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The Importance of Unity

Thanks to their unity, the People of Israel were able to receive the Torah * It is permitted to make animal statues such as lions, elephants and deer * In Ashkenaz, there was a custom to create lion forms, in order to express God’s kingdom * Following the ruling of the eminent Sefardi rabbis , the custom of placing lion statues in Sephardi synagogues was abolished * When choosing a synagogue, all considerations should be weighed. The virtue of b’rov am, hadrat melech” (‘a numerous people, is the glory of a king’) is only one of them

In the verse that precedes the revelation at Mount Sinai, which expresses the preparation for it, it is written:

They journeyed from Rephidim and came to the wilderness of Sinai and encamped (‘vayechan,’in the singular) in the wilderness, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain“(Exodus 19:2).

Our Sages said (Mekhilta De’Rashbi, ibid.) that in Rephidim they sinned and were argumentative, but when they came to Mount Sinai, they repented. From this we learn “how great is the power of repentance, that in the brief moment that the people of Israel repented – they were immediately accepted.” The essence of their repentance was that in all the previous journeys and travels, there was contention among them, whereas here it says “vayechan” in the singular form – “as one man, with one heart,” “so they would love one another, and receive the Torah,” as it says: “And the entire nation responded together and said: ‘Everything that God has spoken, we shall do’” (ibid. 19:8).

However, the agreement to receive the Torah was not complete, as our Sages said:

With their mouths, they said ‘we shall do, and we shall hear,’ but their hearts were set on idol worship” (Exodus Rabbah 42:8). They also said: “When the people of Israel were standing at Mount Sinai, they tried to deceive the Supreme… as it says (Psalms 78:36-38) ‘They tried to appease Him with their mouths, and lied to Him with their tongues; their hearts were not steadfast with Him, they were not faithful to His covenant,’ nevertheless ‘He is merciful, He atones for sin’” (Tosefta Bava Kama 7:3).

If so, how did they merit the Torah being given to them – and even after having sinned with the Golden Calf, their sin was atoned? By virtue of receiving the Torah in unity – in other words, what some were lacking, others supplemented; the values missing on the right, were complemented by the left, and the values missing on the left, were complemented by the right. And since together they were complete, they were able to receive the Torah, and begin the great journey of bringing God’s word and blessing to the world.

Is it Permitted to Sculpt Lion Statues?

Q: Rabbi, is it permitted to sculpt lion statues in order to decorate a garden, or as the Jerusalem Municipality did, placing lion statues throughout the city?

Also, is it permitted to emboss shapes of lions on the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) or parochet (curtain) in a synagogue? And is it permitted to draw them, as is done for example on the cover of your books ‘Peninei Halakha’?

A: Indeed, there are those poskim (Jewish law arbiters) who say it is forbidden to make statues of any animal or bird, and only to draw them is permitted (Tosafot Yoma 54a-b, s.v.keruvim”; Maharam of Rothenburg), and their source is from the verse:

Not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever… the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky…the form of anything that creeps on the ground” (Deuteronomy 4: 16-18).

However, in the opinion of all other Rishonim and Achronim (earlier and later Jewish law authorities), it is not prohibited, because what the Torah prohibited is to make these forms in order to worship them as idols. The established halakha is that it is permitted to make statues of animals such as lions, elephants and deer, as well as cattle like oxen, birds like doves and eagles, fish, trees, plants, and anything in nature. Only when there are people who worship these forms, is it forbidden to make them for those people (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 141:6). Therefore, there is no problem with the lion statues that the Jerusalem municipality placed throughout the city. However, the Torah forbade making statues of a full human form, or of heavenly bodies, even for decoration (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 141:4).

The Ancient Ashkenazi Custom to Place Lion and Animal Statues in Synagogues

Since there is no prohibition on making animal statues, it was customary in Ashkenaz, already over nine hundred years ago, to decorate synagogues with sculptures or woven works of animals, birds and snakes, in order to express the animals and birds praising God, as well as to beautify and glorify the synagogue. They would especially make lion forms, in order to express God’s kingdom, that even the lion, the king of beasts, gives honor to his Creator, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. This is akin to the “cherubim, the work of a skilled craftsman” that were woven into the curtains of the Tabernacle, which on one side had the face of a lion (Exodus 26:1, 31; Rashi; Machaneh Chaim, Yoreh Deah 2:29). It also hints to the Mishna’s words “Be strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father in Heaven” (Avot 5:20; Heichal Yitzchak, OC 11).

There were those who would place lion statues on either side of the Aron Kodesh, or above it, with the shape of the Tablets between the lions, in honor of the Torah.

Those Who Opposed the Custom

In contrast, many criticized this custom, even though according to the vast majority of halachic authorities, there is no prohibition in making an animal or bird statue. In their opinion, one should be stringent in a synagogue like the minority opinions that prohibit this, especially regarding a lion, which is the symbol of the month of Av, and one of the heavenly Chariot’s animals, and there is a prohibition against depicting angels and heavenly servants (see, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 141:4). Additionally, if the lion statues or paintings face the worshippers, it appears as if the worshippers are bowing to them. Also, the statues or paintings are liable to distract the worshippers from concentrating on their prayers.

