Question: It is customary to serve meals and hold communal dinners in a synagogue sanctuary or Bet Midrash on Shavuot, Pesah, Shabbat and on weekdays. Doesn’t this contradict a specific law found in the Talmud and the Codes that it is forbidden to eat in a synagogue or Bet Midrash?
Indeed, at first glance this seems to be forbidden, but as it turns out, the Talmud contains contradictory sources on this topic.
I) Sources Which Forbid Eating in a Synagogue/Bet Midrash
We have learned in a beraita [Tannaitic teaching] in the tractate of Megillah (28a-b):
Our Sages have taught: Synagogues, one does not treat them with levity: one does not eat in them nor drink in them nor enjoy them…
Regarding “enjoy them”, the Talmud adds (28b): “Rava said: Sages and their pupils are permitted, for Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: what is bei rabbanan — the house of the Sages”. In other words, Sages can treat the House of Study like their own homes.
This beraita and its Talmudic explanation were codified by the Rif (Megillah, ed. Vilna, Chapter 3, fol. 9a), the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 11:6), the Rosh (Megillah, ed. Vilna, Chapter 4, parag. 7) and the Tur and Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 151:1).
This type of strict ruling is also found in other codes and responsa:
Rabbi Shlomo son of Shimon ben Zemah Duran (Responsa Rashbash, No. 274) was even opposed to drinking water in a synagogue.
Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Shoel Umeishiv, Vol. 6, No. 3) was opposed to holding the seudat mitzvah [mitzvah feast] after a brit milah in the synagogue.
Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (Arukh Hashulhan, Orah Hayyim 151:6) forbids brit milah, pidyon haben, and wedding feasts in the synagogue.
Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, The Responsa of Prof Louis Ginzberg(Orah Hayyim, No. 11, pp. 103-104) ruled that a room in a synagogue built for social activities may not be used for prayer and vice versa.
Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi, Part I, Orah Hayyim, No. 73) forbids even a snack (akhilat aray) in a synagogue.
II) Sources Which Permit Eating in a Synagogue/Bet Midrash
On the other hand, there are four Talmudic and other sources which clearly permit eating and drinking in the synagogue.
1) In Pesahim 100b-101a the Talmud discusses when the shliah tzibbur recites the Kiddush aloud in the synagogue on Friday or Festival nights. “And why does Samuel say to recite Kiddush in the synagogue? In order to fulfill the obligation of guests who ate and drank and slept in the synagogue”.
2) Indeed, we know from the Greek inscription of the first-century Jerusalem synagogue of Theodotos son of Vettenos that he “built this synagogue for the reading of the Law [=Torah] and the study of the commandments, and a guesthouse and the rooms and the water installations for hosting those in need from abroad…’. (See David Golinkin, Insight Israel, Jerusalem, 2003, p. 145 and the literature cited ibid. in note 2). In other words, that synagogue served as a hostel or guest house for needy travelers.
3) Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 8:2, ed. Venice, fol. 26a = Yerushalmi Moed Kattan 2:3, fol. 81a relates that “Rabbi Yohanan used to enter the synagogue the morning [after the feast of the sanctification of the New Moon] and gather up the leftover crumbs, eat them, and say: ‘may my lot be with those who sanctified the New Moon here last night’ “.
3) In Yerushalmi Pesahim 1:1, ed. Venice, fol. 27b, “Rabbi Yirmiyahu asked: synagogues and Batey Midrash – do they requirebedikah [searching for hametz the night before Pesah]… since they bring food in there on the feasts of the New Moon?” (corrected according to Rabbi Saul Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshuta to Megillah, pp. 1185-1186).
III) Attempts to Reconcile the Conflicting Sources
1) It is permissible to eat in another room in the synagogue, not in the sanctuary itself.
This was the solution of many rabbis: Tosafot to Megillah 28a s.v.ein and to Pesahim 101a s.v. v’akhlu; Rabbi Yitzhak [the Elder?] quoted by Rabbi Asher ben Shaul, Sefer Haminhagot, ed. Assaf, p. 174; the Rosh to Bava Batra, Chapter 1, parag. 4; the Meiri to Megillah 28a, ed. Hershler, p. 103 (but cf. his commentary to Pesahim 100b, ed. Klein, p. 211); the Ra’avad and Rabbi Aharon Halevi as quoted by Orhot Hayyim, Hilkhot Kiddush Hayom, parag. 9, ed.Florence, 1750, fol. 63c.
2) It is permissible to eat in a village synagogue which belongs to a private person who can say that it is not sanctified, eat there, and then re-sanctify it.
This was the second solution given by Rabbi Asher ben Shaul, ibid.
3) It is permissible to eat in Babylonian and other Diaspora synagogues which are built on condition that guests may eat there (see Megillah 28b).
This was the third solution given by Rabbi Asher ben Shaul, ibid. Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna (Or Zarua, Part II, parag. 388) gives the same solution and then relates that when he studied with Rabbeinu Simhah in Speyer they ate in the Bet Midrash and Rabbi Simhah said that he saw Rabbi Judah of Speyer do the same. He stresses that in our day it is permissible to eat in synagogues andbatey midrash, even those who are not scholars.
Rabbi Yishayahu di Trani, Tosfot Rid to Pesahim 101a (as quoted by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yehaveh Daat, Vol. 3, end of No. 10) says that even in the synagogues of Eretz Yisrael it is permissible for guests to eat there, because the synagogues were built with that stipulation in mind.
