Question:Twenty years ago, Reuven donated an elaborate chandelier to his synagogue, in memory of his father. The officers of the synagogue recently decided to redecorate the synagogue, and have decided that the chandelier would have to be removed since it does not fit in with the new decor. Reuven objects to its removal, since he feels that the chandelier is a merit to the Neshama (soul) of his father.
Do the officers have the right to remove the chandelier over Reuven’s objections?
What is the Halacha?
- If it is not public knowledge that Reuven had donated the chandelier, and Reuven’s name is not written on the chandelier, it is permitted for the officers to remove it over Reuven’s objections, even though they will have no further use for it.
- The authority to make the decision to remove a donated item is in the hands of the congregants or officers of the synagogue. They may make this decision based on a majority vote. However, a single Gabai (officer) has no authority to make such a decision unless he has been specifically charged by the congregants to be the sole arbiter in the above situation.
- If Reuven had stipulated at the time that he had donated the chandelier that he is doing so on condition that the synagogue never remove it or replace it with another one, and the synagogue accepted this condition, they have no right to remove it.
- If Reuven had made no such stipulation, but the chandelier has a plaque attached to it that states that it was donated by Reuven in memory of his father, the synagogue has no right to remove it and dispose of it, or use it for non-Mitzvah purposes. However they may sell it and use the money received for a Mitzvah, or move it to another location in the synagogue even though it may not be as noticeable as it was before it was moved.
Sources:The Gemara in Eiruchin (6b) states that if someone has donated a lantern to a synagogue, the officers of the synagogue can not change its use to non-Mitzvah purposes unless people have forgotten who the donor was. However, they may decide to change it’s use from what the donor had originally intended, as long as it will be used for a Mitzvah. This is true even though people are aware of who had donated the lantern, and the donor objects to the actions of the synagogue officials.
The reason why the officers of the synagogue have the authority to change its use is because, generally speaking, when something is donated to an organization, the understanding is that the officers and membership will decide to use it in the way that they consider best suited for the organization’s purposes. This Din is stated in the Rambam (Hilchos Matnos Ani’im 8:6) and in the Shulchan Oruch (Yoreh De’ah 259:3). See the Shach there (11) who discusses whether they can use it for a Mitzvah need that is not as important as synagogue use. Also see Shulchan Oruch Yoreh De’ah 256:4 and the Shach there (8).
However, if people no longer associate this item with the donor, and there is no plaque on the item stating who had donated it [even if it states who it was donated in memory of, but does not state the name of the donor], it would be permitted for three officers or the majority of congregants to decide to sell this item even though the money will be used for non-Mitzvah purposes, or to dispose of it entirely. This is stated in the Mishna Berura (153:56) and in other places in the Shulchan Oruch.
The Mishna Berura adds there in the Biur Halacha (153:7, D”H V’Hu HaDin) that the Yerushalmi states that if the congregants had elected three (or more) officers to take care of synagogue needs, these officers have the status of “Seven Community Leaders” (Zayin Tuvei HaIr) in relation to this congregation. This gives them the power to remove the Kedusha (holiness) of synagogue items, and sometimes even of the synagogue itself, and sell them for non-Mitzvah purposes. The Biur Halacha there also quotes the Chasam Sofer and other Poskim that a majority vote is sufficient in determining such matters, and a unanimous vote is not required. However, even a communal majority vote has no power to override the individual rights of a property owner.
Therefore, if the donor specifically stipulated at the time of the donation that he retains all rights in determining how the donated item is to be used, no one has any right to remove it or use it for another purpose if the donor objects, even if the new purpose would seem to be more important. This is clearly stated in the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 259:2). Once the synagogue has accepted his donation, they also accept the donor’s conditions and are bound by them.
This class is translated and moderated by Rabbi Aaron Tendler of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. Rabbi Tendler accepts full responsibility for the accuracy of the translation and will be happy to fax originals of the articles in Hebrew to anyone interested.
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Please Note: The purpose of this column is to make people aware of Choshen Mishpat situations that can arise at any time, and the Halachic concepts that may be used to resolve them. Each individual situation must be resolved by an objective, competent Bais Din (or Rabbinic Arbitrator) in the presence of all parties involved!