Q. What obligation, if any, is there to pay synagogue membership and to purchase a seat there?
A. Judaism emphasises prayer with and for the congregation not only by and for oneself. The Shulchan Aruch says that prayer with a congregation is obligatory (Orach Chayim 10:16), and a community may impose sanctions to compel members of a community to build a synagogue (Orach Chayim 55:22, 150:1).
The allocation of assigned seats in a synagogue is based on the teaching, “Whoever fixes the place for the recital of His prayers, the God of Abraham will aid him” (Talmud B’rachot 6a). This is codified by Maimonides in these terms: “One should fix the place for prayer” (Law of Prayer 5:6).
The financial obligations of members of a Jewish congregation include the following:
1. Building a synagogue.
2. Donating synagogue appurtenances; the Shabbat prayer for the congregation invokes Divine blessing upon those who make such donations.
3. Payment for seats as a means of maintaining synagogue services (such payments have been customary from at least the Middle Ages and even led to legal questions such as whether a seat is “owned” or “rented”; whether a seat can be “sold” or “sublet”; whether a seat can be bequeathed, or a creditor can seize it).
4. Offerings on the analogy of the Biblical tithe, half-shekel and other dues; however, such offerings cannot be collected on the Sabbaths and festivals.