2000 Shul Pandect
Chananya Weissman

Yeshiva University Commentator, November 21, 2000

People feel very strongly about how their shul is run. Even those who come late, leave early, and do little of consequence in between consider themselves authorities on how their shul should be operated and often fight vociferously to actualize their visions. Rabbis, officers, and general members often engage in a vicious, never-ending power struggle, existing in a constant state of mutual distrust and discontent.

Sad, really.

This Shul Pandect is written to address certain unfavorable practices and conducts that have become widespread. These are not issues that are often raised, if ever raised at all, and that is precisely why I have chosen them. Without further introduction:

1. No selling Aliyos, Seats, or Anything Else

Whenever money and profit are involved, spirituality is inexorably lost. It used to be that aliyos were given to the greatest people in the congregation. Today, for better or for worse, we are all considered to be on a relatively equal plane, hence the first two aliyos go to a Kohen and a Levi, respectively. (After all, yichus really serves as a tie-breaker when all other factors are equal. Why many people consider yichus to be the most important determination of a person is a great puzzle and an even greater tragedy.)

During the course of the year, everyone gets an aliya when his turn comes around. But on holidays this cycle is abandoned in favor of capitalism. Shuls make an absolute killing on holiday aliyos. Unfortunately, as a result, someone can go his entire life and never receive an aliya on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, simply because he can't or won't spend hundreds of dollars on it. Shouldn't everyone be entitled to an uplifting experience, regardless of his financial capabilities? Either the regular cycle from the rest of the year should be continued without interruption, or a new cycle should be instituted specifically for the holidays. Either way, everyone should have an equal chance to get an aliya at any time of the year.

As for selling seats – what is this, a baseball game? Is it really in our own best interests to discourage people from coming to shul by charging admission?

I hear your cries: Shuls have expenses! The money has to come from somewhere!

Indeed, they do and it does. But I believe that any community that wants to have a shul in its midst will support it. And they will support it without price tags being placed on everything. Perhaps lucky recipients of coveted aliyos will voluntarily contribute extra for them; but no one has to know and no one has to pressure them.

If shuls are in dire financial straits and can only raise money in this way, I feel very sorry for them. People should be willing to donate without receiving honor in return. It's too bad that this evil is a necessary one in many shuls, but at least people should realize that it's an evil nonetheless.

2. No Holding Seats

Has this ever happened to you? You're a visitor in shul somewhere, and just as you're about to take a seat you're informed that it “belongs” to someone. Or the guy next to you sticks out his hand and says that he's saving it for someone. Never mind that davening is half-over (I know you never come to shul so late, but play along). Finding a seat can be tricky if shul is crowded, especially if the scattered unoccupied ones all have liens on them. And it's never fun to be asked to move.

There should be no such thing as holding a seat for someone else. I don't care if the guy's been davening there for thirty years and can only concentrate if he has that exact angle to the front of the room. If he really wants his seat so much let him come on time and get it. Any person who needs the seat now has precedence over someone who might come later. That said, if lots of seats are available and you know someone always sits there, don't be a jerk.

3. The Shaliach Tzibur, and Only the Shaliach Tzibur, Sets the Pace

This one might strike a nerve, so brace yourselves.

In most shuls, the shatz waits for the Rabbi to finish reciting shema and shemoneh esrei. The Rabbi, in turn, may feel a need to deliberately slow down. After all, it's expected of him. There is no other way I can explain the fact that rabbis who have no trouble at all keeping up during the rest of davening suddenly require twice as long as everyone else to say shema and shemoneh esrei, especially considering that most people take longer there as well. Even assuming that the Rabbi has perfect concentration, as all of us do, the shatz should not be obligated to wait for him. In fact, he shouldn't even be allowed to do so.

Neither one who davens significantly faster than the average congregant nor one who davens significantly slower is supposed to daven for the amud. The congregation as a whole should not be troubled to keep up with someone who goes too fast for them, and likewise should not be burdened by a kvetcher (in relative terms, of course). Well, if the leader of the davening himself, regardless of stature, is not supposed to be a strain on the people, no individual, including the Rabbi, should be a strain on the people.

This is not a matter of respect for Rabbis. Waiting for someone who takes an inordinate amount of time to daven is a meaningless gesture that merely causes annoyance to those waiting and undoubtedly affects the concentration of the Rabbi in some fashion. Placing a burden on the public is a serious halachic consideration, and in this case it takes precedence.

4. Only People Who Can Read Hebrew Should Be Allowed To Read the Haftara

In many shuls, the haftara is given to random members of the congregation, often people who do not know how to read it with the notes or even to pronounce the words. For some reason, the haftara is treated with little respect, often completely ignored in favor of kiddush or conversation.

When you think about it, there's really nothing tricky about reading the haftara. So while the opportunity to give it to readers with less expertise should be utilized, some minimal qualifications should be required. They must be able to read Hebrew on a third-grade level.

5. Keep Your Noises To Yourself

I'm not referring to idle chatter. For reasons that escape me, many shuls sound like doctors' waiting rooms. As soon as people step through the door they become plagued with every allergy known to man. At risk of sounding unsympathetic to those with sore throats, phlegmatic throats, runny noses, and whatever else causes their facial flatulence, it is extremely distracting to have to listen to people, both solo and in chorus, clearing their passageways every few seconds like a piercing cry in the night. Do they think that no one hears them?

Perhaps an occasional noise can be tolerated, but when everyone is making occasional noises all at once or in rapid succession it can drive a person up the wall (not me, of course, but someone else). I've never heard such a racket anywhere else, certainly not in a formal atmosphere, so I must assume that people have the ability to control themselves.

Tissue boxes should be kept right outside the shul and congregants should take their business there. This is no different from taking a screaming baby outside. In short, people should be cognizant of the amount of noise they are making and try to keep it to a minimum.