Many shul rabbis spend significant time thinking about ways to eliminate noise in shul (see my previous post here). Wise people have written lengthy articles deconstructing the “talking in shul” phenomenon, explaining why people do it and how they might be motivated to stop.
I have heard that rabbis have taken all sorts of creative steps, including:
*Anonymous letters to congregants (I wonder if they use ransom-note style cut-out letters to avoid forensic analysis);
*Long speeches and dedicated divrei torah ("I'll keep talking until you stop talking");
*Special tefilot on behalf of people who stop talking (maybe they should be davening on behalf of the talkers?);
*Eliminating Chazarat haShatz;
*Public humiliation of talkers.
Personally, I think we would be better off looking at the positive: How to create a davening-focussed shul experience, an atmosphere which helps people get into the mood of davening.
The approach must include more than posting a דע לפני מי אתה עומד (Know before Whom you stand) motto over the Aron or an אסור לדבר בשעת התפילה (Speech during davening is prohibited) sign on the wall, whether accompanied by a cute graphic or not. “No cell phones” signs are nice, but similarly inadequate. Again: Even if people comply, our goal is not to eliminate noise - it’s to create a good davening atmosphere.
So what can we do?
1) The most obvious answer is to have an existing nucleus of people davening with proper concentration. Nothing increases kavvanah (focus) like standing in a group of people who are already focussed. But what about for those of us who don’t already have such a nucleus?
2) Another good answer is to create pre-davening programming. The mishnah notes an ancient practice of meditating for an hour before Shemoneh Esreih. Our own psukei d’zimra is meant to achieve the same goal, although that requires an understanding of what its passages mean.
The gemara makes this point when it notes that one may not begin davening after studying in-depth Torah. Torah is wonderful - but, for most of people, it will not develop a mood of davening. In fact, even studying the meaning of davening won’t necessarily help. For most people, intellectual study is more about an internal focus than a Divine focus.
Actual meditation, or perhaps a directed session in which people think about their lives and needs, and the lives and needs of those around them, and the wondrous things HaShem does for us at all times, would accomplish far more. Unfortunately, it’s too touchy-feely for most of us (me included, frankly), but that’s too bad - it could really make a difference.
3) A third answer is to make sure that people have an appropriate activity during all points of the davening - including the “down time” when the Torah is circulating, during lengthy “Mi sheBeirach” prayers on behalf of the sick, the local government, the State of Israel, POWs, et cetera, and during Chazarat haShatz (repetition of Shmoneh Esreih).
I am well aware of the halachic rulings prohibiting Torah study during this last period, and I, personally, follow that view. At the same time, if the result is that slack-jawed people’s minds wander, they don’t listen to the chazan and they don’t answer Amen anyway, they might as well be studying. Perhaps shuls could have, in the pews themselves, literature on the davening and literature that encourages people to think about their needs/blessings and their relationship with HaShem. Alternatively, Chazanim could work harder at creating tunes which will draw people into the davening.
4) For the intellectually focussed, we need classes on the meaning of the davening - not just the superficial, but in-depth analysis of Psukei d’Zimra, of the structure of berachos, etc - so that people will understand the genius invested in each tefillah.
There are many more ideas out there, I am sure, but to me, this is the bottom line: We will have a strong davening when we stop deconstructing noise and start constructing a davening atmosphere.