By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
A vexing question that plagues many is how to choose a shul. Some say that the most important aspect of a shul is available parking. After all, if you can’t park there, how can you daven there? Others look to the shul building itself. Is it an edifice that one would be proud to call their shul? Then people turn to the rabbi — is he a top-rate comedian? Does he have a firm handshake? How large is his beard?
Then things get more serious. Does the shul have tables or shtenders? Does the shul employ babysitters? Can I drop off my kids and then leave the premises? Do Shabbos groups last all day long? What does the average Kiddush consist of? Is there hot food and sushi every week? How old is the scotch? What type of meat do they put into the cholent? Does it cost anything to join the Kiddush Club? What type of refreshments is there on Shavuos night? How does the shul mishloach manos rate?
Suppose more than one shul fits all of your criteria. Is there any way to pick which one to attend? The Shulchan Aruch stresses the importance of attending shul (O.C. 90:11): “One who has a synagogue in his city and does not enter it to pray is called a bad neighbor, and one who causes exile for himself and his children.”
The Magen Avraham comments, “If someone has two shuls in his city, he should attend the one that is farther, because he gets a mitzvah for each footstep he takes.” The source for the Magen Avraham’s ruling is a Gemara in Sotah (22a).
Rebbe Yochanan commented that we can learn all about reward from a widow. There was a widow who used to come to the beis midrash of Rebbe Yochanan to daven. Rebbe Yochanan asked her, “Why do you come all the way here? There is a shul right near your house!” The widow replied, “Is there not a reward for each additional footstep?”
The Magen Avraham concludes from this story that there is a mitzvah to attend a shul that is farther away. Besides the reward for davening, the attendee garners additional reward for the travel time. However, the poskim say that this special z’chus for the additional steps only applies to walking — not taking a bus, train, or car.
The Sefer Geza Yishai takes exception to the Magen Avraham’s ruling. There is a well-known dictum that you cannot pass over one mitzvah to do another. For example, men make sure that in the morning when they put their hand into their tallis bag, they reach their tallis first. One should ideally put on his tallis before his tefillin; but reaching over the tefillin to grab the tallis is improper. This violates the rule of not passing over mitzvos — in this case, the tefillin. To eliminate this issue, the day before, one puts away his tallis in his bag last, in a way that he will reach it first the following morning.
The Magen Avraham seems to say his ruling applies in all cases, even in a situation where one will have to pass by a shul that is closer to reach the shul that is farther away, which is seemingly a situation of passing over a mitzvah. Therefore, the Geza Yishai disagrees and says one should daven in the first shul that he passes.
However, the Gemara in Sotah is problematic according to the Geza Yishai. Rebbe Yochanan indicated that the almanah was correct in praying in his beis midrash even though she was passing a shul that was right near her house. The Mincha Chareiva explains that it was a hiddur mitzvah to daven in the beis midrash where so much learning took place daily. The intense Torah study added to the holiness of the place and it consequently elevated the prayers that were uttered there.
According to this logic, one may pass over a mitzvah in order to perform the same mitzvah in a choicer way later. For example, one may pass over an inferior lulav-and-esrog set in order to reach one that is more beautiful. It is a common custom that men do not say Kiddush Levanah during the week but wait to say it on motzaei Shabbos when they are dressed in Shabbos clothing. They delay the mitzvah of Kiddush Levanah in order to perform it in a nicer way later.
However, the Gra notably disagreed, and ruled that one should recite Kiddush Levanah at the earliest opportunity, even without a minyan or being adorned in Shabbos clothing. So according to this logic, one should not pass over a mitzvah unless he can perform that exact mitzvah in a nicer way later.
The Levushei Mordechai defended the Magen Avraham based on a Tosfos in Zevachim (51a). Tosfos says the concept of not passing over a mitzvah only applies when one is faced with a dilemma of which mitzvah to do first, such as tallis and tefillin. However, if the question is regarding only one mitzvah, but where or how to do it, one is free to choose whichever option he desires.
Therefore, one may pass over a lulav-and-esrog set and use another one even if the second one is not nicer. So in the case of two shuls, there is only one mitzvah of prayer; the question is only which shul to daven in, so the supplicant may choose any shul that he wants to daven in. Once one is free to choose whichever shul he may daven in, the Magen Avraham rules he should choose to daven in the farther one. In this way, he will garner more reward for his additional footsteps. If one already has a makom kavuah for davening, he should continue to daven in his makom kavuah.
Still, for some reason the poskim do not give guidance about the earlier issues, such as which is more important in a shul Kiddush — the type of meat in the cholent or the quality of the bourbon?
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.