Talking in Shul, When No Davening Is Going On

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Beit Kenesset Issues, No. 2, Siman 151: The Sanctity of the Synagogue

I know I promised to shift direct attention away from the current et tzarah and to issues of shul, and I will. But thoughts came to me that seem essential to share (and yes, I know what it says about me that I think my thoughts could even possibly be essential).

First, I became aware of rogue minyanim in mine and other neighborhoods, where people gathered to pray (with or without a rabbinic figure telling them it was all right) despite a consensus of rabbinic leadership counseling patience, saying our concern with saving Jewish lives means it is not yet time to go back. It was particularly distressing to me because one of the reasons governments and rabbis felt we had to close so fully during this crisis was people’s refusal to follow rules (as we also see in the states reopening). Ribbono shel olam! What will it take for the rank and file to accept the need to follow leadership?

Second, this past Sunday, Jon Meacham published an essay in the New York Times Book Review (which I couldn’t find online, not sure why) about pandemics of the past. Based on Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, he points out the Baltic Sea froze over twice, in 1303 and 1306-07, kicking off the Little Ice Age, the shorter growing season bringing famine and death. 1315 brought another famine, with excessive rains washing out the crops, and then 1347 brought the Black Death, the plague we think of when we say the plague (and which recurred periodically, including 1665, the year Isaac Newton spent in the countryside because of the plague, and did major work on gravity, optics, and calculus).

It was a difficult time, in other words. The piece that bothered me was when Meacham quoted Tuchman’s linkage of the events to the roots of modernity. “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered…God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude…was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all…”

I have no idea if Tuchman accurately represents the thought of the people of the time. I only worry people in our time react to tragedies in similar ways, and it starts with people deciding they can find no Divine purpose in the pain they suffered, and therefore concluding it had to be wanton by Gd, has ve-shalom, or not from Gd at all. These are dangerous thoughts (as when we say that once we have a vaccine it will all be better). The belief in Gd includes the realization we cannot judge or always understand how Gd works or acts—hence the book of Job, whose conclusion clearly communicates our human inability to know why Gd does everything.

All that bothers me because I confess my mind has already drifted to the fall, the fear Gd will send a return of the virus, possibly worse, and the hope we will be wise enough to use the time between now and then well, and these anecdotes do not bode well. I think instead of the people of Nineveh, who remarkably took the prophet Yonah’s words so seriously, they repented sufficiently sincerely to avert a destruction three days away! I hope for all of us we have the wisdom to react to the suffering we have already undergone in ways that, too, will arouse Gd’s sympathies, as it were, to make this a one-time event. But it requires that we walk forward carefully, always remembering that we need to act wisely, hoping it will be a merit for Gd to give us a better future than the immediate past.

Ok, Now Beit Kenesset

For four years in my late thirties, I was the Associate Rabbi of a synagogue. When the senior rabbi would invite me to speak in the Main Sanctuary, I occasionally addressed the rampant talking during prayersI tried reasoning, cajoling, showing how it would be better for all, sensitive to others, and so on.

One of my contemporaries was studying for semikha at the time, a mid-life career change, and he asked me why I was working so hard, when a simple paragraph in Shulhan Arukh prohibits speaking in shuls at any time, during prayers or not. He was referring to the second chapter of Hilkhot Beit Ha-Kenesset, our text for this week, as we continue to pray for Hashem to return us to communal prayer, and hope we have the wisdom to reconstitute our shuls properly, from a health perspective as well as in terms of making them places of prayers Hashem will relish, will be loathe to ever interrupt again.

The Shulhan Arukh Orakh Hayyim 151 tells us, as my friend said all those years ago, all forms of levity are prohibited in Batei Kenesset and Batei Midrash, places of prayer and study halls, such as, laughter and mockery, idle conversation, eating and drinking. For the latter, Arukh Ha-Shulhan points out some allowed Torah scholars to eat there mi-dohak, to avoid the time loss to study in forcing them to go out for meals, where others (Arukh Ha-Shulhan seems to agree) were more comfortable than that, thought the fact of these scholars’ spending their days there permitted eating there.  (This has been a topic of debate in many Batei Midrash where I spent time, some more strict about the honor of the study hall, some more concerned about people being pulled away from study by their need to eat. I always ate, although in retrospect, I’m not sure I should have.)

