By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried:
I am experiencing a challenge to my sense of that which is appropriate behavior in the sanctuary, during a Jewish service; your thoughts and advice are needed.
Last Sunday, I was at a minyan for the survivors of the Holocaust, there was a lot of history, pain, sorrow and tragedy present in that sanctuary. When I am in a sanctuary — that one or any other — it is a sacred place for me, especially during a service, providing me with the opportunity to get closer to Adonai.
My problem: During the service on Sunday, there were several personal conversations taking place in the sanctuary. The folks who were chitchatting and chewing the fat were some of the most visible leaders in the Jewish community, and they did not appear to be discussing the Holocaust, or the survivors that were present. These discussions distracted me, and others, while we davened. I cannot imagine how the two survivors to my immediate right felt as they said Kaddish for family, friends and so many others who did not survive the Holocaust.
There we were, with Jews that knew and survived the most ghoulish and insane nightmare known to mankind, most of us saying Kaddish for the 6 million that did not leave places such an Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Dachau, Buchenwald and others, and yet — there were people present not respecting the sanctity of the moment. Why were they there? Did they not care about the solemnity of the event? Or, were they only thinking of themselves?
I go to shul to pray, and socializing before or after the services is fine by me. But why come into the sanctuary during services, if you want to visit with your family and/or friends? Similar conversations are experienced at the synagogue that I attend, and I do not have a position where I can bring about change.
Rabbi, please share your thoughts on the subject of “idle chatter” and/or private discussion(s) taking place during services. How you would deal with this issue as a rabbi? And, how can I, as a congregation member, help stem the tide of discussions at inappropriate times in the sanctuary?
Unfortunately, you have identified one of the most common problems that rabbis and serious congregants have grappled with for centuries, if not millennia. [I recently heard of how one gabbai (sexton) dealt with the problem of two Jews who, week after week, stood at the back of the shul and loudly discussed their business issues right through the Torah reading as if it wasn’t happening. No shushing, warning or angry looks made a bit of difference. One week he had an epiphany. The Torah is lifted (hagbah) after the final aliyah. The gabbai went over to one of the two men and said “hagbah,” signaling to him to go lift the Torah, which he promptly did. Only he told him after the fifth aliyah, not the last, drawing cries from the entire congregation!]
In departure from the style of our usual column, I am going to ask the readers to comment on this question, via e-mail or letter, over the next week, and after seeing your comments I will offer my remarks on this very sticky issue. Thank you for raising the issue, and I look forward to hearing from y’all!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.