Transfer of Memorial Plaque to another Synagogue



A newly formed congregation contains a number of persons who formerly were members in Temple Emanuel, the city's older, established synagogue. Some of them are retired and, in the past, had purchased memorial plaques in Temple Emanuel. They naturally feel a great attachment to these plaques and would like to have them moved to the new Temple with which they are now affiliated.

Should they make this request which, the rabbi of the new congregation fears, will contribute to already existing tensions between the two synagogues? On the other hand, if the donors of the plaques have a right to the removal, the rabbi might have to pursue their request. Have they this right?


The status of gifts made to especially of has been repeatedly considered by our tradition. R. Moses Isserles said that in communities where it was customary to give scrolls to the synagogue, the ownership was not transferred.1 The reason seems to be that a Sefer Torah has a unique status in that the owner may be seen to have placed the scroll in the safekeeping of the synagogue for the purpose of having it read at public services, and not with the intention of transferring ownership.2 However, the application of this rule has varied in particular circumstances and different localities, especially when local practice has provided differently, in which case even a Sefer Torah is presumed to belong to the synagogue where it has been placed.3

R. Solomon B. Freehof treated of this issue in a responsum, where he gives the sources and concluded that the Sefer Torah now belongs to the synagogue where it has been used.4 His conclusion is based on the principle that, in this respect, the synagogue is comparable to the Temple of old, so that donated items partake of its holiness.5 As such they become kelei kodesh in the literal sense and remain the property of the synagogue, absent specific stipulations or local custom.

We agree with this reasoning and hold that nowadays, with the exceptions noted, all kelei kodesh are to be considered property of the synagogue in which they were placed. Memorial plaques acquire this status. Usually they are part of a contract between the donor and the congregation: the donor gives a sum of money, and the congregation installs the plaque and promises to have the name of the deceased read in perpetuity at yahrzeit time. This contract remains in force as long as the congregation is active and performs this service; should it fail to do so (it might, for instance, cease to exist) the contract would have been breached and the plaque would then revert to the donor. No one has claimed that this is the case with regard to Temple Emanuel.

There are two additional considerations.

One, when plaques are affixed to t he synagogue's walls and are seen as permanent parts of the synagogue's ambiance of holiness. Two, while tradition generally upholds the right of members of the community to establish a new synagogue, it also warns against such action becoming the source of tension and intra-communal problems.6

We therefore strongly urge not to make the plaques, much as they mean to the donors, a source of further friction, especially since break-aways often take place in an atmosphere of tension. The donors, even though they are no longer members of Temple Emanuel, can certainly return there to say kaddish if they so desire.


  1. Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 259:2.
  2. See R. Joseph Katz (16th cent.), Resp. She'erit Yosef, no. 51: "Thus, the fact that the owner deposits it in the synagogue does not [in itself] prove that he has donated it to the congregation."
  3. The local minhag may set aside the Halakhah: minhag mevattel halakhah , see TJ, B.M. 7:1, and Maharik (R. Joseph Kolon, 15th cent.). Resp. Maharik, shoresh 161.
  4. American Reform Responsa, ed. R. Walter Jacob, no. 40, citing many authorities.
  5. Thus, for instance, BT, Megillah 29a.
  6. See Rivash (R. Yitzhak ben Sheshet, 14 th cent.), Responsa no. 253, though the position has not enjoyed unanimous endorsement. Thus R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (16th cent.) disagrees and says that if the older synagogue is large enough to hold all worshippers, a break-away is forbidden (Responsa I, no. 253).

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.