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Halacha of synagogue security on Shabbat


Rabbi David Sperling

Elul 20, 5776
In many places in chutz l’aretz, including here in Australia, it is common for a newcomer to a synagogue to be subject to all sorts of personal questions before being allowed into a synagogue. Strangely, none of the questions have to do with whether or not you are Jewish. If you don’t answer the questions that the volunteer wants you to answer, you will not be allowed into synagogue. (That is to say, there is no discussion - simply your reluctance to answer personal questions unrelated to your Jewishness can be grounds enough to refuse entry.) If a Jew visiting a synagogue for the first time approaches the entrance to an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat and calmly states to a Jewish volunteer security guard “I am a Jew and I have come to daven in shul. Please let me in.” Lets say in this case they ask him why he davka wants to daven and he says "I have to say kaddish for my mother" and feels uncomfortable being pressured to answer any other line of questioning other than whatever may be deemed necessary to prove his Jewishness, (but is willing to be searched for weapons) is there any justification in Jewish law to arbitrarily prevent him from attending synagogue simply because he doesn’t want to answer any other questions except those in regard to validating his claim of being a Jew? Aren’t Jews obligated to give other Jews the benefit of the doubt - even Jews we don’t know? Shouldn’t the Jewish security guard accept l’hatchila the premise that he is, in fact, talking to a Jew and be obligated by the laws pertaining to how Jews must treat other Jews (even while it may be acceptable to verify the Jew’s claimed credentials).
Shalom, Thank you for your question. There are two approaches to take in answering you – on a very practical level, and secondly, at the more theoretical halachic level. On the practical level – unfortunately we find ourselves in a world of terror and violence. In order to combat terrorist activity the local synagogues have arranged extra security measures, including the security guards you mention. Due to the real danger to life (pikuach nefesh) that exists, it is beyond any doubt that they may take any measures they see fit to protect the synagogue, including denying entry on any grounds at all. The reason they ask seemingly unrelated questions is to engage the visitor in discussion and to be able to gauge their nervousness and temperament. Unfortunately even being searched for weapons isn't going to be able to replace questioning and talking to the visitor. Weapons may be concealed; or there may be any number or scenarios where even an unarmed terrorist could be dangerous (they may be coming to "case out" the shule; they may have smuggled weapons in earlier that are waiting for them; they may be able to hide weapons on them despite the body search etc etc). So, the short practical answer to your question is – the shule has every right (and perhaps an obligation) to deny entry to anyone based on any security rules they see fit to apply. I hope that this explanation will be enough to encourage anyone wanting to come to shule to decide to put aside their own reticence to answering personal questions, and, for their own safety, as well as the safety of everyone else, help out in a polite and calm way by participating with the security guards who's job it is to protect us all. As to the basic halachic question, you may very well be correct that a Jew cannot be excluded from a community minyan for no reason. Apart from when someone is excommunicated (put in cherem), they are allowed into shule. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah, 224) rules that an even an individual who lent his house out to be used as a shule is not allowed to forbid a certain person from the community from coming to the minyan. So too a vow to forbid someone from using their place in shule does not take effect (see the Shach ibid). So, from the pure halachic point of view of the rights to use the synagogue are given to all. However, as we said above, security concerns override this. Blessings.
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