Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spitting in the synagogue - Hygiene, Tolerance and a Public Space

I once davened in a minyan factory beside a man who had some kind of medical problem; he kept a styrofoam cup with him, and he spat gently into the cup every couple of minutes.

The man was fairly discreet, he did not cough loudly or sneeze on people, but I was still quite disturbed. Part of it was that the cup was not covered. Part was lack of sleep. Part was, I suppose, my own איסטניס istinis character. (In the language of mishnah and gemara, an istinis is someone of delicate mind, who cannot tolerate physical or mental discomfort.) Whatever the cause, I found concentration challenging.

Classically, American shuls (and European as well, I imagine) had spittoons, but that was in an age when public expectoration was expected. Going back further, gemara and rishonim and shulchan aruch (Orach Chaim 92) discuss the status of saliva in shul, and the halachic authorities rule that one should prepare a handkerchief or something similar to absorb the saliva, because it's repellent during davening.

So, from a halachic perspective, he should have used a cloth or similar material to conceal his spit. But I'm more drawn by the fundamental philosophical issue of how one reacts in shul, when someone's behavior is personally necessary but it bothers other people.

This is an issue regarding the well-beaten horse corpse of talking in shul, of course, but also for less obviously noxious behavior like pacing in a row, reciting words audibly, stressing sibilants, blowing one's nose loudly... a shul is a public space, and so consideration of others is mandated, but how far do we go in requiring that people rein in their eccentricities in order to accommodate others? What if he had been spitting into a handkerchief, but it had still distracted me?

And further – what about where it's actually communal behavior that bothers an individual? Example: The community does not want an air conditioner on, but an individual wants it. Or: The custom is for the leader to bang his shtender (lectern) before starting the Amidah on holidays to remind people to insert special prayers, but that bang disturbs someone's concentration. So who must bend?

I suppose this brings me back to my “Who owns the shul?” post on setting a shul philosophy which may offend some. Following Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook's logic there, it would be my obligation to be as flexible as possible, in order to avoid driving anyone away.

But, on the other hand, perhaps philosophy and personal hygiene should be viewed differently. Perhaps when it comes to philosophy we should avoid the tyranny of the many, but when it comes to personal hygiene we should avoid the tyranny of the few?

Don't know. Your thoughts?


  1. at least he spit into a cup.
    as opposed to minhag chabad in aleinu.

  2. Lion:

    Look on the bright side. At least if you go to a chabad shul you get a free shoe-shine :)

    Seriously, if I remember correctly the Shulchan Aruch HaRav explicitly mentions this minhag and the obvious objection.

  3. Funny, when I saw the title, Aleinu at 770 was also my first thought!

  4. SoccerDad-
    Odd; I never would have thought of that. Then again, I don't think of 770 much.

  5. My 96-year old father has Alzheimer's but he enjoys the kabbalat Shabbat service at the nursing home. Last week he spit on the floor and I didn't take him this week because I was afraid it upset other people. I don't know what is the right thing to do exactly.

  6. Anonymous - I don't know your situation obviously, but it seems that people are generally pretty forgiving of old people, especially when they have Alzheimer's. It seems a bit unfair to "punish" him for something that most people have probably forgotten.

  7. Anonymous, Michael-
    While I tend to agree with Michael that people are more forgiving with an Alzheimer's patient, the problem of distracting people still exists. Is there any way he could participate in a less-visible location?