Rabbi Bernard Fox
“And these are the accounts of the Mishcan -- the Tabernacle of the Testimony – that were calculated by Moshe. It was the service of the Leveyim under the authority of Itamar the son of Ahron the Kohen.” (Shemot 38:21)
Parshat Pekuay completes the Torah’s discussion of the construction of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. The Mishcan was the central element of the camp of Bnai Yisrael during their travels in the wilderness. Once Bnai Yisrael entered the land of Israel, conquered, and settled the land, the Mishcan was replaced by the Bait HaMikdash – the Temple. King Shlomo built the first Bait HaMikdash. Shlomo’s Bait HaMikdash was destroyed. Ezra initiated the construction of the second Bait HaMikdash. This Temple was also destroyed. Today, we do not have a Bait HaMikdash but we look forward to its rebuilding.
Although we do not presently have a Bait HaMikdash, the Talmud refers to the synagogues and study-halls that we construct in the places of our exile as minor versions of the Bait HaMikdash. In what sense are these synagogues and study-halls minor versions of the Bait HaMikdash? In other words, what are the practical implications of the status?
The Talmud’s observation is followed by an admonishment to not use the synagogue as a shortcut. This means that a person may not pass through a synagogue in order shorten his route to a destination. It seems from the Talmud’s juxtaposition of these two discussions that the status of the synagogue as a minor Mikdash engenders an obligation to treat a synagogue with respect.
Maimonides seems to take the comparison of the synagogue to the Bait HaMikdash one step further. In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides explains that one of the negative commands of the Torah prohibits the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash, erasure of the name of Hashem or the destruction of any of the prophetic works. Maimonides also provides a list of the 613 mitzvot in the introduction to his Mishne Torah. In that version of the 613 mitzvot, he explains that the prohibition against destroying the Bait HaMikdash includes an injunction against destroying a synagogue or study-hall. It seems that according to Maimonides, we are not only required to treat the synagogue with respect but that destroying a synagogue or study-hall is a Torah level violation of the prohibition against destroying the Bait HaMikdash or erasing Hashem’s name.
In short, it seems that the Talmud’s description of the synagogue and study-hall as minor version of the Mikdash is not merely a homily. This comparison actually expresses itself in specific laws regarding the manner in which we must treat these institutions.
However, if we investigate Maimonides’ position more carefully a problem becomes evident. As we have explained, Maimonides seems to treat very literally the Talmud’s assertion that a synagogue and study-hall have the status of a minor Mikdash. This implies that – in some sense – the synagogue and study-hall partake of the sanctity of the Bait HaMikdash.
Maimonides explains in his Mishne Torah and his Sefer HaMitzvot that the Bait HaMikdash is a place designated for the offering of sacrifices. Furthermore, Maimonides explains that the Bait HaMikdash is composed of specific elements including the altars, Menorah, and Shulchan. The synagogue and study-hall do not meet either of these requirements. We cannot offer sacrifices in the synagogue or study-hall. Neither do these institutions have the components essential to the Bait HaMikdash. So, in what sense do the synagogue and study-hall partake of the sanctity of the Bait HaMikdash?
The obvious response to this question is to recognize that in our time prayer takes the place of the sacrifices offered in the Bait HaMikdash. However, it is unlikely that Maimonides’ comparison the synagogue and study-hall to the Bait HaMikdash is based on this factor.
Maimonides explains that there is a positive mitzvah in the Torah to build a Bait HaMikdash. He discusses this commandment as length in his Sefer HaMitzvot and Mishne Torah. Nowhere in this discussion does he remotely indicate that this commandment includes building a synagogue or study-hall. However, in his discussion of the mitzvah of prayer he does acknowledge that we are obligated to build synagogues. He explains that any community composed of ten Jews is required to designate a structure to serve a synagogue. The structure must be available at all times for prayer. He adds that the members of the community may force one another to participate in the building of this synagogue. Maimonides’ placement of this obligation in his discussion of the laws of prayer, indicates that the obligation is somehow connected to the positive command to pray daily. The specific connection is apparent from two other requirements that Maimonides outlines. First, he explains that it is appropriate for a person to designate a regular place in which to pray. Each time the person prays he should do so from this designated place. Second, explains that praying with a congregation is preferable to praying alone. The synagogue is a place designated for the prayer of the community. It fulfills both of these requirements. This seems to be the basis for the obligation to build a synagogue.
