BY RABBI AVROHOM SEBROW
It was widely reported a number of months ago that One World Trade Center, which recently laid claim to the title of New York City’s tallest building, might not become America’s tallest building.
The Port Authority and the Durst Organization have changed the tower’s design. Chief Architect David Childs told the New York Times that the co-developers decided to remove a decorative shell from the antenna mast that will top the tower. That change might mean that the antenna is just a utilitarian piece of equipment and would not count towards the official height of the building. It could potentially lower the height of the tower from 1,776 feet to 1,368 feet.
Without the 408 feet of spire, One World Trade Center would not be taller than the Willis Tower in Chicago, which is the tallest building in the United States, standing 110 stories and 1,450 feet tall. So who actually decides these things anyway?
Apparently the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat gets to make the final determination. They count spires toward the height if it’s part of the architecture and actual design of the building. Antennas or any other apparatus that are simply put on top of a building don’t count. Someone compared it to placing a chair on a roof of a tall building, which certainly wouldn’t be included in the official height.
The lack of the decorative outer shell will save the Port Authority $20 million. However, it was the prospect of maintaining such a complicated structure so high in the sky that really doomed it.
So does halachah have any view on whether or not the antenna should count towards the official height? Surprisingly, similar issues were discussed in various response.
The Amora Rav was quoted as saying that any city with houses that are taller than the synagogue will ultimately become desolate. The Chofetz Chaim notes many people nowadays are unconcerned with this halachah since in any case there are buildings owned by non-Jews that are taller than our synagogues. Nevertheless, the Chofetz Chaim cautions that one should try to adhere to this halachah to the degree that he is able (M.B. 150:5).
Rav Ashi credits his actions in this regard from saving the city of Masa Machsya from destruction. According to one opinion, the following is what occurred: Rav Ashi saw a crack in the city’s shul. He realized that the city’s inhabitants had violated the aforementioned halachah and were in danger. He had the shul dismantled and placed his bed among the ruins. He vowed not to remove his bed from the ruins until a new shul was built that was the tallest building in the city.
The Shulchan Aruch quotes one opinion that the town’s code enforcers can compel homeowners to lower their houses if taller than the synagogue.
Apparently, hundreds of years ago, Rabbeinu Tam was asked what to do about a city whose houses were taller than the shul. He told them to rectify the situation by making one corner of the shul taller. It’s not exactly clear what his directive meant. The Magen Avraham explained that surely Rabbeinu Tam was not referring to placing to a steel rod in the corner of the shul building. The ugly piece of metal would not count towards the shul’s height. The Minchas Elazar surmised that the Magen Avraham would agree that if the steel rod were fashioned to be a decorative part of the architecture, it would count towards the shul’s height.
If an antenna were to be built according to original plans for the decorative antenna atop One World Trade Center and placed on a shul, it would be taken into account when determining the building’s height. A plain antenna would possibly not count, although the Magen Avraham was discussing a useless steel rod, not a functional antenna. Still, the Mekor Chaim said the Magen Avraham’s opinion was not universally accepted. He witnessed that in Frankfurt, they just raised a pole on one corner of the shul building.
The Pri Megadim noted that in his town it was impossible to make the shul higher than all other buildings. They therefore made do with a pole placed on the shul’s rooftop.
The Mishnah Berurah, however, quotes the Magen Avraham l’halachah. This would seem to support the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s position that the antenna as planned now should not count towards the height of One World Trade Center.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and offers a program to help children with ADD increase focus and concentration. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.