I was once a guest in a particular shul. Shabbos morning, shul was called for 9:00 AM. I showed up 9:00 AM and there was nobody there except for me and the rabbi, so I sat down in what seemed like a good seat. (It was on the aisle.)
Maybe ten minutes later, the next minyan participant arrived. He walked straight to me. Did he say “Welcome” or “Good Shabbos?” No, he said, “You’re in my seat.”
I looked around incredulously at the empty room, full of equally functioning chairs. I shrugged and moved to the next row. Believe it or not, the exact same thing happened with the next person’s arrival.
It took until 10:00 for a minyan to actually form. I was instructed to move five times between the minyan’s scheduled starting time and it finally getting underway.
The reason for this music-free game of musical chairs is the concept of “makom kavua,” a person’s designated place in his synagogue.
Where does the idea of a makom kavua come from? The Talmud in Brachos (6a) attributes it to Avraham. We all know that Avraham is credited with establishing the morning prayer service, as per Genesis 19:27, “And Avraham got up early in the morning…” The end of that verse teaches us the concept of a makom kavua: “…to the place where he had stood before Hashem.” We see from this that Avraham was careful to daven in the same place.
Makom kavua is an important concept. The Talmud in Brachos continues that if one is careful to daven in a permanently-designated location, then when he dies, people will say of him, “Such a humble person! Such a pious person! He was one of the disciples of our father Avraham!” But how far should we carry things?
The Rishonim disagree about whether or not a makom kavua applies within a shul. Let’s face it, the entire synagogue is a place designated for prayer! But let’s accept that one should have a fixed location even within a shul. The Shulchan Aruch rules as much: “A person should establish a place for his prayers” (Orach Chaim 90:19). But…
The Magen Avraham (OC 90:34) writes on this that “within four cubits (about six feet) is considered being in the same space; it’s impossible to be exact.”
The Aruch HaShulchan (OC 90:23) says that idea of a makom kavua is to daven regularly in the same shul and not to move around constantly. Within the shul, it’s advisable to daven in the same general area, not on the east side today and the south side tomorrow, but he also specifies the impossibility of always securing the exact same seat.
Let’s return to the Shulchan Aruch quoted above (OC 90:19). That sentence begins, “A person should establish a place for his prayers.” It continues, “that he should not change.” It concludes, “unless necessary.” Ergo, one may sit somewhere else if necessary. What would render it necessary? Uh… how about if someone else is already sitting there? (And remember, sitting anywhere within a six-foot radius is still considered in the same place, anyway! All the authorities say that one cannot be exact in this matter!)
We learn the concept of a makom kavua from Avraham but that’s not what Avraham is best known for. His primary characteristic was chesed (kindness). He is remembered for hachnosas orchim (hospitality). Do you really think Avraham would chase a visitor out of his seat? When you bark at a guest that they’re in your spot, they don’t think you’re humble or pious or a disciple of our father Avraham. They think you’re a jerk.
So, cool it, folks. Sitting in your usual seat is great but it doesn’t override being nice to people. Sitting near your usual place still fulfills the halacha. If you really want a particular seat, come on time.