By Elliot Ganz
In many Orthodox shuls today, talking during davening and layning, particularly on Shabbat, has become the norm. It is, in fact, a problem of epidemic proportions. Talking typically begins during Shacharit, gets worse during layning and haftorah, and rises to a crescendo during Mussaf. One of my friends recently quipped that in his shul, the baal tefillah for Mussaf could walk out during chazorat hashatz and no one would notice. Not funny.
What is most surprising about talking during davening is that it crosses all Orthodox hashkafot, from the left wing synagogue to the right wing shtiebel and everywhere in between. Even more difficult to understand is that the talkers include men and women who are generally very careful about their observance of Torah and mitzvot. How is it possible to explain that men who drag themselves out of bed each morning at the crack of dawn to attend a Daf Yomi shiur will think nothing of talking to their neighbors about the stock market or the Yankees during the Shacharit that follows?
The most troubling byproduct of this phenomenon (and one that, I believe, we almost totally ignore) is the impact this behavior is having on our children. Respect for tefillah is, to a large extent, no longer part of our mesorah. On the contrary, lack of respect for tefillah is being passed on to our children. And, what message regarding kavod harav are we imparting to our children when the rabbi’s constant pleas for quiet are routinely ignored? In many school minyanim and on Shabbat, many of our children roam the halls and congregate with their friends during davening. While most yeshivot try to emphasize the importance of tefillah, they are running smack into the contrary message being passed on at home. Children watch their parents as they talk non-stop during davening, walk out during the haftorah for kiddush clubs, or go through an entire layning without even opening their Chumashim! How can we expect them to have respect for prayer?
I believe that there are two primary reasons why talking in shul has become the norm. The first is the fact that shul-going (particularly on Shabbat) has become a social event. The second is a basic lack of understanding about both the halachot and hashkafot of tefillah and appropriate conduct in a shul. These are very complicated subjects and it is not the purpose of this article to analyze them,1 but I believe the following proposal addresses them both. It is a proposal to develop a grass roots movement that will slowly change many peoples’ attitudes towards talking during tefillah.
Once people get a taste of respectful davening, many of them will prefer it to what they are now used to.
The proposal is extremely simple. It is modeled after the immensely successful Mishmeret Shmirat Halashon project, a project that has made a powerful impact on lashon hara, another destructive problem afflicting Orthodox circles.
In a mishmeret shmirat halashon, each participant obligates himself or herself to refrain from speaking or listening to lashon hara or rechilut for two hours each day. The mishmeret could be acting on behalf of a person with a serious health problem, someone needing a shidduch, or a childless couple hoping for children. Every two weeks, the mishmeret selects another person in whose zechut it is acting. Importantly, the members of the mishmeret get together periodically to reinforce what they are doing. Often at such gatherings, an individual who has a particular expertise or insight into the laws or hashkafah of this particular mitzvah addresses them.
My proposal is for every shul to establish its own mishmeret shmirat hatefillah. Each minyan would designate leaders who would recruit members and identify the people who have some type of need. The members of the mishmeret would agree to refrain from talking during tefillah for a week in the zechut of the identified person or people. The rabbi of each shul would focus his Shabbat divrei Torah solely on the laws of hanhagah b’veit haknesset [proper synagogue behavior] and hashkafic aspects of tefillah for a number of weeks following the launching of the mishmeret (and periodically thereafter). The shul would also schedule guest lecturers from time to time to reinforce the importance of this undertaking.
Why would a mishmeret work when so many other attempts have failed? I believe that most people attend shul with the best intentions. However, when friends or acquaintances engage them in conversation, they join in and exacerbate the problem. When a shul is seen as a social setting, it is hard, without being impolite, to tell people that you’d rather not talk. It would be perceived differently, however, if the reason they are refraining from talking is to benefit a person in need. As a member of the mishmeret, all one would need to do is politely say, “Sorry. I’m in the mishmeret, I can’t talk.” I believe that such a response would be respected. In fact, I have often seen my wife, a member of the local mishmeret shmirat halashon, politely and effectively use this approach to cut off lashon hara at our own Shabbat table.
If a large enough core were to sign up for the mishmeret, it could have a significant impact on the decorum in a shul. Many large shuls have smaller, parallel or hashkamah minyanim that tend to be less noisy. These minyanim might be a good place to start. Another suggestion, offered by a friend, is to begin the project more modestly: a mishmeret that acts only once a month, perhaps every Shabbat Mivorchim, would initially attract more participants. Perhaps people would more easily commit to “giving up” talking once a month rather than making a long-term, total commitment. I would encourage even this modest start because I believe that once people get a taste of respectful davening, many of them will prefer it to what they are now used to.
The introduction of the mishmeret shmirat halashon project was met with great skepticism and it has proved to be a powerful force in the battle against lashon hara, spreading to communities all over Israel and the United States. I feel that regarding appropriate behavior in shul, as with most mitzvot, people would really prefer to do the right thing. What do we have to lose by trying?
Elliot Ganz is president of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York, a synagogue known for its respectful decorum.
1. For an excellent description and in-depth analysis of this phenomenon of the problem of social conversation in shuls, see Dr. Yisroel Levitz’s outstanding article, “Talking During Tefilah: Understanding the Phenomenon,” The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Spring 1997, Pesach 5757.