By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The following was inspired by a true question posed to the Beis Shlomo.
Boruch went to the daf yomi shiur and learned Zevachim 87b. The Gemara questions whether the airspace above the Mizbeiach has the same sanctity as the Mizbeiach itself. The Gemara attempts to find proofs to both sides of this question, but they were ultimately rejected. Seemingly, this question remained unresolved.
Boruch was speaking with Reuven, a member of his shul, who tends to disagree with him on most issues.
Boruch: The daf really got me thinking about airspace. Our shul really needs office space. The ceilings in the main sanctuary are 20 feet high. Let’s make the back of the shul only 10 feet high and build a floor over the back part of the shul and use that for office space.
Reuven: Do you really have that much disregard for the sanctity of the shul? You will be turning sacred airspace into office space. I think the following Latin phrase is apropos: Cujus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos — literally, “To whomsoever the soil belongs, he owns also to the sky and to the depths.” When someone owns land, he owns the air rights up to the sky. The shul’s sanctity likewise extends skyward, and you cannot build an office in any of the 20 feet of airspace already designated as a shul.
Boruch: Wow, your head must really be in the clouds. First, you are quoting secular law. Second, that doctrine no longer applies. If it were true, everyone would be able to declare a no-fly zone above his own house. Admittedly, that would come in handy when you are trying to sleep in your sukkah; alas, it is no longer relevant. In 1926, the U.S. Congress passed the Air Commerce Act, which declared that the “navigable air space” of the U.S. was a public highway, open to all citizens.
Reuven: OK, so I shouldn’t have quoted antiquated secular law as a precedent. But another daf shows that you are just building castles in the sky. The Gemara (87b in Zevachim) discusses whether the airspace of the Mizbeiach (Altar) has the same sanctity as the Mizbeiach itself. In certain circumstances, if an invalid sacrifice was already placed upon the Altar, we leave it there to burn and we don’t remove it. The Gemara queries whether the same halachah would apply to sacrifices held above the Altar but not yet actually placed down. We can assume that the same way the sanctity of the Altar extends to its airspace as well, the sanctity of the synagogue applies to its airspace. How can you lessen the sanctity of that airspace by turning it into a photocopy room?
Boruch: You pulled that Gemara out of thin air. In my Gemara it’s an unresolved question. In other words, it’s left up in the air whether or not the Altar’s sanctity extends to its airspace.
Reuven: Excuse me, but first, even if the question is unresolved, we should be stringent in cases of doubt and not degrade the shul’s sanctity. Further, the Lechem Mishneh writes that the question can be resolved from other Gemaras. The Rambam does just that. So it is an accepted halachah that the Altar’s sanctity extends upward.
Boruch: You are just full of hot air. The Divrei Chaim says you got the Gemara all wrong. The Gemara never really entertained the possibility that the sanctity of the Altar extends upwards. It was obvious that it doesn’t. The real question is whether the suspended limbs are considered as if they were placed on the Altar. It’s not a matter of the Altar going up; it’s a matter of the limbs being considered down. We find this same concept elsewhere in Shas. The Biur Halachah even mentions the possibility that tefillin shel rosh that are suspended over one’s head, but not actually touching, are as if they were placed there. (He rejects this reasoning, however.)
Reuven: Let’s clear the air. I see your point. But I seem to recall that the Beis Shlomo disagrees and understood the Gemara exactly as I did.
Boruch: True. But the Beis Shlomo himself points out a big distinction between the Gemara’s case and our situation. Yes, it’s possible that the sanctity of the Altar extends upward, but that’s only as long as there is no barrier to stop it. It’s not the air itself that has sanctity; it’s the kedushah that emanates from the Mizbeiach. As long as the limbs are suspended in a direct sightline over the Altar, the Altar’s sanctity extends there. In our situation, there will be a ceiling/floor interposing between the office and the shul. There is therefore no abrogation of the synagogue’s sanctity. If there were something interposing between the sacrificial parts and the Altar, all would agree that they could still be removed. It would not be considered as if they were placed on the Altar. If you had no airs about you, you would admit that I was right.
Reuven: Please keep your voice down. There is no reason to air our dirty laundry in public. I can see how much you enjoy winning this argument. You seem to be floating on air. Still, don’t hold your nose up in the air yet. The Imrei Yosher discusses this very question and concludes that the airspace of a shul does have sanctity. He rules that you cannot build another floor in the airspace of an existing shul. So it’s time for your idea to go off-air.
Boruch: We seem to have a difference of opinion between the Beis Shlomo and the Imrei Yosher. Well, the rabbi has retired; we’ll have to ask this question to his heir.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.
The author thanks Rabbi Yosef Sebrow and talmidim Binyamin Pretter and Chaim Kazan for their assistance with this article.