2005 Godís House and Team Play
Chananya Weissman
October 28, 2005, 5 Towns Jewish Times

God's House and Team Play: Enhancing the Quality of Public Tefilla

Much ink has been spilled on the seemingly insuperable problem of talking during davening. Whatever progress has been made is difficult to ascertain, and there is little reason to believe that any such progress is a sign of more to come. At this rate, it is unreasonable to expect that the decorum in the vast majority of minyanim will in our lifetimes or anytime in the foreseeable future reach levels that satisfy the minimum standards of halacha. We might as well not fool ourselves.

The solution, like so many solutions to our problems, is both very simple and incredibly difficult. It is very simple, because all people have to do is stop talking during davening. But it is also incredibly difficult, because the temptation can be overwhelming, and the habit is deeply ingrained. The vast majority of prohibitions, after all, can be avoided simply by doing nothing — not talking or not acting — yet we relinquish control of the ship that we are supposed to be commanding and let impulse take over.

Consequently, reminding people that talking during davening is forbidden and citing copious Torah sources to that effect is frustratingly insufficient. It makes no difference whether we transmit this information with indignation or whether we sugarcoat our displeasure. Even those who are dash b’aveira, who talk without end and without remorse, will concede that their behavior is against halacha. They will rationalize their behavior and deflect some of the blame, but ultimately they will agree that talking during davening cannot really be justified. Yet still they continue to talk. Clearly, it is not enough merely to inform people of what they already know quite well.

I believe that talking during davening is really only a symptom of a much greater problem, and not the problem itself. The real problem is twofold: a failure to fully appreciate the beis k’nesses as God’s House, and a failure to fully comprehend the concept of tefilla b’tzibur as being not merely a collection of individuals davening together, but Team Play.

We tend to think of our shuls as property that is jointly owned by the membership that pays for it. In reality, however, the money that we invest in our shuls assumes a sanctified status, which should be thought of as a milder sort of hekdesh. Those who pool their funds to build and maintain a shul are not owners of the shul; they are merely caretakers of it. Their membership earns them the right to make decisions regarding the shul that non-members do not share, but the shul belongs entirely to God, Who grants us a measure of autonomy in how we manage it.

God has granted us the privilege of meeting with us and allowing us to petition Him for anything and everything that we need. Generally we would need to travel to meet far lesser dignitaries, but God has even accommodated us by meeting us in our shuls. Could anything be sweeter?

What does God see when He arrives?

  1. A largely empty room. Most of us choose to arrive late. And yes, it is a choice.
  2. Most of the people who show up cluster themselves in the very back of the room, close to the door. In former times it was a privilege to be able to sit in the front rows of the shul. People sought to draw closer; they were actively engaged in the davening. Nowadays most of the “action” goes on in the back or in the periphery. Standing in the back is not a sign of humility, but of disinterest and spiritual complacency.
  3. The davening often doesn’t start on time, either because no one wants to be the shaliach tzibur (more on that later) or because they are waiting for someone to arrive. The davening should not be held up for any individual to arrive — not the Rabbi, and not Moshe Rabbeinu. Chazal teach us that the shechina arrives at the proper starting time in anticipation of our communal tefilla. If there is not a minyan — or, presumably, if they choose to delay the start of services — it is a tremendous insult to the King to make Him wait. To wait for anyone to arrive is to set aside the kavod of shamayim in favor of kavod for basar v’dam.

    (On a related note, I don’t know the basis for the prevalent custom to wait for the Rabbi to finish shemoneh esrei before chazaras hashatz, even if he takes much longer than everyone else. This flies in the face of the objective concept of tircha detzibura, which is not dismissed for an individual of stature. It also defeats the purpose of the Halacha that a shaliach tzibur should daven at a moderate pace, not too fast and not too slow. The shaliach tzibur should set the pace of the davening, and it should be in accordance with the pace of the tzibur, not that of any individual in particular.)

    If people are genuinely concerned with demonstrating respect for the Rabbi of the shul, there are better ways to do so. I’m willing to bet that most Rabbis would gladly allow the tzibur to proceed without them in exchange for people to listen attentively to their drashos, not make vindictive remarks about them, and allow them to speak their minds without fear of retribution.

