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Shabbat Parashat Balak 5775

Ask The Rabbi: Stopping to Rent Out to a Shul

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I own a property that I have been renting out to a shul for years, but now I want to sell it. The members of the shul say I have no right to do it because my sale will effectively close down the shul, which is forbidden, so I must continue the rental. Are they correct? 

: We cannot get into “Choshen Mishpat” questions of when a landlord can remove a tenant from rental property (see Shulchan Aruch, CM 312). Rather, we will deal with the “Orach Chayim” questions of closing down a shul, assuming that you otherwise would be permitted to end the rental. 

First of all, under certain circumstances and conditions, one may sell a shul (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 153:6-7). One basic condition is that the decision is made in a serious manner by community leaders that the step is in the community’s best interest. In this case, the community wants to keep the shul, so we must see whether the fact that it is rented rather than owned makes a difference.

The gemara (Megilla 26a) cites the Rabbanan’s ruling that the part of town where prayers are held on public fast days lacks sanctity because praying is done there on an ad hoc basis. The Beit Yosef (OC 154) cites Mahari Ibn Chaviv as saying that the batei knesset of his time/place lacked kedusha because they are expected to be used for a limited time, secretly, until removed by the authorities. Some (including Shut Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 225, Michtam L’David OC 5) say that the critical factor in his case is the lack of even short-term security. However, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 154:2) implies that regarding any rental, where the congregation’s ongoing use of the premises depends on the landlord’s agreement, there is no kedusha (see Mishna Berura 154:4). Distinctions are made, including the duration of the rental (Mishbetzot Zahav 154:1) and whether the rental is for a set time or open-ended (see opinion cited by Piskei Teshuvot 154:2). However, all seem to agree (see Chatam Sofer, ibid.) that when the rental period is over, the status of beit knesset ceases. Poskim assume that no status of beit knesset can prevent a landlord from legally discontinuing the rental. (Admittedly, some of the sources relate to non-Jewish landlords, but some discuss Jews (including Divrei Yatziv, OC 78), and the basic sources do not distinguish.)

In certain cases, another factor arguably plays a role. The gemara (Bava Batra 26b) says that a community may not take down a shul before they secure its replacement. This is beyond the matter of kedusha, as it applies even if they are just renovating the shul for future improved use (see Mishna Berura 152:2). Rather, it is a matter of concern that the community, for a short or possibly a long time (see gemara) will be without a proper beit knesset. One might have argued that this concern should prevent a landlord from closing a shul, if there is no proper alternative.

The Mishna Berura (152:3) cites the opinion of several Acharonim that a community that rents a beit knesset may not leave the rental before securing a replacement location. They speak of the permissibility of the community’s steps, not the landlord’s. One cannot infer that there is no prohibition on the landlord because the context of this halacha’s primary source (the Eliya Rabba 152:1 in the name of the Nachalat Shiva) is of a non-Jewish landlord, who obviously has no obligation to be concerned about batei knesset. Nevertheless, since the community is obligated to search for alternatives to rental shuls, the concern need not fall on the landlord. Understand that landlords cannot evict a tenant without giving sufficient opportunity to find an alternative (Shulchan Aruch, CM 312:5). Once the community is forewarned, they are obligated to find an alternative, such as building their own shul (may be preferable) or finding another rental location.

That being said, there may be circumstances where at least the spirit of the law would require giving a community an especially long warning period to ensure their ability to find an alternative beit knesset.

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