Sunday, July 06, 2008

Talking During Davening

I'm always bothered by talking in shul but I try to remind myself that people need time to socialize and many people are not able to see their friends other than in shul. But I just wish people would confine their talking to the times during davening when they are halakhically permitted to talk.

What really irks me is when people finish their silent prayers before me and start talking to each other. Guess what? In an otherwise silent synagogue, the one person who whispers is heard far and wide. I find it very disturbing to my concentration.

Click here to read moreI once had an argument with a friend about why people do this. He thinks it is because they don't truly appreciate the power of prayer to connect man and God. I disagree. They are done praying and I think that they talk because they are self-absorbed. They don't care about their fellow synagogue members who are still praying.

As an aside, I often hear Orthodox people wondering why in Orthodox synagogues people talk much more than in Heterodox synagogues. The common self-flattering explanation is that Orthodox Jews are in synagogues so often that we feel more comfortable there. I'm not so sure that is the real explanation. Jews learn from the first time they enter a synagogues what is allowed and what is not. For about 200 years, reform-minded synagogues have tried to enforce decorum while more traditional synagogues have made a point of not enforcing decorum (with plenty staking territory in between). I think that the decorum in Heterodox synagogues is something that has been consciously planned and successfully instilled, with some positive and some negative consequences.

But back to the point, when I was spending Shabbos with R. Dovid Gottlieb in Baltimore two weeks ago, I was randomly thinking about talking in shul over my morning cup of coffee (before services, and not because of anything I witnessed the night before). The Gemara (Berakhos 24b) states that someone who prays (shemoneh esreh) loudly is lacking in faith, which Rashi explains is because he implies that God can't hear a silent prayer. The Gemara qualifies this that if someone can only concentrate when praying loudly then he may do so, but not in synagogues because that will disturb others. In other words, there are two concerns: showing a lack of faith and disturbing others. Your personal lack of concentration can override the implication of a lack of faith but cannot override disturbing others. What qualifies as disturbing others?

The Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 101) struggles with a common practice to pray out loud on the high holidays. He explains, as I understand him, that the second issue mentioned above is that other people will become confused and make mistakes in the words of the prayer.* Since people pray on the high holidays from prayerbooks, there is no concern that they will become confused. Therefore, someone who concentrates better by praying out loud may do so on the high holidays (see Shulchan Arukh, ad loc. 3).

That was in his time. Today, people pray from prayerbooks also during the other holidays and generally on Shabbos as well. It would seem to be true that in places where everyone prays from a prayerbook then one may pray loudly. However, there seems to be a post-Shulchan Arukh hesitance to permit prayer out loud for kabbalistic reasons (see the commentaries to Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 101:3, 582:9). That is important but beside the point for this discussion.

What I found interesting is that there is seemingly no concern that one person's loud prayers will disturb the concentration of everyone else. Evidently, this is not an issue. I don't know why, but it isn't. In fact, I have prayed near loud-praying people and found it very distracting. But they don't seem to be doing anything wrong halakhically.

Perhaps, if someone may pray out loud then maybe other people may talk as well. As long as those who are praying are reading from prayerbooks, then we are not concerned that they will get confused.

When I told this to a local rabbi, he insisted that people have the right to choose to pray from memory, in which case none of the above would apply. Personally, I am still convinced that talking while others are praying -- even from a prayerbook -- demonstrates a disturbing lack of interpersonal concern, and I hesitatingly say the same about those who pray loudly to the detriment of others.

* I think that must be the real intent of the Taz (Orach Chaim 123:5). See the wording of the Bach (quoted in the Peri Megadim).

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