To be Machmir or Not: The Neighbor who Pushes the Envelope

To be Machmir or Not: The Neighbor who Pushes the Envelope

Neighbors who share communal space (such as in a condo building) and are responsible to contribute to common expenses may need to negotiate many differences of opinion—and at times, these clashes extend into the realm of halachic machlokes (dispute). Contemporary poskim address these issues, citing two examples.

Scenarios on Security and Sprucing Up

Scenario #1: After a series of break-ins in the neighborhood, the condo residents of a narrow brownstone meet informally to discuss new security measures for their front door. “Electronic surveillance is key,” Mrs. B. the ground-floor hostess proclaims. “My friend’s husband is in the business, and he recommends this particular system,“ (she pauses to pass around the specs) “…and he says it’s even endorsed by Rabbi A., so there is a clear heter (halachic leniency) for Shabbos use.”* At the other end of her dining room table, Mr. C. from Apt. 3 clears his throat: “There are different opinions about what is and isn’t okay on Shabbos. I hold by a more machmir (strict) opinion. I can’t, in good conscience, contribute to such chillul Shabbos (desecration of Shabbos).

Scenario #2: The tiny foyer of the newly secured walk-up needs a decorative boost and the residents want to chip in for a classic, gilt-framed mirror that would both enhance and expand the space. But one resident refuses to pay up. “A mirror in the hallway goes against my religious principles.” Mr. C. writes in an email copied to all his neighbors, “I don’t want to have to pass the women residents smartening themselves up in public, and it is also not fitting for the men who live here to preen themselves in front of a mirror. I refuse to pay for such an inappropriate expenditure.”

Who Forfeits Encounters with Eliyahu?

The source for the arguments for and against Mr. C.’s stance is found in the Gemara. The scenario there discusses a bais sha’ar (an entranceway) to a common courtyard. All the homeowners utilizing this entrance are obligated to pay, even if some have objections to its presence or purpose. However, the Gemara warns, a certain chassid (pious individual) was denied gilui Eliyahu (revelation of Eliyahu the Prophet) for setting up a bais sha’ar that prevented poor people from collecting alms because their knocking could no longer be heard from inside individual homes. The Gemara continues to outline which types of entrance-gate construction would be in conflict with halachic values and concludes that only those made accessible to the poor have to be supported by all the residents. The story of the chassid and the related Talmudic discussion seem to imply that a midas chassidus (an extra measure of piety) is a legitimate reason to avoid contributing to the common expense. However, this is not a firm conclusion since it depends on different interpretations of the level of severity in erecting an inaccessible bais sha’ar and why this prevented gilui Eliyahu in one particular case.

The Shulchan Aruch codifies this Gemara about a shared bais sha’ar without any caveat alluding to the needs of beggars. The commentaries who arbitrate the Shulchan Aruch’s stance with the story of the chassid in the Gemara discuss how the original question of a disputed bais sha’ar applies to other situations. Does it differ if the resident’s opposition to the shared expenditure is due to a flat-out issur (prohibition), a chashash aveirah (concern of wrongdoing) or merely a sensitivity involving midas chassidus? What does the omission by the Shulchan Aruch of the “whole story” mean in terms of bottom-line halachah? There is no firm conclusion, only many possible conclusions for a neighbor who goes against the grain when he holds more strictly on certain communal decisions.

A Coup for the Co-op

Mr. C. has halachic precedent to disagree with the neighbors and argue “kim li” (I am of the opinion—a statement garnering support from a minority opinion—see Halachah #691 on the kim li concept) with regard to a possibly questionable security system. However, in the second case, where he can avoid any whiff of transgression on his part by simply ignoring the mirror and its users, he has a pretty weak stance and may indeed be compelled to pay for an expense endorsed by the majority of his neighbors.

*See Halachah #490 for a halachic discussion about the use on Shabbos of CCTV surveillance.

Practical Halacha: One minute a day. By Horav Yosef Yeshaya Braun, shlita, Mara D'asra and member of the Badatz of Crown Heights.