Ask the Rabbi

  • Halacha
  • Church, Mosque, and Temples

Walking through a church


Rabbi David Sperling

Elul 14, 5773
Would it be permissible for a Jew to go to the top of Florence Duomo (Dome on top of the Florence Cathedral). As I understand you walk through a corner of the cathedral which has been cordoned off as a through fare to access the stairs to the top. There is a separate entrance for those wishing to climb the stairs as opposed to worshippers and the stairs are not in the sanctuary. Thanks
Shalom, Thank you for your question. In it you imply (correctly) that a Jew should not enter into a Christian church. This is found in the Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 150:1 "It is a mitzvah to distance oneself four cubits from idolatry." Even though there are various forms of Christianity, and they are not all similar in their level of idolatry – Catholicism certainly tends more in that direction than most other branches of Christianity. Except for exceptional circumstances (under rabbinic guidance), Jews refrain from entering into churches. Your question is whether one may pass through the cornered off section of the church in order to climb onto its roof. I assume this is in order to see the view. In other words, is it only forbidden to enter the church chapel, or are the whole church grounds forbidden? Let me first quote the Rambam's commentary to the Mishna in Avodah Zarah (1:4) "Because it is totally forbidden to enter a city that has within it an idol, all the more so [it is forbidden] to live there and all the more so to do business there… And therefore you should know that any city of the Christian nation (in standard editions: “any city of the nation”) that has in it an altar, that is to say, a place of their worship, which is a house of idolatry without a doubt – it is forbidden to intentionally pass through that city, and all the more so to live there. But G-d has given us over in their hands that we must live in their cities against our will, to fulfill the statement “And there you shall serve foreign gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone” (Deut. 4:8). And if this is the law regarding the city, all the more so regarding a house of idolatry itself, that it is practically forbidden for us to see it, and certainly to draw near to it, and certainly to enter it." From the Rambam, it is clear that it is not the mere entering the church that is problematic – certainly climbing to the roof and enjoying its view should be avoided. This sentiment is mirrored in a response of Rav Feinstein zt"l (Igrot Moshe, OH 4:40.26) "Regarding whether children can play ball in a hall that is connected to a church – it is definitely forbidden, even if there are no images there, for “Distance from it your ways” – this is heresy (AZ 17) – and those who would seduce and push off the path are many and are found there in great number. The opposite is what is warranted – one must teach the children to distance themselves from there, and that it is a place that is abominable and disgusting. And even if the place is needed for a yeshiva, one cannot allow it, and with more money another place can be found." There is a discussion about whether one may take a short-cut through the courtyard of a church (see Rema, Yoreh De'ah 149,2), though the halacha is that this too is forbidden (see Tsits Eliezer 14:91). In any case, the situation you ask about is more serious than just using the church grounds as a short-cut. In conclusion, one should refrain from going up to the roof of the church. (In a case of exceptional need you should contact a rabbi with the details). On my way to making Aliyah, we passed through Florence, and found many wonderful and beautiful sites to see connected with the Jewish community and its long history there. I am sure that your trip to Florence will also be a full and happy one, and that the Jewish sites will be of much interest to you. May you be blessed with a good trip, and may we merit to see you in Israel soon. Blessings.
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