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QUESTION: What are the requirements for a sheliach tzibbur? May someone who desecrates the Sabbath lead the services?
C.M. Siegel
Rockland, NY
ANSWER:We discussed the importance of the Sabbath and its centrality in Judaism as well as the Jewish people’s love for and awe of the Sabbath, which are legendary. Tremendous self-sacrifices were made in honor of our Shabbat. We continued with the Biblical commandment to observe the Sabbath and its relevance to choosing a sheliach tzibbur.Last week we listed some well-known qualities of and requirements for someone who leads services, as they appear in Yitzchak “Izzy” Broker’s booklet, “To Stand Before Hashem: How To Lead The Prayers.”
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My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt’l, whose yahrzeit is on the 10th of Shevat, noted that he would include a mechallel Shabbat in a minyan (a quorum of ten) but he was not comfortable with such a person leading the services. To shed some light on his view, he referred me to the She’elot U’teshuvot HaBach (the classic work of the Bach, the author of Bayit Chadash – R. Yoel Sirkis), where we find the following actual case discussion in the very first responsum (Orach Chayyim):
If an individual stole or seized bread from his fellow man, may he say the benediction of Hamotzi prior to eating it or the Birkat Hamazon after consuming it?
After a lengthy discussion of the issues, he rules that such an individual may not make a blessing before eating the bread because he did not acquire it with any shinui (change in the bread’s essence) but he may make a blessing after consuming it, as there is no greater shinui than its being consumed – though he must pay for what he took.
He cites the Gemara (Bava Kamma 94a, Perek Hagozel Etzim), where we find the statement of R. Eliezer b. Yaakov who asks: if one misappropriated a se’ah of wheat, kneaded it, baked it, and set aside a portion of it as challah, how would he be able to recite a blessing on it?This surely is not considered a blessing but rather a blasphemy, as the verse states, “. . . u[b]otze’a berech, ni’etz Hashem – … and the brazen robber pronounces a benediction but in fact he blasphemes Hashem” (Psalms 10:3).
The Bach seems to imply that even one who has made a substantial change in the item, causing him to acquire it, is still one who blasphemes Hashem. Thus, we may be able to apply this concept to a Sabbath desecrator who leads the services.
The rule regarding blessings over a stolen item is found in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 25:12, Hilchot Tefillin), where R. Yosef Caro states that one may not recite the blessings on tefillin if the tefillin were stolen. The Mishna Berura (ad loc. 25:54) refers to this as ‘mitzva haba’ah be’avera,’ a precept fulfilled through the violation of a prohibition. As the verse states (Psalms 10:3), such a person is not blessing Hashem, but engaging in blasphemy.
Similarly, this applies to the mitzva of lulav, the Four Species used on Sukkot, where the first Mishna in Perek Lulav Hagazul (Sukka 29b) states that in the event one steals a lulav to accomplish the mitzva, the lulav becomes disqualified for him and he may not use it.
Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Gazul) explains that the lulav would not be valid because the verse (Leviticus 24:3) states, “U’lekachtem lachem… – You shall take for yourselves…” (it has to belong to you).
The Gemara in its discussion specifies that this is the halacha for the first day of Sukkot (the first two days in the diaspora), for the verse continues, “… bayom harishon… – … on the first day… [of Sukkot].” However, on the remaining days of Sukkot, on which the obligation is Rabbinical, a stolen lulav would be invalid on the grounds that it would serve a mitzva haba’ah be’avera.
The above ruling follows the opinion of R. Shimon b. Yochai. However, Shemuel rules that since it is only a Rabbinical obligation, it is not considered a mitzva haba’ah be’avera.
According to the view of R. Shimon b. Yochai, we might similarly assume that if one who desecrates the Sabbath is leading the services, he is not blessing Hashem but rather blaspheming Hashem. We thus might classify such a tefilla as a mitzva haba’ah be’avera.
The Gaon R. Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss (Minchat Yitzhak III 26:4) discusses Sabbath desecrators in a responsum addressed to Rabbi Aharon Westheim of Paris, who had noted the following in his question:
“There are many different categories of mechallelei Shabbat.
“There are some who are completely unaware that there is a prohibition to do any labor on the Sabbath, especially regarding hotza’a [carrying from one domain to another].
“There are others who have heard of the prohibition against doing any sort of labor on the Sabbath, but are completely unaware of the gravity of the situation, especially in regard to such labors as turning on an electric switch or carrying. Many of the masses do not understand what type of labor is involved [note: assuming that if it is effortless, it is not considered labor].”