  4. Determining who will lead the prayers is a bizarre tug-of-war that is often not resolved until several minutes after davening should begin. Sometimes many individuals clamor to assume this task, which makes for an amateurish scene in what should be a formal setting. More often the gabbai must plead and negotiate with people until someone grudgingly and with great fanfare consents to lead the davening — or, more likely, a small portion of it. The prevailing attitude is that this person is doing everyone a great favor by “getting the show on the road” — the sooner we start, the sooner we finish — and by allowing himself to be bothered to stand in front and publicly recite a few lines of Hebrew. God can’t be too impressed.
  5. When candidates to lead the tefillos are determined based either on anniversaries of dead relatives or the path of least resistance, it is no wonder that the vast majority of those who lead the davening are wholly unqualified for the task. It is bad enough that so many members of the Orthodox community, despite attending the “best” Yeshivos, read Hebrew on a grade-school level. It is worse that the tzibur must be made to suffer listening to them. It is worst of all that we dishonor God and His service by sending public representatives to hack and bludgeon their way through a petition to the King of the universe. I would not be surprised if God chooses to leave our shuls well before the end of the davening — just as many of us do — if our praises to Him are really insults.

    Ideally, the shaliach tzibur should be a man of stature and high spiritual standing, with a pleasant voice and expertise in the laws of prayer. If we must at times settle for less than the ideal, despite supposedly living in chumrah-oriented times, let us not scrape the bottom of the barrel. Those who are wholly unqualified to lead the tzibur in petitioning God should recognize this on their own and be terrified to step into the kodesh hakodoshim of public service. Aside from the personal ramifications, they are hurting the team. The best of intentions do not make up for the poor performance of the team that will be caused by one individual hijacking a responsibility that he is not suited for.

    If some individuals delude themselves into believing that they possess qualifications that they do not, they must still not be granted the awesome privilege and responsibility of representing the tzibur — even if they may become offended. If we must choose between offending a delusional individual and offending God, we must opt for the former in the most peaceful fashion we can manage. If the individual cannot be placated (or sufficiently trained to acquire the requisite qualifications), it is his problem, not ours. We need to do what is best for the team.

  6. The davening may be long and not sufficiently entertaining. We become impatient and restless. This is normal. Perhaps we should be so transcendental and otherworldly that we are incapable of becoming bored during the davening — even if the chazzan shleps, even if the quality and professionalism of the services are lacking. The truth is that we should not need external factors to “inspire” us to daven properly, and the absence of external inspiration — which is needed and valued in Jewish lore — is still no excuse for bad behavior in shul. Nevertheless, we are people, not angels, and we become restless during davening.

    The temptation to chat with our neighbor for a moment, to share a witty remark, can be overwhelming, and is perfectly understandable. This does not make anyone a bad person or a bad Jew.

    However, we must recognize that the slightest amount of frivolous talking during the davening is hurting the team. No one can say that people who disapprove of talking should mind their own business, for this is their business. It is not my business if someone davens at home and interrupts his prayers with idle chatter, but it is very much my business if this individual compromises the tefilla b’tzibur.

    No one has any place in a shul unless he is there to engage in spiritual or communal service. That is the only access God grants us to His House. It is even forbidden to engage in idle talk in shul if no one is davening; the team play component may not be present, but it is still God’s House, not your own. Go talk in your own house, says God. This is an exceedingly holy place.

  7. With these dual concepts of God’s House and Team Play in mind, it is easy to understand that talking during the davening is but one blemish of our communal worship, albeit the most prominent. Any behavior that disturbs the sanctity of God’s House or compromises the quality and professionalism of the communal offering needs to be addressed.

    Some easy examples: crying babies and restless children do not belong in shul for even a moment. If a child begins to cry, the parent should whisk him out of the room immediately, not attempt to placate the child in the midst of the services. There is no “five-second rule” here. You can also be sure that children who are taught in experiential fashion that the shul is a holy place will learn this lesson far more successfully than those who are simply told that shul is a holy place while all our actions indicate otherwise.

    It is inconceivable that someone would allow an electronic device to make noise in shul. This isn’t Radio Shack. Someone who forgets to turn off his cell phone should be absolutely mortified if it rings during davening. I am stupefied by the lack of shame in this matter. The further audacity of many people to actually check their phone to see who is calling, and even to walk out of shul during davening to take a phone call, is incalculable. How could anyone in the immediate presence of God be concerned with a telephone call? And even if he does not sufficiently appreciate davening, how can he not have enough self-respect to fake it? How did the bar of acceptability get so low?

