Sunday, March 6, 2011

Entertain us!

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I've written quite a bit about the phenomenon of talking in shul - two of my favorite posts were in the summer of 2008, here and here - but a few weeks back, a two-second tableau gave me a new thought.

A child, somewhere around 10 years old, had just finished watching a video in a child-oriented, game-filled public facility (situation anonymized to protect child and parents), and he instantly declared to his parents, "I'm bored!"

The kid was surrounded by things to do, and people to do them with.

He hadn't tried to engage himself in anything. He hadn't worked at anything.

He just wanted to be entertained, and when the entertainment stopped, he was bored.

Watching this, I wondered: Is this the shul problem? Is it as simple as the fact that we anticipate, and feel entitled to, entertainment, so that the moment we are not entertained, we turn to others in the hope that they will fill our need?

We keep multiple windows open in our browsers while at work, so that we can take frequent breaks for entertainment.

We have Ipods and Iphones, as well as the old stand-by books and radio and tv, to fill in every moment with chatter and comedy.

We eschew privacy and quiet personal time, in favor of screens populated by those who will make us laugh or cry. How many people are left who just sit and think for any period of time?

Nirvana said it - "Here are now, entertain us!"

I've blamed the shul decorum problem on a whole host of other factors - long davening exacerbated by a multiplicity of mi shebeirachs, synagogue layouts that place people in close proximity for hours at a time, lack of education on the power of silent tefillah, lack of a nucleus of silent daveners, distaste for intensity, lack of depth in the approach to mechanistic ritual, and so on. And all of these are true and real.

But at its core: Are like that pre-adolescent kid, seeking entertainment? Is it that simple?


  1. You may be on to something here, although most of your other suggestions in the penultimate paragraph are good too.

    I certainly don't think long services are the problem, though - I've seen (or rather heard) people who can't go through a ten minute mincha without a conversation.

  2. While I have known people who have trouble sitting through a 10 minute weekday mincha, it seems to me that when a shul as a whole has a decorum problem it is almost always associated with long davening. What is long, depends on the service. A 25 minute weekday mincha is long; a 3 hour Shabbat Shacharit is long. I have never davened in a shul with a 1.5 hour Shabbat morning service that had a decorum problem. And I only remember 2 shuls that ran 3 hour Shabbat morning services without decorum problems, and they both had highly respected, charismatic rabbis.

    Dead time is a particular problem, whether it is long misheberachs or waiting for the rabbi who is finishing avot about the time most of the congregation is finishing shmoneh esrei. This might be a function of wanting entertainment, but I suspect it is also a problem of proportion. No matter what the activity people tend to get restless when they feel their time is being wasted. I have known people who have no trouble concentrating through a 4 hour service on Rosh Hashana who get restless if Shabbos morning davening runs past a couple of hours. I believe this is because they see four hour's worth of davening in the RH service, but know full well that the Shabbat service is running so long only because people are dreying around.

    I have observed similar patterns in business meetings.

  3. Entertainment might apply in some cases, although I'd favor "needing constant stimulation" instead. Apparently "silence is golden" no longer applies to whole swathes of the population, and unless something is constantly catching their eyes and ears they feel that something vital is missing. Introspection doesn't seem to be a community value.

    It's also partially an affect of living in a sound bite world, where it seems that nothing of long duration is looked at positively.

    Re Mikes comment about the 4-hour RH davening, I well remember that RH davening used to be easily 5-6 hours plus, and we all seemed to make it through just fine.

  4. I've been going to a "kehilot sharot' group (
    and one thing the paytanim who teach the sessions keep coming back to is how recently various parts of the davening were added. Shul used to be shorter.

  5. imho these are exacebating factors but if folks really felt their lives and livelihood (as well as their community's) depended on it, they wouldn't need to "manage to control themselves" but would be totally invested in their prayer/community process.

    Joel Rich

  6. ProfK-
    Yes, your "needing constant stimulation" is my "entertainment" formulation.

    Daniel, Mike S-
    Paradoxically, I'm with both of you.

    Anonymous 10:07 AM-
    The 'obligatory' was shorter, true. On the other hand, the practice of preceding and following the obligatory with assisting tefillah is very old.

    Also true.

  7. Rabbi--

    as you well know, the problem of talking in shul long predates the current phenomenon of people constantly being on the internet and cellphones etc.

    I hate to say this, but I have been in shuls where people talk through the whole davening and I get the impression that they just don't care about tefila. It's the problem that many complain about of outward but not inward religiosity. A proof to this is that you never find talking at a shabbos vasikin minyan or a 7 am shabbos minyan, because no one in his right mind would get up so early on a saturday morning just to be seen and socialize. You find talking all the time at these minyanim that start at 9 or 9:30 and where the place really starts filling up 30 to 40 minutes after the scheduled start time. I don't mean that everyone or even most people who go to such a minyan don't care, because I imagine most do, but you get enough people talking that ruins the tefila atmosphere for everyone else. It's people who don't care about tefila.

  8. Anonymous 8:51 PM (why so many anonymi on this topic?)-
    1. I actually do see talkers at vasikin minyanim as well.

    2. I agree that the problem is quite old, but I do think that we are now seeing a new, exacerbating factor.

  9. I am the same anonymous from 8:51 pm last night. I can't speak for others but I am commenting anonymously so as not to insult anyone.

    And I would like to probe something the Rabbi said --you see people at a shabbos morning vasikin minyan chatting away during krias hatorah and chazaras hashatz etc? Enough so that the minyan takes on the character of a "talking minyan"?

    This is very surprising to me. I have never seen or heard of such a thing. You don't even see this at a minyan that meets at 7 or 7:30. I am talking about a shabbos minyan specifically, because a weekday vasikin minyan (especially in the winter and especially in Toronto as compared to NYC) may be made up largely of people who have to be up to go to work at that time anyway. And I am not talking about someone who in between krias haTorah and haftora turns to the guest near him and whispers "nice to see you, how is your father?" or the person who during the mishebeirachs points to a pasuk in his chumash says quietly to the person next to him "I was surprised at the pronunciation of the baal koreh, do you know why he pronounced it that way?". I am talking about people sitting chatting away, loudly and about topics unrelated to tefila or Torah. This is the phenomenon I attribute to not caring about Tefila.

  10. I think that the abundance of reading material (Torah or otherwise) lowers the decorum as well.

  11. Anonymous 11:21 AM-
    Thanks for the follow-up. I have definitely seen chatting, but no, it wasn't the whole minyan. It tends to be 2 or 3 here, 2 or 3 there, and generally not for the entire time.

    Agreed. I know a rabbi who does not permit the various dvar torah sheets in shul; although our kollel produces such a sheet, I consider them a necessary evil, and my heart is with him.