| Have you ever been to the circus? One of the truly amazing sights to
see is the big cat cage, where ferocious lions and tigers are held at bay by
the 'lion tamers.' Did you ever wonder why these fearless -- or foolish --
men carry a stool with them when they go into a cage with man eating animals?
They have a whip, of course, and a pistol, but invariably they will also
carry a stool. It's said that it is the most important tool of the tamer.
The tamer holds the stool by the back and thrusts the legs towards the face
of the animal. Those who know maintain that the cat tries to focus on all
four legs at once. In the attempt to focus on all four, a kind of paralysis
overwhelms the animal. It becomes tame, weak and disabled because of its
Jungle cats aren't the only creatures affected by this problem. We also
tend to become unable to perform our duties when our attention is divided
among too many things.
To better help us place our undivided attention on davening, this
Shabbas has been designated across North America as 'Shabbas Tacharishun -- a
national Shabbat that focuses on the decorum of the synagogue, and spiritual
Why this particular Shabbos? To heighten the sensitivity to the
importance of talk-free davening, it was felt that one Shabbos a year should
be dedicated by each shul to a discussion of some of the aspects of davening.
Parshas Beshalach was chosen because the Torah portion read today includes
the text of Shmot 14:14 in which Moshe allays the fears of the Children of
Israel at the shore of the Red Sea with the words: "G-d will fight for you,
but you must remain silent." Shul goers in many places are focusing on
curtailing one of the greatest ills that plague our synagogues; talking
Sure, we know that talking in shul isn't the best thing to do. Some of
us are aware that the Choftez Chaim said that a number of synagogues were
destroyed -- that's right -- destroyed -- due to the sin of talking during
services. We might also be aware of the statement found in commentaries to
the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) that if a person can't control
his talking in shul, it is preferable that he pray at home and not attend
shul at all. Why is it, though, that despite literally centuries of rabbis
asking people not to talk, and clear-cut halachic prohibitions, that
socializing become so embedded into Jewish communal prayer?
The experts identify many different causes. My personal belief is, is
that one reason why people talk in shul is that many don't really understand
the prayers. Individuals who can read the Hebrew, understand the meaning of
the words, and have an idea of what we're supposed to be thinking when we say
those words are an increasingly rare species. Lets take one example: the
word 'Boruch.' If someone were to ask you what the word 'Boruch' means, what
would you say? 'Blessed'? 'Blessed are you'? 'Blessed art thou'? What
does it mean, when we say that 'God is blessed'? 'Boruch atah' means,
according to the simple understanding of the phrase, 'You, God, are the
source of blessings.' It's not we who give God the blessing -- we
acknowledge Him as the source of all blessings we have.
People don't talk in a movie theater, because they want to hear every
word that's being said. Can you imagine going to a 3 hour movie in
Portuguese -- with no subtitles? It's not hard to imagine that within a few
minutes, we'd be turning to our neighbor to chat. In addition to the monthly
learners services that we'll be reinstituting here at NHBZ, where we'll focus
on insights and meaning into the tefillos, I'd love to have several people
tell me, 'Rabbi Smason, I want to understand the davening better -- could we
arrange a class for you to teach us?' My door is open, ladies and gentlemen.
The deeper the understanding and connection that you have to the davening,
the more of a spiritual experience you'll have, and the less chatting there
One other aspect of davening that I'd like to focus on is 'Kedushas Beis
Ha'Kenesses'; the sanctity and holiness of the shul. Every person here
knows, that a shul is a holy place. Many might not be aware that that
kedusha carries with it a special set of guidelines governing how we're to
act in this kadosh place. For example, did you know that while it goes
without saying that loshon hara is prohibited in shul, the halacha prohibits
levity and idle conversation? Idle conversation includes talks about secular
subjects that are permitted elsewhere, such as business matters. There's
nothing wrong talking about your investments, or how the Cardinals are doing;
just not, please, in shul.
An anonymous letter appeared in a Jewish periodical a number of years
ago titled "An Open Letter to My Neighbor in Shul" I'd like to read excerpts
from it for you, that touch upon some of these ideas we've mentioned.
One thing that disturbs me greatly is your talking during davening. At
first, it was barely more than a word or two. But now, you begin
conversation almost as soon as you come into shul.
...now, you might argue that you are usually talking to the man on your other
side, and not me. Yes, that is true. But I also have an inclination to
shmooze in shul. When I see you practically smacking your lips over a
delicious interchange, I am tempted to join you...
The other day you asked my why I don't bring my 5 year old son to shul more
often. I told you then that he is too young. Now, I'll tell you the real
reason; he still feels the kedushas beis hamedrash -- the sanctity of the
place -- when he walks in. Even after davening, he only whispers. If I
bring him every week and sit him between us, I am frankly afraid of your
example. How can he retain his reverence for shul, when he observes your
You don't owe me any respect. But think of our children. What will become
of their davening? I see that you are already having trouble controlling
some of your children in shul.
Maintaining our undivided attention throughout the morning services is,
no doubt, a challenge. Studying the translation of the tefillos; studying
the meaning of the tefillos; making a concentrated effort not to talk during
the davening, and learning and observing the halachos relevant to 'kedushas
Beis HaKnesses' will enhance our appreciation of davening, help HaShem to
listen more closely to our prayers, and make an indelible positive impression
on visitors to our shul, and those most important to us -- our children.