Kissing children, and adults, in a shul

A shul is meant to be a place where we are in communion with God and where we nurture our awareness of standing in the presence of God. Given this, R’ Binyamin Ze’ev Marta (1475-1545), basing himself on Sefer Aguda and the Kol Bo, states that a person should not kiss their children in a shul as a proclamation – להודיע – that the love of a child is not the same as the love of God.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles cites this ruling almost verbatim in his Darchei Moshe commentary to the Tur in the section addressing the laws of prayer. However, unlike the Binyamin Ze’ev who writes this as something that a person should not do, the Darchei Moshe uses the forceful term ואסור – meaning that in his opinion this is a prohibition.

Significantly, the entire premise of this statement is somewhat problematic since what is being claimed is that by not doing something – in this case not kissing your child – you are actively proclaiming something, namely that your love of your child is not the same as the love of God.

However, it is when codifying this rule in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch that the Rema makes two further changes in how he renders this halacha. Firstly he adds the term הקטנים, meaning that he seems to now narrow this rule to younger children whom a parent may kiss, and this then becomes a point of contention in later halachic works.

But in addition to this, he amends the reason for doing so. Rather than what he cites in the Darchei Moshe that this so-called prohibition is in order to proclaim a message to others, the Rema now explains that this is in order לקבוע בלבו שאין אהבה כאהבת המקום – to affix in one’s heart the notion that there is no love like the love of God.

This amendment appears to carry with it two key messages. Firstly, the phraseology of the Binyamin Ze’ev and the Darchei Moshe concern what others deduce from your behavior, while the phrasing in the Rema’s gloss concerns the feelings and attitude of the individual themselves.

Secondly, while the former seeks to distinguish between your love of your child and your love of your God, the latter is more emphatic, stating that any comparison is essentially improper, even if they differ qualitatively and quantitatively.

 

Both of these are significant shift which, to my knowledge, no one has directly addressed. However, as I hope to explain, this dissonance gets to the root of what I believe this sentiment, if not halacha, is all about.

For at least three centuries after the Rema’s initial ruling, it seems that there was limited discussion about this rule especially within Ashkenazi communities to whom it was most particularly directed. However, from the late 19th century a number of questions were raised in relation to the boundaries of this rule. For example, in his Responsa Pnei Meivin (Yoreh Deah 186 section 2) Rav Netanel Fried (1857-1914) addressed the question of whether an adult may kiss another adult in a synagogue as an expression of respect such as their father or teacher. Initially he suggests that no distinction should be drawn and that the only love that should be shown in a shul should be towards God, while also adding that the Rema merely discussed the case of young children because of its frequency. Significantly, this too is the position of Rav Kook as stated in his Orach Mishpat No. 22 in a responsum from 1922.

However, Rav Netanel Fried then offers an alternative approach, writing that while it is forbidden to kiss your child as an expression of love, perhaps it is permitted to kiss a teacher or parent as an expression of respect.

In a similar spirit, Rabbi Avraham Yaffe-Schlesinger, in an article published in the HaMaor rabbinical magazine (May-June 1980), also distinguishes between expressions of love and respect while citing a number of Talmudic references in support of this thesis where a student kissed their teacher or a child their parent. But where do we draw a line?

Significantly, many North African communities had the custom of kissing those who have received an Aliyah LaTorah, and in his Responsa Yechaveh Da’at (Vol. 4 No. 12), Rav Ovadia Yosef is called on to discuss the propriety of this custom.

Though he acknowledges and validates the custom of kissing one’s parent or teacher which he believes purely reflects a feeling of respect, Rav Ovadia disagrees with this North African custom which he understands to express the type of affection which the Rema and others wish to challenge.

As Rav Ovadia explains, a person is obliged to honour their parent and their teacher. Consequently, the gesture of kissing them in a shul is, to his mind, an expression of the duty of respect. However, any gesture of kissing anyone else – whom the Torah does not require us to respect – must therefore be rooted in a feeling of affection and is therefore prohibited.

However, Rav Ben Zion Uziel (in his Or LeTzion Vol. 2 Ch. 45) and Rav Shalom Mesas (Responsa Shemesh UMagen 39) disagree to this overly legalistic interpretation of human gestures, and it is through their response where we see both a defense of this custom and a contextual interpretation of the halacha.

In terms of Rav Mesas, he explains that the context of the kissing, being in response to an Aliyah LaTorah, shows that this is an expression of respect – whether or not the Oleh is a parent, teacher or friend. Simply put, Rav Mesas believes that just because a person is not commanded to respect another, it is still possible that a kiss offered to them is an expression of respect.

Rav Uziel goes further and suggests that even a mere kiss between friends as part of a Shabbat Shalom blessing is still within the confines of respect and not love.

Naturally, some may question the logic of this ruling by R’ Uziel. However, I think it all depends on the initial rationale as cited by the Rema.

As noted, the source of this ruling was the Binyamin Ze’ev who stated that one should avoid kissing one’s child to proclaim that the love of a child is not the same as the love of God. Based on this logic, there is no reason to presume that kissing a friend while wishing them a Shabbat Shalom or after they have received an Aliyah LaTorah would imply that someone is equating the type of love they have for their friend with the love that they have for God.

However, if we take the reasoning offered by the Rema who wrote in his gloss that this is forbidden in order לקבוע בלבו שאין אהבה כאהבת המקום – to affix in one’s heart the notion that there is no love like the love of God, then perhaps greater stricture is required. Nevertheless, it could still be argued that the context and setting of the kiss still supports the hierarchy of love that the Rema wishes us to nurture in our hearts.

However, I believe there is a final source which both defends the common practice where many men, and many women, kiss each other Shabbat Shalom in shul, while also explaining how doing so does not conflict with the sentiment expressed by the Binyamin Ze’ev and the Rema.

The Gemara Yoma 86a states: “It was taught in a baraita that it is stated: “And you shall love the Lord your God” (Devarim 6:5), which means that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved. This means that one should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and his dealing with people should be conducted in a pleasant manner. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds. The verse states about him and others like him: “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Yeshayahu 49:3).

What we learn from this, and particularly from the phrase ויהא משאו ומתנו בנחת עם הבריות, is that the very act of showing respect to another is a fulfilment of showing our love to God, leading Hashem to proclaim: לי עבדי אתה ישראל אשר בך אתפאר

Before closing it is also worthwhile noting that all of these halachot are featured in the section of Shulchan Aruch dealing with the laws of prayer, rather than the laws of respect for the synagogue. And it is in light of this distinction that Rav Moshe Feinstein argues that this entire discussion only applies during prayer time. In addition to this, many cite this rule in the context discussions about the conducting of weddings in synagogues.

However, the reason for me choosing to explore this topic is because I believe it serves as a useful case study in how we learn and teach halacha. How we justify or challenge minhagim. How we understand the relationship between the respect we show to others, and the love that we have towards others. And how it may well be argued, like R’ Uziel and in the spirit of Gemara Yoma, that warm gestures of respect as reflected in a kiss to one another may not be an offense to our love for God, but rather, a profound fulfilment of that love.


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