Yesterday, we noted the prohibition introduced by the Torah in the beginning of Parashat Shoftim (16:21) forbidding planting trees on the Temple Mount (according to Rashi’s explanation), or in the courtyard of the Beit Ha-mikdash (according to the Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 6:9). A number of halakhic authorities addressed the question of whether this prohibition applies also to synagogues, such that it would be forbidden to plant trees in the yards of synagogues. The Shulchan Arukh makes no mention of such a prohibition, and thus several poskim – including Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, in Binyan Tziyon (9), and Netziv, in Meishiv Davar (14) – ruled that this is entirely permissible. Netziv explains that we do not have the authority to introduce new prohibitions that are not mentioned in the Talmud or Shulchan Arukh.
Moreover, the Magen Avraham (O.C. 154:1) cites a responsum of the Maharit addressing the halakhic status of gardens and orchards that in many communities were situated in the area just outside the synagogue. The Maharit ruled that these areas do not have the status of kedushat beit ha-kenesset – the halakhic sanctity of a synagogue – and thus may be used for mundane purposes. This would certainly imply that there is no prohibition against planting trees in the area outside a synagogue.
However, Rav David Menachem Babad of Tarnopol, in his Chavatzelet Ha-sharon (Mahadura Tinyana, 62), rules that planting trees in synagogue courtyards is forbidden. He notes that several Rishonim – including the Rambam (in the aforementioned ruling) and the Sefer Ha-chinukh (505) – explain that planting trees in the area of the Beit Ha-mikdash is forbidden because the ancient pagans used to plant trees to adorn their temples. If so, Rav Babad writes, then in Europe, too, where trees were customarily planted outside churches, it would be forbidden to plant trees in the area outside a synagogue. Rav Babad pointed to the fact that synagogues in his area normally did not have trees in the yard as evidence that this was presumed to be improper. He adds that the Maharit lived among Moslems, and therefore in his area, Jews permitted gardens and orchards outside synagogues, as this was not the practice of the local gentiles. Hence, the Maharit’s discussion cannot be used as a basis to permit trees outside synagogues in Christian lands.
This was also the position of the Maharam Shick, in one of his responsa (78), who noted the Gemara’s famous remark in Masekhet Megilla (29a) that synagogues and study halls have the status of “mikdash me’at” – a quasi-Beit Ha-mikdash. As such, the Maharam Shick contended, just as planting trees in the area outside the Beit Ha-mikdash is forbidden, it is likewise prohibited to plant trees in the area outside a synagogue.
One of the proofs brought against the stringent position is the fact that if we extend this prohibition to synagogues, then it would, seemingly, be forbidden to have any wooden structures inside a synagogue, such as tables and benches. As we saw yesterday, the prohibition against planting trees includes also a prohibition against building wooden structures in the area around the Temple. The fact that no source forbids wooden structures inside a synagogue would seem to prove that this prohibition is limited to the Beit Ha-mikdash, and does not apply to synagogues. The Maharam Shick refutes this argument based on the comment of the Maharal, in his Gur Aryeh, that planting trees near the altar is prohibited because this would imply some degree of equivalence between the altar and trees. Having a sacred structure stand alongside a mundane structure gives the impression that the two are somehow equated, and thus the Torah forbade planting trees near the altar. If so, the Maharam Shick noted, then we clearly understand that wooden structures used for serving God – such as the benches and tables in the synagogue – are entirely permissible, whereas decorative trees and vegetation just outside the synagogue, which serve no inherently sacred function, would be forbidden.
Moreover, the Maharam Shick adds that according to the Rambam in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (6:10), even in the Temple courtyard, building wooden structures is forbidden only by force of rabbinic enactment. The Torah prohibition applies only to planting trees in the area of the Mikdash, whereas the prohibition against building wooden structures was enacted by Chazal. Therefore, it is possible that Chazal extended the Torah prohibition against planting trees to synagogues, but did not go so far as to extend the rabbinic prohibition against wooden structures to synagogues.
The Maharam Shick noted also the practical concerns that planting a garden outside a synagogue would attract loiterers (“yoshevei keranot”), which would be improper, and could also lead to inappropriate socializing outside the synagogue.
In practice, of course, it is commonly accepted to allow planting trees outside synagogues, and this is the ruling of Rav Ovadya Yosef (see Rav David Yosef’s Halacha Berura, vol. 7, p. 306).