I am renovating our shul’s Beit Midrash and am purchasing new chairs. The room is also used for davening during the week and on Shabbat. The chairs have a small shelf under the seat. Is there any halacha regarding putting a chumash, for example, on this shelf? The seat is 1/2" solid wood with a 3" cushion and the shelf is about 8" below the bottom of the seat itself, and about 12" off the floor.
Shalom, Thank you for your question. The laws of respecting holy texts and books are important – and it is wonderful to see your foresight in examining this issue before buying the new chairs for the Shule. The Mishna Brurah (on the Shulchan Aruch 40, comment 13) writes “[Concerning] benches in a shule that have a draw underneath them for storing a tallit and tefillen, there are some opinions that hold that it is forbidden to sit on such seats [as one is disgracing the tefillen by sitting on top of them]. Others though permit this. However when there is a space of a “tefach” [=8cm or 3.2 inches] above the tefillen, it is certainly permitted to sit on such a bench. It is correct for a “Ba'al Nefesh” [a very righteous and strict person] to be strict in this matter [and not sit on such a bench] unless in times of great need, as tefillen require that one be very careful with their holiness. [However] if the benches are fixed into the wall [or floor] it is permitted to sit on such benches” As you can see there are various opinions. Firstly we can say that if the chairs are to be fixed in place (as in may synagogues) then all agree that there is no problem at all. However, it could be that the chairs you are looking at are free standing. If so, there are opinions that are totally permissive, and others that allow it only if there will be a space of 8cm or more from the top of the books (or tefillen) resting on the shelf to the underside of the chair where one sits. As you say the shelf is 8 inches below the seat, that being more than 20cm, even according to this stricter opinion, you would still have a good 12cm of use – I measure a siddur at about 4-5cm thick, and a nice big chumash at 6cm. So, in most cases I imagine you would be fine according to this opinion also. Another reason to be lenient is that the holiness of books (even a chumash) is less than that of tefillen – and it could be that even the strict opinion might agree in a case where we are only talking about holy books and not tefillen. As to giving a ruling (which should certainly be done by the Rabbi of the shule – if you have one) – one would need to look at what the alternatives are. If the chairs have no shelf for the chumash etc,- where will those books be placed? There is room to fear that people will end up putting them on the chair they are sitting on (which is forbidden) or on the floor (also forbidden). Or perhaps they will take up an extra chair just for their books – thus causing other people trouble to find seats etc. In all these cases the shelf option is obviously better. In summary – one may have a shelf under a chair to put holy books on. Where the chair is fixed in place, or there is a hands-breath space between the top of the books and the bottom of the chair, all opinions agree that it is permitted. Even without these factors, one has opinions to rely on to use such chairs. And whilst there are those who may want to be strict – before being strict one needs to take into consideration the overall situation, which will look at the general honour such chairs will bring to the shule and the holy books being used. Blessings.