, the need to put in two or three lines of flattery before getting to the heart of the matter. He doesn’t have time for it, perhaps, in the sense of not being willing to spend time on it.

When he gets to the question, he argues that the Gemara thinks Hashem anticipates a gathering of ten only when it’s for the purpose of studying Torah, which is more significant than prayer. He says that’s clear in several places in the Gemara, but doesn’t have time to specify.

What’s clear to him isn’t in our times. I’m not questioning his representation of Talmudic values, I’m pointing out that he highlights where we’ve lost sight of a simple Talmudic truth, that gatherings for Torah study are Jewishly more valuable than those for communal prayer. Today, it’s the reverse for most people, as we can see by the numbers of people who make sure to attend communal prayer and the numbers who attend group Torah study.

His second answer, in case we want to insist that the Gemara meant Hashem welcomes even ten gathering for prayer, is that the anger stems from not having the opportunity to precede the ten to shul. (In this reading, when the Gemara says if Hashem comes and finds there aren’t ten, RAH seems to be taking it as if Hashem finds there won’t be ten. That raises issues of Hashem’s knowing the future and freewill, but let’s leave that for another time).

Rashba’s Alternative

The editor of the volume calls our attention to Rashba’s responsum on the same topic, Shu”t haRashba 1;50, where Rashba first says that we don’t ask questions on aggadah. This is an important point also lost in many circles—both before and after Rashba, there were traditions of working to reconcile all Talmudic sayings that weren’t specifically presented as in conflict, and much mental gymnastics went into the effort.

But the insistence on consistency assumes that each statement has to agree with each other one, and is well-enough formulated enough for us to understand how they all fit together. It would be equally possible to assume that such statements are there to make a point, and not each detail is meant to be taken as fully literal or fully accurate. If that is true, we could say that each statement is making a value comment—Hashem values when ten come together and reacts badly when they do not—without having to make sure their scenarios align.

With that caveat, Rashba also offers an answer, that the Gemara never meant Hashem came first, it meant that as the ten gathered, Hashem arrived immediately, not waiting until they get started with their prayers. (That also saves us from the question of how Hashem knows they’re gathering before they do).

RAH apparently didn’t know or didn’t favor Rashba’s answer; between them, we see that we have a few options for how to reconcile the two statements. We can deny the need, as Rashba says at first; we can limit Hashem’s anticipatory arrival at shul to the more important situation of ten Jews studying Torah; we can see the anger as anticipatory, anger at not being able to precede and welcome them, since they’re not coming; or we can see the timing as closer than it at first sounds, that Hashem arrives with the ten coming to pray, and if He arrives and finds no minyan, reacts as described.

Windows on the Shul

On the 5th of Shevat, 5672 (1912), Shut Achiezer 3;79, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzensky addressed the issue of whether a shul could put the Aron Kodesh (with the windows generally built into whatever wall had the Ark) to the north since, according to the architect, building it to the east ran the risk of future construction blocking the shul’s light.

He answers that the Gemara requires putting windows in the east, Berachot 31, that Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 90;4. Shulchan Aruch prefers twelve windows, and doesn’t limit it to a Beit Midrash, a study hall, but includes a shul as well.

That being true, R. Chaim Ozer says, we have to build our shuls the way halachah says, and not worry about what will happen should the neighbors build an obstructing wall. This is especially so since the Gemara did not establish an amount or level of light that had to come through those windows. As long as there are windows facing Jerusalem, we don’t worry about amounts of light. He concludes that they should establish the Aron on the east wall, as is customary throughout the Jewish people.

I write those last words with a bit of surprise, since I have davened most of my life in shuls that no longer align themselves along the east wall, for various reasons, and also are not careful to have windows on that wall, certainly not twelve (R. Chaim Ozer doesn’t address it, but it seems to me that, for these purposes, stained glass windows should be a problem, since they aren’t really windows, in that we can’t see out of them at all).  I do not question these shuls having found rabbinic ratification for their choice, I only note that R. Chaim Ozer Grodzensky did not see the search for light as a reason to switch.

