Tuesday, March 16, 2010

This is a shul, Rabbi!

One of my strongest shul-related childhood memories is of crossing a leg over my lap during the rabbi's speech, and my father telling me that this relaxed position was inappropriate for shul. [Update: My father has explained to me that he learned this lesson from the great Rabbi Leo Jung, z"l.]

This mental photograph has been very helpful to me over the years.

A dozen years in the rabbinate means that for a dozen years I entered and exited the shul [meaning the sanctuary, the actual room in which we daven] several times each day, and used that space for any number of non-davening purposes from rolling sifrei torah to preparing the room for davening to I don’t remember what. In the years before that I spent more than ten hours each day in beis medrash, as I do now in my new kollel life.

Bottom line: I have lived in “sacred spaces” more than I have lived anywhere else, and as a result I am perpetually on the verge of losing sensitivity to the kedushah [sanctity] of a shul and of a place dedicated to learning Torah.

One danger in this numbing is halachic: I’ll see nothing wrong with walking in there to shoot the breeze with someone, an activity which is prohibited. I’ve seen it happen; I’ve seen shul rabbis, holy individuals whose achievements dwarf my own, people I could not ever judge [although I suppose I do…], use shul sanctuary space for communal meetings, personal conversation and telling jokes.

In truth, some of those activities may be halachically justified by the fact that shul sanctuaries are often designed to be multi-purpose rooms. But the risk of desensitization is about more than the halachic Yea or Nay; there is also the greater effect on the way we experience shul activities – davening and learning Torah.

On this deeper level, desensitization to the shul space is part of a process of taking Gd out of davening and out of learning Torah. Davening and learning, without an awareness of Gd, become tasks, checklist activities, or even self-centered activities, rather than cornerstones of a profound relationship.

So I try to be careful to say Mah Tovu every time I walk into the shul; to relate to my children in a manner that also honors the space; to dress properly; to keep my speech limited to topics that are appropriate for the space.

And, of course, not to cross a leg over my lap.


  1. Sounds like a bad case of living the vida dialectic. Take 2 copies of halachic Man and call me in the morning.
    Joel Rich

  2. I have a question:

    I know that many times if a shul has to use a room for secular purposes they place a mechitza or other additional covering in front of the Aron. Does this mean that the Women's Section of the shul is not subject to the same halachot as the rest of the shul? If so, do I have I erred in telling kids that(women's section of)a shul may not be used as a shortcut? Especially not during davening.

    The kids involved are not mine, I hasten to add. Though I probably won't rebuke mine for sitting cross-legged.

  3. Laya,
    I'm not sure that A implies B but there is a shita that the women's section has a lower level of kedusha than the men's section - one implication would be for whether one could take part of the men's section and convert it for use by women on a permanent basis. I would guess this would not impact not using it as a shortcut
    Joel Rich

  4. Wonderful post. My rabbi had a huge tantrum in shul at musaf because people were talking during chazaros hashatz (sp?) and it felt very weird, but on the other hand, why would anyone talk in shul? Because when else do we have to talk to each other. We need our rabbis to remind us, obviously.

  5. Joel-
    That's never bad, just a little intense...

    As Joel notes, there is a school of thought that differentiates between the two areas, based on the differentiation between עזרת ישראל and עזרת נשים in the Beit haMikdash.
    However, one certainly may not treat the women's section as a shortcut!

    Thanks, and good to hear from you. I hope 'tantrum' isn't an accurate description, though...

  6. Interesting. I remember Rav Mordechai Eliyahu using sitting with one's legs crossed as an example of a casual behavior unsuited to the dignity of the synagogue.

    Your father was a S'fardi? ;-)

  7. And thanks for your condolences on my loss, Rabbi. It means a lot.