Question: May a student daven near his rebbe?
Short Answer: The custom is to be lenient and allow a student to daven behind or to the side of his rebbe in a minyan, even if the student is within four amos from the rebbe. Nevertheless, a student should be careful when setting up his permanent seat in shul, to not establish his seat within four amos of his rebbe muvhak.
I. The Source
The Gemara (B’rachos 27b) states that a student may not daven next to his rebbe, nor behind his rebbe. A “talmid chaver” (a student who has reached a certain level of learning), however, may daven next to or behind his rebbe. Rashi (ibid) explains that a student may not daven next to his rebbe because it will appear that the student is equal to the rebbe.
The Taz (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:8) notes that there is a machlokes as to the reason why it is forbidden for a student to daven behind his rebbe. Rashi understands that it is “yuhara” – appears haughty – similar to the reason why the student may not daven next to his rebbe. Tosafos (ibid) writes that it appears as if the student is bowing to the rebbe. Rabbeinu Yonah (ibid) is concerned that the rebbe will finish Sh’moneh Esrei before the student and will not be able to take three steps back (because the student is still in the middle of his own Sh’moneh Esrei) and it will be degrading for the rebbe.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 90:24 and Yoreh Dei’ah 242:16) codifies this Gemara, ruling that a student may not daven next to, behind, or in front of his rebbe. The Mishnah B’rurah (90:75) explains that the Shulchan Aruch added “in front” of the rebbe based on a kal va’chomer, that it is certainly degrading for the student to daven in front of his rebbe.
The sefer Piskei T’shuvos (Orach Chayim 90:31) suggests that according to the reason of Rashi, that it is “yuhara” to daven behind the rebbe, it should be forbidden to even daven P’sukei D’Zimrah when standing behind the rebbe.
II. The Leniencies
There are a handful of limitations and leniencies for this halachah.
First, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim and Yoreh Dei’ah ibid) writes that there is no prohibition where the student stands more than four amos (approx. six feet) away from the rebbe. The Beis Yosef (Yoreh Dei’ah ibid) clarifies that this leniency only applies where the student is davening more than four amos behind or to the side of the rebbe. A student can never daven in front of the rebbe, even if he is more than four amos in front of the rebbe. The Shach (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:30) therefore explains that the Shulchan Aruch is also only discussing where the student is behind or to the side of the rebbe.
The Mishnah B’rurah (Orach Chayim 90:80) understands the Shulchan Aruch differently. The Rama in Orach Chayim (ibid) references the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling in Yoreh Dei’ah. The Mishnah B’rurah interprets this reference as ruling that the Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh Dei’ah clarifies that this leniency of more than four amos applies even where the student is standing in front of the rebbe.
Notably, the Mishnah B’rurah (Orach Chayim 90:79) adds that where the rebbe is davening in front of the student, the student must be four amos plus three steps-length behind the rebbe. Otherwise, when the rebbe takes three steps back after Sh’moneh Esrei, he will encroach the four amos of the student and would then have to wait until the student has finished his Sh’moneh Esrei.
Second, the Mishnah B’rurah (Orach Chayim 90:73) cites the Lechem Chamudos and the P’ri M’gadim who limit this halachah to a student davening within four amos of his Rebbe Muvhak. A student would be permitted to daven within four amos of the rabbi of his shul or another talmid chacham who is not his own personal rebbe muvhak. Indeed, the Chasam Sofer (cited in P’sakim U’T’shuvos, Yoreh Dei’ah 242:23) notes that there is a special z’chus to davening next to a tzadik.
Interestingly, the sefer M’kor Chayim disagrees and rules that this halachah applies even by a regular rebbe. He proves this from the language of the Gemara, which allowed a “talmid chaver” to daven near a rebbe, implying that a regular person may not daven near any rebbe. See also Meir Oz (Orach Chayim 90).
Third, the Rama (Orach Chayim ibid) writes that the entire prohibition of davening near the rebbe only applies where the rebbe and student are davening without a minyan. The Rama adds that it is noble to be strict and refrain from davening near the rebbe even in a minyan, but the custom is to be lenient. The Mishnah B’rurah (77) notes that the reason we should be strict even in a minyan is because of the reason of Rabbeinu Yonah, that the rebbe won’t be able to take three steps back. The Biur Halachah (ibid) concludes that nevertheless the student should be strict when setting his permanent seat in a shul, especially if the seat is behind the rebbe.
III. Practically Speaking
As mentioned above, the Rama and the Mishnah B’rurah note the custom to be lenient on this halachah when davening in a minyan with the rebbe. However, the student should be strict when setting his permanent seat in a shul, especially if the seat is behind the rebbe.
The sefer Asifas Chachamim (Vol. 12, p. 324) cites the custom of many shuls in Europe to have a small mechitzah separating the rabbi (up front by the aron kodesh) from the congregation. The purpose of this mechitzah was for this halachah, to ensure a proper separation between the rabbi and the congregants, his students. Asifas Chachamim adds that the Chasam Sofer’s shul in Pressburg had a similar setup.
Next Week’s Topic: What should a student do if he sees his rebbe muvhak at the mikvah?