Rabbi Westheim suggests that we might compare this to the Gemara (Shabbos 69a), where R. Yochanan addresses the case of shegaga, the accidental violation of the Sabbath. R. Yochanan states that if one erred as to its karet punishment, even though he sinned intentionally regarding its lav (the prohibitory commandment), he would not be liable.
“There is another type of individual who is knowledgeable about the entire matter of hotza’a. However, due to his conceit and obstinacy, he continues to carry on the Sabbath, ignoring all reprimands in this regard.
“There are still others who, even while aware of the transgression, attempt to conceal their desecration of the Sabbath from others. The Gemara (Erubin 69a) refers to one who was carrying a jewel on the Sabbath, but when he saw R. Judah the Prince he sought to conceal it. R. Judah considered such a person to be a Jew in good standing, and not a mummar, an apostate.”
R. Westheim then asks what the rule would be regarding all the above categories of Sabbath desecrators when it comes to letting them touch wine, including them in a minyan, and allowing them to serve as a sheliach tzibbur, as well as similar situations.
In his response R. Weiss notes that some rule leniently in this regard while others rule more stringently. Referring to the case mentioned in Tractate Erubin, we find that we do not consider one to be a flagrant Sabbath desecrator unless he does not hide from the Nassi, lit. Rabbi Judah the Prince – but actually any sage (Tosefot Shabbat 385, citing Torat Chayyim). However, if he attempts to hide his transgressions from the Nassi (any sage), we refer to him as a hidden desecrator.
R. Weiss proceeds to say that he has seen a different opinion in Darchei Teshuva (Yoreh De’ah 119:34), who cites the Taharat Yisrael to the effect that this only refers to one who violates a Rabbinical law; but if a Biblical law is violated, and ten individuals know about it, he would be considered a public desecrator of the Sabbath.
There are two teshuvot of the Gaon R. Moshe Stern, zt’l, in his Responsa Ba’er Moshe (Vol. 5:94) regarding a mohel who is a mechallel Shabbat lete’avon (to satisfy his desire), but exhibits other Jewish traits, such as donning tefillin, allowing his sons to be circumcised, and praying in the synagogue. Due to the importance of milah in its proper time, it is permitted to allow him to perform circumcisions. However, if his violation of the Sabbath is intentional and he is not seen to observe any other mitzvot, then it is better to delay the circumcision for a day in order to find another mohel to perform the circumcision.
R. Stern qualifies this by stating that the above ruling was issued in the Hungarian city of Debrecen, where the rav and the congregation were regulated closely by the state authorities. However, in places such as the U.S., where we are free to accept or reject whomever we wish, there is no reason to be lenient.
Thus we see that different circumstances tend to create different rulings.
Indeed, we find R. Sternbuch’s decision (Teshuvot Ve’Hanhagot Vol. I, Yoreh De’ah 474) regarding a remote community where, due to an emergency, there was only a choice between two men to lead the services: a kohen who was a Shomer Shabbat but who lived with a gentile woman (she did not convert because, as a kohen, he would not be able to marry her in any event) and a blatant Sabbath desecrator. R. Sternbuch’s opinion was that, as a last resort, the Sabbath desecrator was preferable, for at least this does not directly lead to Jews intermarrying. Yet he adds, ‘Woe to us that we have sinned so much that we have to deal with such questions.’
Similarly, I recently heard that R. Chodokov, who was the longtime secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt’l, said in a speech at a Shluchim convention that he would permit a Sabbath desecrator to lead services in extenuating circumstances, such as the American heartland, ‘because at that moment, when he leads a congregation, is he desecrating the Shabbat?’
In analyzing the theory of mitzva haba’ah be’avera in light of R. Chodokov’s statement, we cannot compare the aforesaid sheliach tzibbur with one who, for example, steals tefillin and now wishes to fulfill a mitzva with this stolen object. When the sheliach tzibbur is leading the services, he is not in the act of desecrating the Sabbath.
My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, was only reluctant about a Sabbath desecrator leading the services, but as far as joining the quorum, he steadfastly felt that we must extend our hand to those who come to the synagogue to pray, as that in itself is a sign of their good intentions. Indeed now, especially during the period of his yahrzeit, we apply that which we learn in Tractate Yevamot (97a), “The lips of a [deceased] scholar, in whose name a traditional statement is reported in this world, move gently in the grave (siftotav dovevot ba’kever).”
In conclusion, if there is a minyan of yere’ei shamayim, it is far better to choose an individual with an undistinguished voice who is free of taint in order to lead the prayer services than a Sabbath desecrator who may possess a fine voice.

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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