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Friday, November 04, 2005


לימוד זכות: Shul decorum revisited

In the latest issue of the 5Towns Jewish Times (and no, I didn't know there was a 5Towns Jewish Times), Chananya Weissman, of End the Madness fame, has a very long piece about the general lack of decorum in shul. He's very well-informed, he pulls no punches, and he's quite scathing when addressing the kinds of behaviors (like cell phone use during davening) that many of us take for granted, but when viewed from a few steps back, are actually horrifying and appalling. I'll post a link to the story as soon as it appears online, 'אי''ה בלי נדר וכו .

My views on shul decorum are not secret - they're actually a few posts down. But some of R' Chananya's views and assertions troubled me, so I thought to follow the spirit of the heilige R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, זיעועכ''י, and present a defense for our brothers and sisters in shul.

Dear Chananya,
I've been a fan of your writing and your ideas for some time. In your recent piece (which I read in the 5Towns Jewish Times) about decorum in shul, however, I found some of your assertions problematic. I am not sure whether this is the right venue in which to contact you, but if you get this, please consider my comments.

1. Your view on the impropriety of cell phone use during davening is 100 percent correct. Except… Would you place a similar restriction on Hatzolah volunteers or EMTs who carry their radios with them at all times? Would you say that their radio squawks are an acceptable disturbance to davening? I would say they are. Now extend this to medical professionals, who may have a pager or a cell phone, and whose work is also likely to involve pikuach nefesh. What about men whose wives are expecting? Would they be permitted a glance at a cell phone screen to see who's calling, even during chazaras hasha''tz?

And once the baby’s born, or the kids are in school, isn’t it possible that an emergency might require a person’s immediate notification, R’’L?

I’m not apologizing for those who disrespect tefila b’tzibur, nor am I saying that every time a cell phone chimes during leining, it’s an emergency. Nor am I saying that every time someone glances at his screen during kedusha, it’s for pikuach nefesh only. I am saying that we need to be ‘dan l’kaf z’chus’ and not make blanket condemnations.

I agree wholeheartedly that to whatever extent these devices can be rendered silent, for instance, on vibrate mode instead of ring mode, they must be. But sweeping statements denouncing every instance of a particular (perceived) misbehavior should be tempered with caring and understanding, in my opinion.

2. Why would you denigrate the institution of Yahrzeit? It’s an accepted halacha that someone who is observing a Yahrzeit takes precedence over many other ‘chiyuvim’ – both for aliyos and for leading the services. If the person happens to have a bad voice, or reads a little slower than another congregant, does that make his loss, and the elevation of his departed relative’s neshama, any less important?

R’ Nachman of Breslov writes about the role of a ba’al tefila as collecting all the ‘good points’ of the congregation – finding the positive trait in each person – and combining them, as a musician combines individual notes, into a melody of prayer and devotion. I suggest that if the congregation suspends its cynicism and judgementalism and accepts the ba’al tefila, whatever his shortcomings, they’ve already generated a host of ‘good points’ to present before Hashem.

3. In your comments regarding Rabbis talking during davening. Once again, can’t we give them the benefit of the doubt? There have been several occasions when I’ve had to ask a she’eila of pressing importance, and because of various reasons couldn’t wait till the end of davening. What if a congregant’s just been admitted to the hospital? These are just examples.

One method I’ve used in an attempt to preserve the decorum of the davening is to write the Rabbi a quick note, outlining the message I wish to convey. But I’m sure there are plenty of situations where this is unfeasible.

The gemara, in Maseches Brachos and Megila, talks about modifications made to the davening structure because of people entering shul late and/or leaving early. This is not a new phenomenon. I think it’s safe to say that many times, indecorous behavior in shul is simply rude, disrespectful, and inexcusable. But there will be situations where it may be understandable, if we give our fellow mispallelim the benefit of the doubt.


Chananya responds:

Thanks for your note and your expression of support.

You basically go about demonstrating that there are at least limited times when it would be appropriate for someone to use a cell phone in shul. But even if this is true, what does that have to do with "dan l'kaf zechus"? You know as well as I do that the overwhelming majority of the time people have no excuse whatsoever to use their phone in shul, and we don't need to conduct a study to prove it. I admire your desire to give people the benefit of the doubt (and I'm not being sarcastic when I say that), but there is no obligation to distort reality and cling to some faint hope that people are doing the right thing when clearly they are not.

There is a halacha that one who has an upset stomach and is unable to maintain a "clean body" for a reasonable period of time is not only patur from davening, but is not allowed to (particularly with regard to wearing tefillin). I don't think it is any kind of stretch to say that someone who is unable to remain present in shul without disrupting the davening has the same status.

Me again: I respectfully disagree here. The halachos of Guf Naki are specific to Tefillin, and have nothing to do with Tefilla B'tzibur.

Now that you bring up hatzola volunteers, I'm really not so sure that they have a right to disrupt the davening. If they are halachically exempt from observing all the halachos of Shabbos, is it offensive to suggest that they are also halachically exempt from davening with a minyan if their walkie-talkie will disrupt it? Let them save all the lives they can. They can save just as many lives without disrupting a tzibur constantly, so it becomes just another case of the cost of one person's tefilla b'tzbibbur being more than the benefit to the tzibbur. It's at least food for thought.

A radical idea. So all Hatzolah members, EMTs, doctors, are exempt from going to shul. I have a few friends who'll be thrilled to hear it.

As for doctors, husbands of expecting wives, etc. -- this is no excuse for cell phones to go off in shul. If every safek pikuach nefesh, no matter how remote, is an excuse to disrupt the davening, then every person should have his cell phone on at all times, since we never know when we might get an emergency call. We should even carry our phones on Shabbos, just in case. There is no end to it. Obviously, we draw the line somewhere. We are supposed to live normal lives, and that includes assuming a reasonable amount of "risk" so that we can daven with proper decorum.

I would posit that normal life also allows for an occasional cough or sneeze during davening, too.

People also manage to go without their cell phones at Broadway shows and during important meetings with superiors. Shul should be no different.


Finally, as I said before, giving people the benefit of the doubt by definition entails that there be a doubt that is not entirely far-fetched. If a Rabbi absolutely never talks, and one time he says something, I will assume that he had a really good reason for it. But if people talk all the time, I don't have to assume that there is pikuach nefesh happening all around me every time I go to shul. I stand by everything I wrote in the article, irrespective of the insignificant minority of exceptional cases.

Okay - so I'm talking about a miut of a miut, but it certainly applies to me, and thus I was defending my practice of carrying a cell phone in shul. Sorry. Either way, nothing I wrote applies on Shabbos (almost nothing, anyway), and still, people talk to their heart's content regardless of whether the Rabbi is speaking, or leining is going on, etc. So I stand by Chananya's piece, too, and by the post I wrote some months ago bemoaning the sad state of affairs in some shuls I've attended. That's all.

And for the record, I'm still unsure why you decided to denigrate the institution of Yahrzeit.

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