    As for those who answer their phone during davening without even leaving the shul: they should have their membership revoked. I mean it. No team that turns a blind eye to such shenanigans can expect their offended King to overlook it.

    Anyone who davens loudly, and thereby disrupts others, is not a team player. It is the quintessential mitzvah haba’ah b’aveira, and he should not expect his prayers, which come at the expense of the prayers of others, to be warmly received by the King.

    Anyone who has a hacking cough or similar congestive problem should leave the premises until he is sure that he can be an asset to tefilla b’tzibur, not an attention-diverting sideshow. No individual’s prayers are worthy of compromising the collective prayer of the team. There is no mitzvah to go to shul if one will be a detriment to the quality of the tefilla. As much as one wishes to participate in the communal offering, he must have the best interests of the community in mind, and not be selfish. We know that God looks most favorably on those who sacrifice of themselves for the greater good.

    I don’t believe it is for us to ask sick people to leave shul, but a true team player will realize on his own whether the genuine benefit of his presence is worth the cost to others that may be involved. If nothing else, we should all be mindful that making loud bodily noises is no more appropriate in shul than it is during an elite artistic performance. If we do not treat the mikdash me’at with the proper sanctity, how can we daven for Hashem to restore to us an even greater mikdash? Why should He?

  8. Finally, if we truly wish to eradicate talking and other disruptions to tefilla b’tzibur, it has to start at the top. The following observation would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. A Rabbi repeatedly talks to others during the davening, then indicates to the chazzan to stop until a hush falls over the tzibur. Could anything be more ludicrous? It is like a teacher saying to his students “You should never call people names, you stupid morons.”

    It is an interesting game that congregational Rabbis play with their congregants.

    We expect the Rabbi to preserve a minimal standard of decorum, to faithfully klop on the shtender or stop the davening momentarily if the noise becomes “too much”. But we also expect the Rabbi not to enforce halacha too inconveniently for us. In turn, the Rabbi expects us to recognize him as the Halachic authority of the shul and to pay him superficial respect. So the Rabbi stops the davening periodically, we play along by falling silent for a few seconds and producing a general shush. Then all returns to normal; the chazzan barrels through some more of the davening in search of the finish line, and all conversations resume where they left off.

    When my nephew was five years old, he observed that one man who kept shushing whenever the Rabbi stopped the davening was also talking incessantly the rest of the time. Kids get it.

    If a Rabbi talks at all during the davening, which includes giving a verbal instruction to the gabbai or the president during davening, he is sending a very clear message to his congregants: it is okay to talk so long as you have a good reason. Once the Rabbi can rationalize that his talking is for the sake of the davening or for the general benefit of the shul, there will be no end to the rationalizations. The example has been set, and it will be impossible to draw any lines from there.

    I have seen countless Rabbis talk during davening and then demand better from their congregants. It’s not going to happen. Even if someone goes over to the Rabbi and attempts to initiate a short conversation with him, the Rabbi needs to put his finger over his lips and shake his head. The shortest of verbal responses makes talking permissible for everyone else.

    The pros and cons of individuals appointing themselves as enforcers of decorum are debatable. However, it is downright silly to attempt to get someone to stop talking during davening by‚Ķtalking to him during davening. Think about it. It’s okay for me to talk if I’m trying to get you to stop talking? Is it okay for someone to sin with hopes of preventing someone else from doing that very sin? Of course not. And even if it was permitted, it wouldn’t be a very effective strategy.

We all agree that the beis knesses is a centerpiece of Jewish existence and that prayer is a cornerstone. Despite this, we struggle to cultivate and maintain a proper atmosphere in our shuls, and clear-minded prayers are few and far between. This is extremely frustrating to any Jew who takes his worship seriously; we know without question what is expected of us, yet we generally fall so terribly short.

Let’s learn to appreciate that the shul is God’s House and that our public worship is Team Play. And if we still need to develop this appreciation internally, let our outward behavior at least show the respect for God’s House and His service that we should ultimately learn to feel.

Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness (www.endthemadness.org), a comprehensive campaign to rehabilitate the culture of shidduchim. He can be reached at admin@endthemadness.org. His collection of original Divrei Torah, “Keser Chananya”, can be obtained by contacting him at the above address.