Mothers Bentching Gomel

The last teshuva for this week was asked to R. Betsalel Stern, in Betsel HaChochmah 6;78 (born in Hungary in 1911, he was a rabbi in Melbourne and Vienna before moving to Yerushalayim towards the end of his life). He was a relative on my grandmother’s side, whom I met briefly once at a family wedding.

On the fifth of Shevat 5748 (1988), he answered a request for an explanation of a custom to have a Maariv minyan in the home of a woman about a week or two after she had given birth, before she left home for the first time. Others had the custom to have her go to shul the first time she left her home, to hear the beginning of Maariv there.

He notes that he has not seen any discussions of this custom in rabbinic literature, and that it is difficult to be certain as to how customs arise. Nevertheless, he offers his best guess: Magen Avraham at the beginning of Siman 219 wonders why women don’t recite the Hagomel blessing when they have cause to thank Hashem. R. Stern notes that that question does not reflect the practice of Sefardi or Lubavitcher women, since the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his Shulchan Aruch haRav, included women in the recitation of Hagomel. He adds that he knows of venerable and well-lineaged Ashkenazic families that gather a minyan for women to recite Hagomel when called for, which is what I have always seen as well.

But it was not true of R. Stern’s communities.  He suggests that in the absence of Hagomel, the custom became that a woman who felt well enough to leave her house

A Digression on Not Judging the Past

(A digression: one issue in this responsum that I highlighted in discussing it at this past Shabbat’s bar-mitzvah celebration for the son of dear friends, R. Binyamin and Faith Blau, is that women used to take much longer to recover from birth than they do today. We might mock or look down on that, seeing them as wallowing in that which they could have recovered from more quickly, given what we see happen in our times.

It is, to me, an important lesson in remembering to learn from the past, but not to judge it. Had today’s mothers lived then, they, too, might have needed as long as the women of back then, for reasons we may not currently remember or understand. The same is true for when we think about how men acted back then; it is well and good to hope we would handle some things differently, and to make efforts to do so in our lives, but we should be careful not to slip over into judging how they handled it, since we cannot know the factors that went into their situation.)

Returning to our topic, the custom became that a woman who felt well enough to leave her house would go first to a shul to hear her husband be called to the Torah (and the husband was a חיוב, with the right to ask/expect that he be included in the seven called to the Torah). Her first post-confinement act would be an act of mitzvah. In addition, R. Stern cites Eliyah Rabbah 219;5, who says that we tend to recite Hagomel in connection with being called to the Torah because the Barchu we say before the blessings on the Torah is also an act of thanksgiving to Hashem. When a husband gets called, then, he should have explicit intent to have this Barchu count as thanksgiving to Hashem.

Making It Easier for Her

That’s his fundamental answer, that we want her to hear Barchu, since she’s not saying Hagomel. But some women feel well enough to leave home early in the week, and don’t want to wait for Shabbat. Or, they feel well enough to leave home but not to walk to shul, which might be far and, in the winter, might be too cold a journey to take.

Two customs arose to make it easier for her. One was to bring the minyan to her, where her husband could be sure of being chazzan, and could say Barchu with the full intent to include the thanksgiving on her behalf. The other was to prefer that this take place in shul, since that’s a more sanctified place. But to do it during the week, when she could drive (or ride a carriage, in times gone by), and hear a Barchu before Maariv, which was more convenient.


The actual idea is reasonable but not earth-shattering. What struck me as interesting was the reminder that even segments of the Orthodox community we might see as less attuned to women’s roles in the religion (R. Stern had no interest in finding a way to let a women say Hagomel for herself, for example) took seriously the woman’s relationship with Hashem.

A second point was the idea of channeling our first acts after momentous life events towards that relationship. It wasn’t whether a woman did or didn’t recite Hagomel, it’s that her first act after recovering from childbirth be directed towards a mitzvah.

When Hashem greets us at shul, how to construct a shul, and why a woman would go to shul first upon leaving home. In the responsa I found, the fifth of Shevat was a day to be thinking about shul and its role in our lives.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.