Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Davening Decorum: Making What’s Good Even Better - YIOP Bullentin November 2007

Talking in shul is an age-old problem – perhaps as old as shuls themselves. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, the author of the Tosfot Yom Tov (a commentary on the Mishnah), penned a misheberach in honor of those who refrained from talking during davening as far back as the 17th century. I personally believe that we talk in shul for a number of different reasons (some more legitimate than others):
  1. We feel disconnected from the words that we say. If we knew and understood the prayers better we would talk less.
  2. We haven’t seen our friends since last week, and see shul as a time to reconnect and catch up. After all, in Hebrew we call a shul a Beit K’nesset – “house of gathering” and not a Beit Tefillah – “house of prayer.”
  3. There are a number of times during the davening when all we do is listen. From misheberachs to announcements to the repetition of the Shemoneh Esreh, throughout much of the davening we sit passively, not engaged in prayer. That passivity lends itself to a certain sense of restlessness and boredom, so we talk.
  4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, davening is long on Shabbos and Yom Tov mornings, and we often find it challenging to refrain from making a comment to a friend.
One comment doesn’t really hurt. But when everyone – or too many of us – make that one comment, the cacophony has the potential to ruin what could be a powerful spiritual experience.
The OU’s most recent Jewish Action magazine includes an article by Rabbi Danny Frankel, the executive director of the Young Israel of Woodmere in New York. Rabbi Frankel describes a concerted effort by the leadership and membership of their shul to change the culture of their shul from a “talking” shul to a “non-talking” shul. They made of number of significant changes, from having the members of the shul sign a “no-talking pledge,” to moving around some of the davening, to adding educational components about the davening to the rabbis’ talks.
Lately we have, to some degree, let things slip a little bit and allowed the conversation to grow inside our shul. To combat this trend, we don't need drastic changes. If we focus on small but subtle changes, we will improve the flow and tone of davening in shul.
  1. First and foremost, each of us must check ourselves. We all have some quick and innocuous small comment to make to a friend. Unfortunately, all too often it’s neither small nor quick, and results in a conversation that disturbs others and disrupts the tone of the davening. If each of us makes an effort to be better about our own talking in shul, that collective effort will bring a dramatic improvement.
  2. No one is perfect, but we are all mutually responsible. If we’re talking and someone asks us to stop (nicely, of course), don’t get insulted or upset. They’re right. We should stop. So, instead of getting angry and firing back, take the comment to heart and either take the conversation outside, or delay it until davening ends.
  3. As a shul, we also need to improve the flow of the davening and minimize delays. If you’re given a kibbud or aliyah, please be present for the aliyah or kibbud to avoid unnecessary delays. In addition, if you want your family members named during a misheberach, make up a card with all of those names clearly written for the gabbai to read. It’s not fair to make the shul wait while someone tries to remember his wife’s cousin’s sister (on her father’s side).
  4. Finally, we will be making other small changes to try and increase the flow and minimize talking opportunities during the davening. They might not be what you’re used to, so give yourself time to adjust to them to let us see if they really do make a difference in the level of talking during the davening.
If you struggle keeping up the pace of davening, it's better to slowly recite less of the prayers than to run through too many words without understanding them well. Take the time to read some of the prayers in English, and make an effort to learn the meanings of the Hebrew prayers, especially the Shema and Shemoneh Esreh. The investment of time that you make in understanding the davening will pay great dividends for years to come. Also, Rena gave a shiur on Tehillim that covered many of the Psalms that we recite during the davening. Her lectures are available to listen to online on our web site ( as well.
If you're interested in some reading material that will aid in understanding davening, I'd like to suggest the following titles that focus on davening or developing a closer relationship with God. You can find each of these books in the YIOP library, but do not remove them from the shul building.
  • Family Redeemed, The Lonely Man of Faith, and an article called "Prayer as Dialogue" in Reflections of the Rav, Volume 1, all by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
  • Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah, by Menachem Nissel
  • How to Get Your Prayers Answered, by Rabbi Irwin Katsof (not in the YIOP Library)
  • Living Inspired, by Rabbi Akiva Tatz
  • The World of Prayer, by Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk
  • Rabbi Schwab on Prayer (based on the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Schwab)
  • If You Were God, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
We make a strong effort to maintain a sense of decorum in our shul, with significant success. But we still need to remain vigilant about the decorum inside the shul, to ensure that during our davening we converse not with each other, but with God.

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