כְּצֵאתִי אֶת הָעִיר אֶפְרֹשׂ אֶת כַּפַּי אֶל השם
“As soon as I am gone out of the city, I will spread abroad my hands unto the Lord.” (Shemot 9:29).
A person is a patient at Holy Cross Hospital and there is a crucifix on the wall of each room. Can she make brakhot and daven there?
The halakhic discussion of this topic begins with the verse (Shemot 9:29) in which Moshe tells Pharaoh during the plague of hail that he will pray to God as soon as he leaves the city. The midrash (Shemot Rabbah 12:5) explains that:
From this verse we see that Moshe did not wish to pray in Egypt (i.e., in the city), because it was filthy with gilulim vi’shikutzim.
The term gilulim, which literally means dung, is a standard Rabbinic dysphemism (a disparaging term chosen instead of a neutral one) for idols. The word sheketz, a detestable creature, functions similarly.
This midrash, then, could be seen as a basis for forbidding a person to pray in the presence of the religious symbols and objects of worship of other faiths, which are seen as repugnant. Whether that applies as a matter of halakha (rather than Moshe just “not wishing” to pray there) is a different question. We must also ask whether this statement which sees idols as something theologically repulsive (although religious pluralists would contest this point), would apply to mere religious symbols of other faiths.
Rema (OH 94:9), basing himself on the ruling of Rabbi Israel Isserlen (Austria, 1390-1460) in Trumat HaDeshen (no. 6) who cites the above midrash, rules that a Jew who is traveling should pray on the roadside, although he will not be able to have the ideal degree of focus on his prayers, rather than pray at the inn he is heading to if it is filled with religious statues and paintings. However, he goes on to say, if the person will be interrupted when attempting to pray on the roadside, he should pray when he reaches his lodging.
Two points emerge from this: (1) there is no halakhic restriction against praying in such a room; and (2) Christian religious statues and paintings are seen as problematic when it comes to the ideal place for prayer.
As far as a cross is concerned, we should note that Rema rules that a cross in most cases is only a religious symbol and not an object of worship (SA YD 141:1). Nevertheless, it would seem that the ideal place for prayer should be free of such objects as well. While we do not need to—indeed, should not—see the religious objects of another faith as “detestable,” we should still strive to ensure that our prayer spaces are neutral or Jewish ones.
Based on all this, many poskim rule that when a person is a patient in a hospital where there is a cross in the room, and it is not reasonable to ask that it be removed, then the patient can nevertheless pray, and certainly recite brakhot, in the room (see, for example, Shut Lev Avraham, 30). One should be particularly careful not to pray in the direction of a cross so as not to be seen as praying to the cross, even if this requires praying not towards Jerusalem (MB 94:30, based on SA OH 113:8 and YD 150:3). All that being said, if and when possible, the cross should be removed or covered.
Finally, it is important to note that these sources understand Christianity to be avoda zara, at least for Jews. This is the traditional approach although there are some who contest this designation, a topic that goes beyond our current discussion.