One of the more intriguing phenomena in Jewish history was the bamah. A bamah was an altar built for sacrificial purposes. An official bamah was constructed as part of the Mishkan, which functioned as the Jews wandered in the desert and was known as the Mizbei’ach. It had the status of a bamah g’dolah, a major altar. The same is true of the bamah g’dolah in the sanctuary of the Beis HaMikdash.
Once the Mishkan was no longer operational, following the 369 active years of the Mishkan in Shiloh, banos K’tanos (or minor altars), were permitted. Any Jew could set up his own bamah in his backyard and offer most private sacrifices there. Once the Beis HaMikdash was built by King Solomon, all private bamos became prohibited. No more backyard services.
The phenomenon of bamos, however, remained a thorn in the eyes of Jewish leadership and in the eyes of Hashem for years. Many kings tried in vain to abolish the practice, while other kings unfortunately encouraged the practice. In M’lachim (II Kings 18:3-4) we read of Chizkiyah the son of Achaz: “He did what was proper in the eyes of Hashem just as his forefather David had done. He removed the bamos, shattered the pillars, cut down the Asheirah-trees…”
I always wondered: What was the yeitzer ha’ra, the forbidden lure, of having a bamah? Isn’t it somewhat laudable that someone wants to serve Hashem and offer sacrifices in his own backyard?
In recent times, the troubling aspect of the bamah has become clear. When there was little choice to serve Hashem in official ways, when the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash was no longer standing, a bamah was the only option to serve Hashem properly. However, if the Beis HaMikdash or Mishkan was standing, then it necessitated the individual to get real about his service of Hashem and join the community in public worship. The comforts of the backyard will have to be forfeited for the benefit of the community and the true worship of G-d.
I don’t think it takes much imagination to see the parallels to today’s situation. Last year, during the height of COVID, once it was safe to do so, backyard or outdoor minyanim became an unfortunate necessity. Many people generously offered their private property to create “lawn minyanim.” I attended one for Minchah on Shabbos afternoon, before our shul opened safely.
But what was then an emergency situation gradually became the new normal, a “l’chatchilah.” Slowly, people began to like the new situation. No big walks to shul. No rabbis’ speeches. No appeals. No long davenings. Leining became a lot quicker. Everything was cool and easy. Who needed the bamah g’dolah. We now have a bamah k’tanah in our own backyards! And we have the still existent COVID pandemic to cover for us.
I am not saying that people have no reason to still be concerned about COVID. Our shul is probably the most aggressive in COVID safety protocols. But let’s not fool ourselves: Lawn minyanim are popular because they are convenient and comfortable. Many people who go to work every day in cramped offices or who shop in all kinds of stores are patronizing lawn minyanim. Be honest!
Yesterday, I heard of a certain rav who asked a member when he and his friends would be returning to shul. The answer the rav received was that the lawn minyan is just waiting to stock up on the high-end scotch whiskeys, which they will serve every Shabbos at kiddush. What a bamah!
The Orthodox Union is to be commended for offering shuls up to a $5,000 grant for creating programs to get their membership to return to the synagogue. But it is unfortunate that it came to needing an enticement to get the job done.
The lawn minyanim are not unique to Queens. They are a national and even international problem. They are also a disaster in the making. Kids will grow up with having no connection to a rav. Adults will have no sense of community. Tolerance for a d’var Torah or davening with a bit more kavanah will be down the tubes. Only by the bar mitzvah, aufruf, sheva brachos, or non-joyous occasion will the parents suddenly realize that they need that shul/rav connection. In the meantime, the established shuls suffer the loss of membership. I am sure that each one of you is glad that “someone out there” is maintaining the shuls. It would be a shame if it were not being done. Just glad it’s not you.
It’s great to roll into your neighbor’s lawn and come and go as you please. But the long-term implications are immense. Realize for a moment, if you were in the times of the N’viim (prophets) and the righteous kings, you would be in their target sights for your backyard bamah. That is not a comforting thought.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.