It emerges from this discussion that the synagogue and the Bait HaMikdash are fundamentally different institutions. The Bait HaMikdash is a structure with a specific description that is designed and designated for the offering of sacrifices. The synagogue is an institution that is required in order for the mitzvah of prayer to be properly fulfilled. On a deeper level, the distinction between these two institutions is even more fundamental. The Bait HaMikdash is innately the subject and substance of a mitzvah – it is a cheftza shel mitzvah. The synagogue is not innately the subject or substance of a mitzvah. It is needed in order to perform the mitzvah of prayer properly. Apparently, this is the reason that Maimonides includes the requirement to build a synagogue in his discussion of the mitzvah of prayer and not in his discussion of the Bait HaMikdash. So, in what sense are the synagogue and study-hall a minor Mikdash?
It seems that according to Maimonides the synagogue and study-hall derive their sanctity from two different but related sources. He hints to one these sources in the end of his discussion regarding the synagogue. He comments that a public square that is used on occasion for community prayer is not endowed with sanctity. He explains that although this public square is used for prayer this is not its sole designation. Instead, it is generally used for secular purposes and is only used for prayer on occasion. The implication of this explanation is that the synagogue and study-hall are endowed with sanctity because of their exclusive designations as places for prayer and Torah study. Maimonides further explains that in this sense there is a valid comparison that can be made between the synagogue and study-hall and the Bait HaMikdash. The Bait HaMikdash retains its sanctity even after its destruction. The place in which the Bait HaMikdash stood is sacred even today. He explains that the same rule applies to a synagogue and study-hall. Even if they are destroyed, the place on which they stood retains its sanctity. In other words, according to Maimonides, there is a valid comparison between the synagogue and study-hall and the Bait HaMikdash. All retain their sanctity even when destroyed. This common characteristic apparently is a result of the similar designation of these institutions. All are structures designated exclusively for the service of Hashem. This designation results in a residual sanctity even after the structures have been destroyed. In other words, as explained above, the sanctity of the Bait HaMikdash is innate, whereas the sanctity of the synagogue and study-hall is derived from the activities that are performed within their structures. Nonetheless, they share the common characteristic of being structures designated for the service of Hashem. As a result of this common characteristic, they retain their sanctity even when destroyed.
According to Maimonides, the sanctity of the synagogue and study-hall is also derived from a second source. As explained above, Maimonides maintains that the prohibition against destroying the Bait HaMikdash or erasing Hashem’s name includes a prohibition against the destruction of a synagogue or study-hall. On what basis is the destruction of a synagogue or study-hall included in this prohibition.
It is interesting that Maimonides does not discuss this prohibition in his treatment of the laws regarding the Bait HaMikdash. Instead, it is placed in the opening chapters of his Mishne Torah. In these opening chapters, Maimonides describes the foundations of the Torah. There are two characteristics of Maimonides’ discussion of this prohibition that are directly relevant to our question. First, Maimonides begins the discussion by explaining that it is prohibited to erase Hashem’s name. Only after outlining the laws related to this element of the prohibition does he mention that the prohibition includes destroying the Bait HaMikdash. Second, Maimonides discusses this prohibition directly after of our obligation to sanctify Hashem’s name through our actions and behaviors and the prohibition against desecrating His name through our actions and behaviors.
It seems that the prohibition against destroying the Bait HaMikdash or erasing Hashem’s name is an extension of the prohibition against desecrating His name. Furthermore, although the mitzvah includes both destroying the Bait HaMikdash and erasing Hashem’s name Maimonides seems to regard the erasure of Hashem’s name as the primary element of the prohibition. The destruction of the Bait HaMikdash is included in the prohibition because this action is an expression of the same underlying theme. What is this unifying theme?
Apparently, according to Maimonides, the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash is comparable to the erasure of Hashem’s name because the Bait HaMikdash is intimately associated with Hashem. As we have explained, it is a place designated for His worship. Therefore, one who destroys the Bait HaMikdash has desecrated Hashem’s name in a manner that similar and on par with erasing His name.
We can now identify the reasoning that compelled Maimonides to include within this mitzvah a prohibition against destroying a synagogue or study-hall. As we have explained, these institutions are also designated for the service of Hashem. In this sense, they share a fundamental characteristic of the Bait HaMikdash. Therefore, the mitzvah prohibiting the erasure of Hashem’s name includes the prohibition against destroying the Bait HaMikdash and destroying a synagogue or study-hall.
 Mesechet Meggilah 29a.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 65.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bait HaBechirah 1:1, Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 20.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 1:5-6.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 11:1.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 5:6.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 8:1.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 11:21.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 11:11.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 6:1-7.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 5.