More, Shulhan Arukh assumes we may not enter such structures for shelter against rain or heat. One who needs to call someone from a shul should first study a bit of Torah or review an idea in Torah s/he heard (to make the entry “about” the study, not the call of the person, an obvious legal fiction to make a point about our relationship with shuls). A person who has no knowledge to review should ask a child to recite the verse s/he is learning (note the assumption school children would have verses to share on command). Failing that, the person should sit for a bit of time, because sitting in a shul (quietly, perhaps contemplatively) itself has value (Shulhan Arukh says a mitzvah, although I think he’s using the word loosely).

In the third paragraph of the simanShulhan Arukh records the prohibition against sleeping in shul, a reminder not to nap during the rabbi’s speech, although he thinks it is allowed in study halls.

These rules apply even be-hurbanan, when the shuls have fallen into disuse (I always read those words as being about a shul abandoned because people moved away; in our times, Gd has shown us He can lay waste to our shuls without moving us at all. Right now, our shuls are desolate, with thousands of Jews around them). The idea comes from the verse in the tokhakha–in the parasha we would have read two Shabbatot ago, had Gd allowed—va-ha-shimoti et mikdesheikhem, even in a time when Hashem has laid waste to them, they are still mikdashim, places of sanctity.

The major exception Shulhan Arukh carves out brings us back to my friend the rabbinical student. I told him I thought we today assume we build all our structures al tenai, on the condition we can use them for multiple purposes, limiting the sanctity invested in them at construction. In paragraph eleven, Shulhan Arukh recognizes the possibility, although he thinks it helps only be-hurbanan, when they are no longer used as places of prayer, and only outside Israel.

Outside Israel, Mishnah Berurah explains, shuls aren’t intended to be permanent, because their sanctity will clearly go away once Mashiah comes, wheras shuls in Israel are expected/hoped to last forever. (It reminds me of the joke about the town miser whom the hevra kaddisha charged an exorbitant amount for his burial plot. When he protested, they said most graves were being rented, since the inhabitants would be resurrected one day. With him, it was a permanent sale! I also wonder whether we would invest the time, effort, and resources in Diaspora shul constructions if we really believed those shuls would become superfluous when Mashiah comes.)

Arukh Ha-Shulhan pauses to wonder at a practice of his time (he is known for defending common practice whenever possible). People were chatting in shuls and study halls after prayers, on mundane matters, without any sense of a problem. He suggests they accepted the view of Ramban and Ran, who held shuls outside Israel have a condition on their sanctity while they still stand, for any essential needs, and common practice accepted all such conversations as essential. Arukh Ha-Shulhan adds he is certain smoking in shuls cannot be included, is clearly absolutely prohibited; in reverse, he is sure poor people’s need to eat and sleep there counts as essential.

He thinks only the shuls of Bavel all had this condition; shuls elsewhere must make it explicit at the time of construction (I think most of our shuls do so, planning to use the space for many purposes.)

In classic Jewish fashion, both my friend and I were right. He was right about what Shulhan Arukh says, a view Rambam, Tosafot, and other important rishonim accepted: sanctity of the synagogue precludes many activities we see happening in shuls, regardless of whether prayer is occurring. Outside of Israel, we seem to follow the view of Ramban and Ran, and place conditions on the sanctity of our shuls as we construct them.

Without that condition, we would not be allowed to talk (let alone eat or sleep or hang out) in a shul other than for matters of sanctity. Even with the condition, the proper respect for the shul—a place where we pray to Gd, a place where Gd comes to hear our prayers, as it were—could easily limit what we allow there to what we can defend as essential, such as helping the poor.

Yet I seem to have been right as well, in that shuls regularly allow other activities, suggesting they assume they have so fully limited the sanctity of the shul to the moments of prayer, activities during other times are acceptable. With that loophole, it becomes harder to remember that mundane discussion during prayer is certainly a problem, and a question mark even after.

Upping the degree of difficulty for those who seek to improve our attitudes of awe and respect for shul, certainly during prayers and even after. As I told my friend all those years ago.

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