In Islamic countries there was an additional problem. Inspired by Judaism, Muslims fought against idolatry, and all kinds of statues. There was a concern that if Jews placed animal statues in synagogues, Muslims would scorn the Jews for not being careful regarding idolatry. Perhaps they would even come to smash the statues and damage the synagogue, on the pretext of eradicating idolatry.

The Custom Today

In practice, following the ruling of the eminent Sephardi rabbis, the custom to place lion statues in Sephardi synagogues was abolished over four hundred years ago. Many Sephardi Jews also avoid lion embroidery, and engravings on the curtain.

In Ashkenaz as well, the custom to place lion statues greatly diminished. However, with the agreement of the eminent rabbis, Jews were customary to decorate the Aron Kodesh with engraved profile lions, with the shape of the Tablets between them. The parochet was also embroidered with lions. It was explained that when the lion shapes are incomplete, even the few Rishonim who were stringent about statues, would agree there is no prohibition. Also, there is no concern that viewers would mistake them for idols, since no one bows down to a picture of lions. There is also no concern that these shapes would distract worshippers, since they are placed for the honor of Heaven, and people are used to them.

Are Larger Congregations Preferable?

Q: “Rabbi, we very much appreciate your great Torah dissemination, and are amazed each week by the refreshing insights in your ‘Revivim’ column. However, we were saddened to read in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper on ‘Parshat Bo’ your recommendation to prefer a synagogue with a large congregation, due to “b’rov am, hadrat melech” (a numerous people, is the glory of a king’), over one with few worshippers.

Several arguments can be made against this:

  1. There are many elderly Jews in Israel, thank God, who have difficulty walking to distant synagogues. Perhaps the mitzvah of “honor the elderly” is no less important than “b’rov am, hadrat melech.”
  2. It is possible that having multiple synagogues also adds glory in numbers, enabling more people to participate in prayer services.
  3. Although large synagogues have the dimension of “b’rov am,” especially during communal singing… nevertheless, the essence of prayer, standing personally before God, is often disturbed in large congregations by mundane conversations and children playing. In this regard, small synagogues that enable quiet, focused prayer have an advantage.

We, and many like us, make great efforts to attract young adults to join us, so that we can continue praying in our “small mikdash”. We are concerned that the halakha preferring “b’rov am” will undermine our efforts to maintain the minyan in our synagogue.

We would be grateful if you could also point out the advantages of praying in veteran synagogues, in honoring the worshippers there, and continuing the prayer tradition.”

All Virtues Should be Weighed Together

A: Choosing a synagogue requires weighing all considerations; the virtue of “b’rov am” is only one of them. I will briefly summarize the main considerations for choosing a synagogue (see, Peninei Halakha: Prayer 3:4):

1) A synagogue where the worshipper can concentrate more – is preferable. 2) A place where Torah is studied, is preferable to a place where only prayer takes place. 3) Most important in this regard is that Torah classes suited to the worshipper take place there. 4) A place where the prayers follow one’s family tradition is preferable. 5) A place where prayer is treated with more respect, through silence and preventing idle chatter, is preferable. 6) A place with more worshippers is preferable.

All this is when there is a choice, but if there is only one synagogue, or an elderly person who struggles to walk to a distant synagogue, they should go to the synagogue they can reach, since the main thing is to pray with a minyan.

Adding Torah Classes to the Prayers

Regarding the question of how to maintain a synagogue whose numbers of worshippers are dwindling, perhaps it can be suggested to establish Torah classes, before and after the prayers. It is good if the learning coupled to prayer is appropriate in content and style for both young people, and women who will be sitting in the women’s section. Thanks to this, more people will come to the synagogue, and the minyan will be strengthened, in quality, and quantity. It is also worthwhile to make kiddush after Musaf prayer on Shabbat, and serve light refreshments to the worshippers and learners, as well as hold a small seudah shlishit (third meal), thus integrating the learning with the oneg (pleasure) of Shabbat treats.

In any case, by adding Torah classes, they will merit adding to the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, which is equal to all the mitzvot, whose essence, for the general public occupied daily with developing the world, is on Shabbat. As our Sages said: “Shabbat and Yom Tov were given solely to study Torah on them” (y. Shabbat 15c). Our Sages also said (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah 1): “The Holy One Blessed be He said to Israel: My sons, did I not write to you in My Torah, “You should not remove this Book of Torah from your mouths(Joshua 1:8) – even though you work all six days, you should make Shabbat full of Torah.”

For the learning to be appropriate and beneficial for the general public, it is fitting that the learning coupled to prayers, should be mainly on matters of halakha, faith, and ethics. Beyond this, it is possible to add classes of in-depth Gemara study, and additional books.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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