When someone talks in shul, they are weakening the impact of all the tefillos
It’s the season of teshuvah, and ringing in my ears are the words of a well-meaning co-mispallel at the Woodbourne shul who told me that I’m not using the podium afforded by this column to raise awareness.
He didn’t tell me what I should be raising awareness for, just that a column isn’t only a place to make jokes and that this forum comes with achrayus. That was distressing to me, because until I shared elbow space with this anonymous Yid a few weeks ago, I always thought of the column as a place where we do talk about real stuff.
I was the first to express support for sweaty-palm sufferers, an unpleasant condition in any society, but all the more so in one where male dancing involves hand-holding. Not long ago I let the return-card procrastinators know that they’re not alone, giving much-needed chizuk to a demographic that gets its share of abuse.
Also, if I get preachy, I lose my zechus to make fun of other writers when they sound preachy, so it’s a sacrifice. But a Yid says something, you hear it, there’s a reason — so we’ll try.
I don’t consider myself a particularly embarrassing father, not more than average. My favorite Tatty joke, which involved asking my children’s playdates to pay a quarter before using our phone, is completely obsolete. The new generations of playdates have no concept of the connection between a quarter and a phone, so we lost that.
But there is a habit I have that makes my children cringe, and I totally get it. It makes me cringe too. I hate it. But I won’t stop.
I’m a shul-shusher.
I’m not an unhappy person, baruch Hashem, and am pretty live-and-let-live in general, but I’m somebody else when people talk near me in shul.
It started not out of sincerity so much as respect. Back when our shul first opened, we all agreed that there would be no talking, and the rav made it clear that it was a shared responsibility in which we were all equal partners. It’s not cool to shush, and it doesn’t make you popular (and boy does it expose you if you slip up and speak), but if you buy in to the fact that tefillah is a shared endeavor, one that a tzibbur has to work together to accomplish, then there’s really no choice.
(It’s also a form of kavod for the rav. If you leave him to do the shushing alone, you aren’t doing very much for his image.)
If you are fortunate enough to daven in a no-talking shul, within a few years the noise will be more irritating to you than fingernails on a blackboard (sorry, I know), and you will feel offended by it.
Before Covid, it was uncouth to talk during Kaddish, but after? After we were shut out of shul for months, desperate for another chance? That takes a new level of tone deafness.
So here’s a pre-High Holiday column heavy in spreading awareness, offered by one who is far less accomplished than the people he sometimes shushes, people who learn more Torah, give more tzedakah, talk less lashon hara, and are generally more accomplished than I. But it makes no difference at that moment.
Because when someone talks in shul, they are weakening the impact of all the tefillos being offered within it, and it’s the same if they tolerate others talking. Tefillah is a team effort.
Problem is, there’s really no nice way to ask someone to be quiet. If you do the smile-and-finger-to-lips, you look patronizing. The actual “shhhh” always sounds nasty, like an attack. But you remind yourself that, while one guy will be upset at you, you’re giving a gift to everyone else: a better, purer environment for their tefillos.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to moderate a question-and-answer session at an Agudah convention. One question dealt with the preponderance of segulos and people’s reliance on amulets, gravesites, and incantations they believe necessary to make a living.
With a laugh, Rav Elya Brudny suddenly said, “Do you want to know a segulah to make a living that really works? One I believe in? Look in the siddur at Shema Koleinu. There is a tefillah there for parnassah. That’s a segulah that works.”
At the next year’s convention, someone approached me. “You don’t even know how last year’s session changed my life,” he said, and he explained. He had been struggling with parnassah for years, but something in the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah’s tone — the sincerity, the confidence, the authenticity — moved him, and he started saying the tefillah each day.
“I just had the best ten months of my life, far and away,” he said, sounding somewhat incredulous about his own words. “It didn’t rain parnassah. It poured.”
What I heard in his voice was genuine surprise that tefillah works. Like for real.
There’s a woman in Yerushalayim who was diagnosed with a serious illness Rachmana litzlan, and the doctors weren’t sure how to treat it. She needed guidance, and her husband tried getting an appointment with Rav Moshe Shapira, with whom he davened k’vasikin at the Kosel each morning.
The waiting list for appointments was months long, and the couple was distraught. The next morning, while Rav Moshe was wrapping up his tefillin, the husband — who did not know Rav Moshe personally and had never spoken to him — approached and shared his distress.
Rav Moshe listened and said nothing. But the morning after that, just after Shacharis, Rav Moshe called over the man and asked if they could discuss the situation together, Rav Moshe and the couple. The surprised husband was thrilled to bring the distinguished visitor home with him from Shacharis, and Rav Moshe sat with the couple for over an hour, listening, guiding, encouraging, and blessing.
On the way out, the husband turned to Rav Moshe. “Forgive me Harav, but I have a question: if the Rav had no time available for months, why did he come today? And if he did have time, why couldn’t I get an appointment sooner?”
Rav Moshe answered with utmost seriousness. “In truth, I do not have the time. But for family, one always makes time, and people who daven together in the same minyan? They are family.”
They are a family, because they share something real and lasting, creating eternity together.
If you’re reading this, and you want to do something for your family but don’t have the fortitude to let a good “shhhh” fly (and I promise it never gets easier), maybe consider this.
At least make it easier for the shusher.
We’re going into the most important tefillah season of the year. Who knows? Maybe like the guy at the Agudah convention, we’ll discover that tefillah really works.
Tosafos Yom Tov gives us “hasagos,” allowing us to dream big about what the new year should look like.
May the One Who blessed our father…. He should bless all who are careful to guard their mouth and tongue from speaking during times of tefillah and Krias HaTorah. May He guard them from all tribulations and tragedies, from all sickness and maladies. May all the blessings of the Torah overtake him… He should merit children who are alive and well, and he should raise them to Torah, marriage, and good deeds…. May he serve Hashem always, in sincerity and truth. Amen.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 875)
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