Ramban says that synagogues are built on condition that the people of the city can feed and lodge poor people there. (He is quoted by the Bet Yosef to Tur Orah Hayyim, end of parag. 151, which seems to be identical to the Responsa of the Rashba, Vol. 4, No. 278.)
4) It’s possible that guests may eat there because it is a mitzvah of the community since they are eating from the tzedakah fund of the community.
So suggests the Ran on the Rif to Pesahim 101a, ed. Vilna, fols. 19b-20a; and cf. the first explanation in Maharam Halava to Pesahim 101a.
5) It is permissible to enjoy/derive benefit from a synagogue for the sake of the synagogue itself e.g. to sleep there on Yom Kippur to make sure that the many lit candles do not catch fire.
So rules Hagahot Maimoniot to Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 11:6, subparag. 5, basing himself on Yerushalmi Pesahim quoted above. He is quoted by the Bet Yosef to Tur Orah Hayyim and then codified in Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 151:4 (and cf. the other Rishonim quoted in the Bet Yosef ibid.). This is why Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson allows eating sweets in the synagogue on Simhat Torah (Shoel Umeishiv, Part 5, No. 63) – since it is a need of the synagogue itself.
6) It is permissible to eat there if it’s a seudat mitzvah, a feast connected to a mitzvah.
This is the solution of a many prominent rabbis. Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Assin, No. 29) says that it is permissible to eat a seudat mitzvah there as we see in Yerushalmi Pesahim quoted above. Rabbi Aharon Hacohen of Lunel also allows a seudat mitzvah without giving a reason (Orhot Hayyim, Hilkhot Kiddush Hayom, paraga. 8, ed.Florence, 1750, fols. 63b-c).
Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna (Or Zarua, Part II, end of parag. 23) says that some reconcile the contradiction between the sources by saying that a seudat Shabbat is permissible in the synagogue because it is a seudat mitzvah. So does Rabbi Avraham of Lunel (Sefer Hamanhig, Hilkhot Shabbat, parag. 13, ed. Refael, pp. 142-143) in the name of Megillat Setarim by Rav Nissim Gaon, basing himself on Yerushalmi Pesahim quoted above. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Ha’amek Sheelah to Breishit, Sheilta No. 1, note 7 on pages 5-6) allows a seudat mitzvah on the basis of the Sheiltot, while Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Yehaveh Da’at, Vol. 3, No. 10) allows one to eat Seudah Shlishit in a synagogue on Shabbat on the basis of many of these sources.
Rabbi Asher ben Shaul (loc. cit.) says that all dvar mitzvah [mitzvah matters] may be done in a synagogue.
Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil, Sefer Mitzvot Kattan, parag. 281 allows a seudat mitzvah in the synagogue.
Rabbeinu Peretz of Corbeil in his Hagahot to that paragraph (not found in the printed editions but quoted by Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 151, subprag. 5) limits the permission to a feast in honor of intercalating a year which includes no levity since it only includes bread and legumes. This would mean that a large feast with wine and whiskey is not permissible even if it is a seudat mitzvah. This approach was followed by Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Ben Ish Hay, Vayikra, parag. 4, who rules that any seudah which includes drunkenness is forbidden in a synagogue.
Rabbi Yosef Karo, despite his ruling above that one may not eat in a synagogue, rules just a few paragraphs later (Orah Hayyim 151:4) that one may eat and sleep there, “and even for the sake of another mitzvah such as intercalating the year”.
Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein (Orah Hayyim 151:6) allows a feast for a siyyum [concluding a tractate of Talmud] because it is feast related to torah study, but not other types of seudot.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen (Mishnah Berurah to Orah Hayyim 151, subpar. 20) says that it is the custom to be lenient to hold a feast in honor of a siyyum in the synagogue because it has a lot of space.
According to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Yehaveh Daat, Vol. 3, No. 10) , it is the custom of Oriental Jews to eat in the synagogue at the study session held on a yahrzeit of one of the members when they recite blessings on various foods in memory of the departed.
According to Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (Yalkut Yosef, Vol. 2, p. 239) one can distribute tea and coffee during a class, eat seudah shlishit if it includes a dvar torah, and eat a seudat mitzvah including wine at a siyum or brit milah.
7) It is permissible for guests to eat in the synagogue as is evident from Pesahim 101a and Orah Hayyim 269.
So says the Taz to Orah Hayyim 151.
IV) Summary and Conclusions
In light of the above, a rabbi who wants to rule on this topic has many options:
One could forbid all eating and drinking in the synagogue/Bet Midrash except for rabbis and students who spend most of their time there (Paragraph I). This position is too strict, as is evident from all of the attempts to find a compromise in Paragraph III. Until recently, there were no social halls. If one wanted to hold a mitzvah feast, one needed to use a synagogue or bet midrash, which contained the only large rooms available (cf. the Mishnah Berurah quoted above).
On the other hand, one could allow all eating and drinking in the synagogue (Paragraph II). This, however, could lead to holding events which are not in keeping with the sanctity of a synagogue/Bet Midrash.
Therefore, I believe it is better to follow one of the compromise positions (Paragraph III), such as eating in another room in the synagogue, making a condition before building the synagogue that the sanctuary will be used for mitzvah meals, or only holding a seudat mitzvah in the synagogue. In this way we will maintain the sanctity of the synagogue without preventing Jews from using the only large rooms available for seudot mitzvah and communal feasts.
Rosh Hodesh Sivan 5772
Photo Credit: Synagogue Or torah in Acre (Israel) – Ground floor -Beit Midrash, FLLL
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David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.