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Q & A: Moment Of Silence

QUESTION: I saw an item recently in the Jewish Press where a group of rabbis met with elected officials to promote a ‘Moment of Silence’ in public schools. What is the halachic basis for this type of prayer?
Shlomo Feivelson
Coconut Creek, FL
 
ANSWER: We had actually discussed this some time back, but due to its relevance today, especially when so many of our own Jewish children of recently immigrated families are found in public schools, it is timely to discuss it again.

The rabbis mentioned in that article are the Rabbinical Alliance of America, Igud Horabonim, under its President, Rabbi Abraham Hecht, and Director, Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, and its Special Commission for a Moment of Silence, chaired by Rabbi Noach Bernstein. The Igud has demonstrated a very proactive involvement in the promotion of this idea – a moment of silence in all public schools across the country.

Surely we know that a Jew must pray three times daily, as we find in the Talmud (Berachot 26b). We also find that the halacha relates to the non-Jew as well.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a) teaches us that the sons of Noah were commanded seven precepts, known as the Noachide Laws (sheva mitzvot Bnei Noach). The source for these seven laws is a pasuk in Bereishit (2:16), ‘Va’yetzav Hashem Elokim al ha’adam le’mor, ‘Mikol etz hagan achol tocheil,’ And G-d commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat?.? Through exegesis via ancillary verses in Bereishit, Vayikra, Shemot and Jeremiah (see full text in Sanhedrin, ibid.), these laws are defined as consisting of six negative precepts, i.e., the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, incestuous relationships (except for a betrothed maiden – na’arah hame’orasah – who is permitted to them; see Rashi), theft, and eating from a living animal (ever min hachai), as well as one positive precept, the injunction to establish courts of law.

Who has to observe these seven laws? All the people in the world, since they are the descendants of Noah, with the exception of the Jewish nation. Jews have to observe the 613 commandments they were given, as well as halachot leMoshe miSinai, the laws handed down from generation to generation that were given at Sinai as well, and mitzvot deRabbanan, the Rabbinic laws that were enacted for various reasons over the generations, mostly to strengthen observance through safeguards (lit. ‘asu syag, they created a fence’).

Over the course of time the Noachide Laws were forgotten by the nations of the world and they began to worship differently. Although we are well aware that the only true path consists of the Torah for the Jews and the Noachide Laws for non-Jews, we were taught to live peacefully with other nations. We have sought to do so during the long years of our exile and dispersal. America alone has stood out as a shining light during those dark years. Thus, when the founding fathers of this great Republic established the principle of separation between church and state, the United States became a haven for many persecuted people, including the Jews. Soon other democracies of the world emulated the American formula of equality, but they always had an official state religion (e.g. England, France, etc.).

When we come to deal with prayer in public schools, numerous problems arise. From the prohibitive Noachide commandments not to worship idols, we might have inferred the positive commandment to worship G-d (even though the rule ‘Mik’lal lav ata shome’a hen, from the negative you imply the positive,’ does not apply in this case, since only the seven Noachide Laws are mentioned in Tractate Sanhedrin). Thus we might see here in the United States, as well as in other countries where Jews and gentiles live near each other, a common ground and possibly a need, especially in light of the decay of morality today, to pray to G-d. One might therefore think that there is an easy answer: Let us have a daily ‘non-denominational’ prayer in public schools, so that we can at least inject a modicum of morality in the population at a young age. But the matter is all but simple.

Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, dealt with this question in his Igrot Moshe (Orach Chayyim, chelek 2, siman 24). He first discusses whether a Ben Noach has an obligation to pray, and notes that prayer is not included in the seven Noachide Laws enumerated in Tractate Sanhedrin, nor is it mentioned by the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim ch. 9) among the mitzvot incumbent upon Bnei Noach. But he separates the concept of incumbency or chiyyuv from the idea of sachar, the reward earned for a good deed where there is no obligation to do it.

He cites a pasuk from Isaiah (56:7), ‘Ki [B]eiti beit tefillah yikarei lechol ha’amim, for My house (i.e., the Beit Hamikdash) shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ Rashi ad loc. remarks that this means [that the Temple will serve as a house of prayer] not for Jews only. Rav Feinstein notes that the pasuk cannot refer to proselytes since they are considered as Jews in all matters. Consequently, it must refer to gentiles, Bnei Noach, who while exempt from prayer, nevertheless earn a merit when they do pray to G-d.

He further elaborates that any objection raised to the fact that a Ben Noach is not supposed to create new mitzvot ? which would not be permissible – does not apply to a situation when he prays to G-d because of a need, such as for the well-being of a sick person or for sustenance. In such a case it is incumbent upon him to pray, since the fundamental principle of the Noachide Laws is belief in G-d and by praying for a specific need the Ben Noach manifests his trust in G-d as the source and provider of his needs. Were he not to pray in such a situation, it would show that he does not believe in G-d, for the Noachide Laws are predicated on the belief that G-d commanded them.

After an ensuing discussion concerning prayer in the public schools (a practice in effect but contested at the time), Rav Feinstein concludes that we should not involve ourselves or be proactive in that matter (‘al ta’aseh adif’).

A novel approach to this question was taken by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, in a talk delivered during a farbrengen on Simchat Torah 5746 (1985) [see also Sichot in English, vol. 21, pp. 290-300, and vol. 8, pp. 198-202]. He advocated a ‘moment of silence,’ which would not violate the principle of separation of religion and state and, at the same time, would not expose Jewish children in public schools to a text that might be questionable. It would, however, require parents to explain to their children the objective of this ‘moment of silence,’ which, he stressed, would have to take place at the start of the school day, when the children are not yet distracted by other matters. He assumed that there are many parents, Jews and gentiles alike, who want their children to grow up to be responsible human beings, and that a ‘moment of silence’ was the ‘last great hope’ to achieve this.

We hope that by discussing this matter – which, admittedly, still leaves many questions unresolved – we will have earned merit, as we do for all Torah study, and will witness the arrival of Moshiach speedily in our days.

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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