Sunday, July 13, 2008

Talking During Davening II

In conjunction with an earlier post (link), someone sent me an article about the talking problem in synagogues (Irving N. Levitz, "Talking During Tefillah: Understanding The Phenomenon" in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society XXXIII [Spring 1997]). On pages 105-106, Dr. Levitz makes an halakhic statement that I find sufficiently troubling to merit discussion. He writes:
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One of these [mistaken] beliefs is that one is, in fact, permitted to socialize in the synagogue except for times of hefsek (when it is strictly forbidden to interrupt the service for any reason). The popular conception is that socializing at other times is halachically permissible. Halacha, however, does not support this contention.

The Mishnah Berurah, for example, decisively rules that socializing is prohibited even at times other than hefsek periods. The types of social intercourse most commonly observed in Orthodox synagogues include every variation of halachically prohibited engagement: Kalut Rosh -- jesting, laughing, playful taunting, joking; Sicha Betaila -- idle chatter (e.g. sports, politics), Diburim Asurim -- gossip, rumor, derisive arguments, and Divrei Chol -- business discussions. These are at all times halachically prohibited within the precincts of the synagogue.
It seems to me that this strict position -- which Dr. Levitz accurately quotes from the Mishnah Berurah 151:2 -- is contradicted by the conscious and intended practice of many great rabbis, and a few important rulings as well. The same ruling in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 151:1) that forbids idle chatter in a synagogue also forbids eating and drinking there. However, it is a fairly common practice to eat at a bris, shalom zakhar, yahrtzeit (which I think is wrong, but that is a separate discussion), kiddush and se'udah shelishis in a synagogue, at which time random conversations ensue that add cohesion and friendship to the community. How can rabbis -- often great rabbis -- allow these meals to take place when the Shulchan Arukh prohibits them?

While some synagogues have them in separate rooms where prayer does not take place, many chassidic and yeshivish synagogues have them in the sanctuary. This is particularly relevant to Chassidim who have all sorts of meals and discussions in their shtieblakh.

The Tzanzer Rav (Divrei Chaim, Choshen Mishpat 2:32, quoted in Piskei Teshuvos 151:21 n. 100) explains that Chassidim intentionally do not create synagogues but instead makee communal buildings (Jewish community centers?) in which to perform all of their communal functions, including prayer. Therefore, the stringencies of a synagogue do not apply to shtieblakh. I find this a difficult rationale but, if true, it would mean that idle chatter should technically be permitted in a shtieble (albeit within the limits of propriety, out of respect for the Torah scroll).

The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 151:5) asked why people speak idle chatter in (even non-Chassidic) synagogues after prayer services and answered that we must follow the view of the Ramban and Ran that when synagogues are founded with the condition that certain non-holy things will take place in them (such as eating or speaking idle chatter), then in cases of need these activities are permitted. And, continues the Arukh Ha-Shulchan, we must find these friendly discussions to be needed. He rules this way even though the Shulchan Arukh rules against the Ramban and Ran.

R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:45) considers contemporary practice to so clearly follow the Ramban and Ran (even when there is no great need) that "it seems that it is now ruled like this for practice (nimtza she-nifsak atah ken la-halakhah)". He says this even in regard to eating a meal that is entirely optional (davar ha-reshus mamash -- and see She'arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 13:2 who strongly disagrees with this ruling).

The Piskei Teshuvos (151:21), written by a contemporary chassidic scholar, spends a great deal of time defending contemporary usage of the synagogue for purposes that contradict the explicit rulings of the Shulchan Arukh and Mishnah Berurah. He even quotes authorities who allow it in synagogues in Israel, even though there is a view that synagogues in Israel are permanent and have no conditions on their usage. There are other views that when people build a synagogue today, even in Israel, there are implicit conditions on the building's usage.

Based on all this, while I certainly do not advocate improper or offensive speech, there seems to be room for the contemporary practice of casual discussions in the synagogue (although not during prayer). The Mishnah Berurarh's strictures are important guidelines but not binding, as the above authorities have noted.

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