Question: May someone who desecrates the Sabbath lead the services if he has yahrzeit? If yes, may he replace someone else who has yahrzeit?
Answer: Exodus 31:16-17 is the source for our Sabbath observance. The verses explain that Shabbat serves as a sign between G-d and the Jewish people of our uniqueness before G-d. In parshat Bereishit we see that Shabbat bears testimony to the creation since G-d abstained from creating the world on that day.
Many Jews throughout the generations have exhibited tremendous self-sacrifice to observe Shabbat. While today there are many laws to protect Sabbath observers, this was not the case generations ago. Therefore, it became de rigueur for Jews to refer to themselves with the appellation “shomer Shabbat” as opposed to, for example, “shomer Torah u’mitzvot.” Although the observance of Shabbat is just one aspect of Judaism, it is one that clearly identifies the Jew and is an unmistakable indicator of his or her level of commitment.
We examined the qualifications of a shliach tzibbur, who must be able to pronounce each letter and vowel correctly. The Mishnah Berurah explains that a shliach tzibbur must be a tzaddik ben tzaddik. However, even if one is not from a distinguished family, one may serve as a shliach tzibbur as long as he is not a tzaddik ben rasha.
We also discussed whether a Sabbath desecrator can lead prayer services. The Shulchan Aruch writes that saying a blessing over a stolen pair of tefillin is forbidden. Thus, a Sabbath desecrator leading services is not blessing G-d but blaspheming Him. We thus might classify such a tefillah as a mitzvah haba’ah be’averah.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss (Minchat Yitzhak III 26:4) suggests a more lenient approach, differentiating between various categories of mechallelei Shabbat. Authorities differ on when a hidden desecrator is considered an apostate, and when he is still considered a Jew in good standing. Ultimately, different circumstances create different rulings.
Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov, zt”l, allowed Sabbath desecrators to lead services in extenuating circumstances, such as where there are few available candidates “because at that moment, when [the mechallel Shabbat] leads the congregation, is he desecrating Shabbos?”
It follows that we cannot compare a Sabbath desecrator leading prayer services with a “mitzvah haba’ah be’averah” – e.g., saying a blessing over stolen tefillin – for when a shliach tzibbur leads services, he is not desecrating the Sabbath.
We also examined the Gemara which discusses freeing one’s slave – a prohibition – in order to make up a minyan. We compared that act to including a Sabbath desecrator in a minyan. If a slave can make up a minyan, surely a Sabbath desecrator, who is obligated in mitzvot (unlike a slave) and who is doing nothing wrong at the moment, can be part of a minyan and lead the services.
Last week, we cited the Pnei Moshe regarding someone who is in possession of stolen objects and seeks to perform mitzvot with them, and is also plagued with sin. Such an individual should not pray until he has divested himself of those sins. Similarly, our Sabbath desecrator has not repented his ways, and yet he seeks to lead the prayers. However, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein tells us that we are to look at a person’s present condition. The desecrator is presently engaged in prayer to Hashem as he seeks to benefit the neshamah of his dear departed relative.
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As we conclude this discussion, I think it is important to take into account the question of priority among people who come to a shul to pray. My esteemed colleague and Jewish Press columnist, Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen, discussed this topic on these pages a number of years ago. Rabbi Cohen’s premise is that, in certain circumstances, not all individuals can claim equal rights to lead the services. The following is a column he wrote on the topic:
“Question: Two people pray regularly in a synagogue. One attends services every Shabbat and Yom Tov but does not attend weekday services. The second person attends services during week but does not attend services on Shabbat and holidays. In the event that both have yarhrzeit on the same day, which one should be granted priority in leading the services?