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Whether You Come to Talk to God, to Your Friends or to Both, Shul is a Place For You: A Measured Call Regarding Talking in Shul

on Thursday, December 13 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

There is an old joke about an atheist who goes to shul every Shabbos and sits next to his friend Ginsburg. One day, someone asks the atheist why he keeps coming to services if he doesn’t believe in God. He replies, “Ginsburg goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Ginsburg.”

The truth is there are many believers who come to shul to talk both to God and to their friends, most of whom they haven’t seen the entire week.  This is understandable, and it is why most campaigns to stop the talking in shul either fail to launch or fail to succeed long term, even if they do have an impact for a short time.

So what can be done to improve this epidemic?  Some wish for a massive crackdown, a zero-tolerance policy.  Others cynically dismiss the issue altogether and react with great indignation to the suggestion that anyone has a right to call for them to stop talking or to institute policies towards that end.  But, like most topics, the issue of talking in shul needs to be addressed with nuance and realism and at the same time with resolve and optimism.

The place we come to daven is called a בית כנסת, a hall to assemble and congregate.  We draw energy from one another, we come to connect with one another and it is an unreasonable expectation that we would do so without exchanging a greeting or being drawn to engage in at least a brief conversation.

Halacha recognizes that when people see each other, even if one is in the middle of davening, a greeting is not only tolerable or acceptable, it is permissible.  Though the Mishna Berura (66:3) is clear that we don’t follow this practice today, the Mishna in Berachos 13a states that when transitioning between paragraphs of Shema, one can not only interrupt and respond out of fear (for example, to respond to the greeting of a king who could sentence him to death should the greeting go unanswered), but one can even initiate a greeting out of respect.  (The Rambam understands out of respect as referring to one’s parents, but Rashi understands adam nichbad more broadly.)

And so any effort to address the epidemic of excessive and disrupting talking in shul must begin with the recognition that people come to shul for many different reasons and that while most come to talk to God, they also show up to connect with their friends.

Moreover, a shul that encourages and promotes outreach and aspires to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for newcomers and the uninitiated simply cannot have a zero-tolerance talking policy which will be perceived as cold, heartless and off-putting.

So what can be done?  Do we simply accept that people will talk in shul and during davening as they have since davening was first instituted?

We cannot!  There is too much at stake, too many things to daven for, too many people relying on us for our heartfelt prayers, too many children who are watching us and learning from us. I promise you, in your section, perhaps even in your row, is someone desperately davening for a child, someone struggling with a serious diagnosis, someone feeling lonely, someone whose marriage or finances are in crisis, someone struggling with anxiety or depression, or a family member of one of these individuals pouring their heart out to Hashem to intervene and intercede.

The saying goes, if you come to shul to talk, where do you go to daven?  However, it could be emended to read, if you come to shul to talk, where should your friends and neighbors go to daven?

The Chasam Sofer (Derashos 2:309) writes that only Shuls that are homes of prayer, not conversation, will be rebuilt in Israel in the Messianic era.  The Tzlach, R’ Yechezkel Landau writes, “There is no greater rebellion against the King of the world than to speak in His sanctuary, in His presence.  Speaking during davening is like placing an idol in the Temple.”

The Chafetz Chaim (Mishna Berura 124:27) quotes the Kol Bo: “Woe to the people who speak during davening.  We saw several Shuls destroyed because of this sin.  There should be people appointed to work on this issue.”

We cannot and must not concede that talking is a given and that is why this Shabbos we are launching a campaign to minimize talking in davening.   Following the advice of the Chafetz Chaim, a diverse committee under the leadership of its chair, Dr. Jonathan Winograd, has been working on a nuanced, measured campaign to identify segments of davening that we can collectively agree to make an effort not to disrupt with talking, while being open and tolerant that people may exchange greetings at other times.

We have identified two parts of davening in which we are appealing to refrain from talking altogether:

  • The Shulchan Aruch writes that one who talks during Chazaras HaShatz, the chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah, will suffer a consequence “too great to bear.” We can all commit not to talk from Borchu until the end of the chazzan’s repetition at Shacharis and from the beginning of the silent Amidah through the repetition at both Mussaf and Mincha.
  • Kaddish is among our holiest prayers. It can only be said in the presence of a minyan and is so significant that if given the choice between answering Kedusha or Kaddish, the Mishna Berura (56:6) says one should choose to answer Kaddish.  The Talmud (Berachos 57a) teaches that one who replies “Yehei shmei rabbah…” can rest assured that he has a place in the Next World.

Not talking during these parts of davening is mandated by Jewish law.  But, even for those who don’t connect to davening, don’t feel they are in the presence of the Almighty or don’t feel bound by these particular laws, not talking during these parts of davening is simply what any decent person would do.

Talking during these parts of davening is not only disrespectful to God, it is also unkind, insensitive, and cruel to those trying to offer heartfelt and focused prayers. It is a gross violation of bein adom l’chaveiro.  If you wouldn’t talk during a show, the opera or a movie, no matter how bored or distracted you might be, how could you entertain talking when people around you are in the middle of a conversation with Hashem, even if you are done?  It is hard enough to connect with our prayers, to concentrate on the words and to feel we have experienced an intimate rendezvous with our Creator in the best of circumstances.  To do it while people in our vicinity are chatting away is nearly impossible.

Not talking until the conclusion of Chazaras HaShatz, including the time between when we finish our silent Amidah and we are waiting for the chazzan, is doable, it is realistic, it is a fair expectation of those attending and it is the minimum to be respectful of our friends and neighbors.

When mourners recite Kaddish, they are paying tribute to their lost loved one.  When others around them are talking, it is not only rude and unkind, it is an affront to the memory of their family member. We can and must all make an effort to listen quietly and answer enthusiastically when Kaddish is being recited.

To help us be mindful of these efforts, we have produced bookmarks that will be on each seat and will be placed in our siddurim going forward.  When Kaddish is being recited, volunteers around the minyan will be holding up signs reminding us that if we wouldn’t talk during someone’s backswing or during a tennis point, we must not talk when our friend is honoring their loved one and affirming their love of Hashem.

Two and a half hours in a room full of friends is a very long time to refrain from talking.  Sometimes we see someone and we have a message to deliver, something important to share, maybe even some love or support to offer.  We invite anyone who is driven to talk, to step into the lobby, socialize and shmooze.  One who steps out to have a conversation shouldn’t be judged, they should be admired.

But someone who engages in conversation when their neighbor is communing with Hashem or talks while our community’s mourners are saying Kaddish in memory of their loved ones, deserves judgment, not for their lack of religious commitment, but for their lack of caring for his or her fellow community member.

The bottom line is this – our community needs your help.  Please join the movement and commit to not talk minimally during these points of davening.  In that merit, may all our prayers be answered for good and may we merit only Hashem’s greatest blessings.

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