To Sell a Shul?

Ask the Rov: May a shul be sold to build a new one in a different neighborhood?

By Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin – Rov of Anash in Petach Tikvah

The Gemara distinguishes between a “village shul” that may be sold and a “city shul” that may not be sold because it belongs to the public.1

Rishonim offer three explanations for the uniqueness of a city shul:

(1) It is designated for and therefore owned by Jews in the entire world;2 (2) Jews worldwide donated money for this shul and are partners in it;3 and (3) because many Jews—including from other locations—daven in it, the shul has added kedusha.4

The first two points prohibit the sale from a monetary perspective, while the final one prohibits the sale due to the unique kedusha the shul possesses. A communal mikvah would follow similar guidelines according to the first two points but not according to the third since it doesn’t have kedusha. If the money for the shul was collected solely from the local community, that shul may be sold according to the second reason.

In generations when the community council and leadership (“shiva tuvei ha’ir”) had full communal power, some say they had the right to sell even a city shul that was built with local money if they see fit. It was considered a precondition during the original construction that they had the right to make changes later.5 Additionally, more recent poskim posit that the categorization of a “city shul” is no longer applicable in the present age.6Shuls can also be sold with the consent of a major rov to whom all are beholden.7

Still, Halacha prohibits selling a shul to goyim or to be used for disrespectful or sinful purposes, and certainly not for a place of non-Jewish worship. An allowance to sell it to goyim only applies in a case of great necessity when no one other Jews live there.

In places where non-Jews do not let go of their deserted places of worship, it is a chillul Hashem to sell a shul.8 However, this only applies where we can upkeep it by holding on to it—unlike the destroyed communities in Europe with desolate shuls occupied by squatters, where it is recommended to sell the shul and transfer the kedusha onto money. Even then, it should be sold for a respectable purpose.9

In the famous sicha on Acharon Shel Pesach 5729 (1969), the Rebbe decried the selling of Jewish homes in Crown Heights to non-Jews and, even worse, the selling of shuls and batei midrash. The Rebbe noted three primary issues: (1) the kedusha they possess—this would be mitigated if they were originally built with a stipulation; (2) the decrease in the number of shuls—unless new ones will be built in a different neighborhood; and (3) that the locals won’t have a shul with their nusach anymore. This final point applies even if a new shul will be built in a different neighborhood.10

See Sources (open PDF)

From The Weekly Farbrengen by Merkaz Anash

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