Impolite Things Otherwise Polite People Do in Shul – Improving Shul Etiquette
The long Yom Tov season is over and our children are back in school. But what did they learn while they were off? There is no question that young people gain formal education and amass information from their teachers and schools, but the most powerful influence on their character is the model they see from those around them. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”
We are blessed to live in an amazing community with kind, sensitive, courteous people. I get regular feedback praising our members and our community as warm and welcoming. I am always proud when people comment how refreshing it is to interact and engage with the people in our shul and not to experience some of the rude behavior that unfortunately is commonly associated with our brothers and sisters in other communities.
I still think, however, that there are areas in derech eretz, kindness and courtesy, which we as a community can work on. Having spent so much time in Shul over the last several weeks, I observed several patterns of behavior that, while not malicious or poorly intended or reflecting a rude attitude, nevertheless lack the consistent derech eretz we aspire to. These are not particular to our community; indeed, in consultation with my colleagues from around the country, I can confidently say most are ubiquitous in shul life. And I want to be very clear: while pointing some of these out may seem self-serving, I really don’t believe any of this is about me or protecting rabbis’ honor generally. This is about all of us and the sometimes unintended consequences and messaging resulting from what feels like benign behavior. If we make these minor adjustments and remain sensitive in these areas and others, we can raise the level of courteousness and consideration in shul and everywhere we go.
“If you come here to talk, where do you go to daven?” This sign discouraging talking during davening hangs in many shuls and appeals to our spiritual conscience and ambition not to talk. But there is an even more basic reason to refrain from conversation during shul: It is rude. Even if we struggle to connect with prayer and are willing to exchange a conversation with the Almighty for a conversation with our neighbor, it is unkind to someone within earshot who isn’t undergoing that struggle. People who talk aren’t bad people. They are often outgoing, social, warm, and gregarious. But without even being aware, they are acting unkind. There are people all around shul davening who are utilizing a safe space to experience an intimate conversation with Hashem. We wouldn’t talk while someone is trying to watch a movie or Broadway show, we wouldn’t talk while someone is swinging on the golf course or tennis court, and we shouldn’t talk and cause a distraction when people are trying to daven. Talking in our shul generally is not bad, but that is not the standard we strive for in any other area and we shouldn’t be satisfied with it regarding this. We can do better; we owe it to ourselves and to those around us.
When I was young, if a child walked across a room while someone was speaking to a crowd or congregation, the child’s parent would be mortified, grab the child to come sit until the talk was over, and would strongly instruct the child never to walk into a room while someone is speaking again. If not the parent, another adult would stop the child and direct them not to walk through the room at that time. Our sweet, precious children rely on us to place boundaries and condition proper behavior. Children who come into shul during a sermon or lecture to speak with a parent, or to collect candies, or deliver a message, should gently be instructed that this is not an appropriate time to do so. If we don’t teach them derech eretz, who will?
We have a wonderful community of learners who come each Shabbos for the class before mincha. Even many people coming for mincha arrive early to catch the end of the class. If we aren’t there in time, the proper thing is to find the first available seat. If we are early for mincha, we should wait quietly in the back. Arriving towards the end of class and walking through the room is discourteous to both the speaker and those attending the shiur.
We are fortunately blessed to enjoy the presence of many young children in shul. Shul should be a place children feel excited to come to and be part of. That said, parents must use judgment when bringing younger children into shul during davening. If the child begins to make noise, the “shushing” that follows is almost always ineffective and only serves to make the disruption worse. Parents—men and women—should be aware that the best solution to their child making noise is to immediately take the child out of shul. Even if one is in the middle of Shmoneh Esrei, it is Halachically preferable to pause, walk out of shul with the child, and continue the prayer outside, than to ineffectively shush the child or allow him or her to continue to disrupt others.
It is understandable that it isn’t always possible to be in shul on time, particularly for women. While catching up with davening, it is important to be thoughtful and considerate when saying the Shmoneh Esrei (Amida). If you are by your seat during the derasha, standing and swaying in davening blocks others from seeing the speaker and distracts the person speaking. Better to move to the side or back, or step into the hall to recite the Amida.
We are blessed to celebrate many simchas in our community. They are often marked with the throwing of or distribution of candy, which in turn generates lots of garbage. Often, wrappers can be found on the floor of the shul. Children drop them or walk right past them without anyone saying anything. We wouldn’t allow a child to leave garbage on the floor of our home and we shouldn’t let them walk past garbage on the floor of our sanctuary. Stop a child and (kindheartedly) teach them to pick it up or pick it up yourself so they see it isn’t beneath adults to keep Hashem’s home as clean or cleaner than our own.
Each week, when shul is over, our wonderful custodians spend considerable time collecting siddurim and chumashim and returning them to the shelves with great care and respect. But why should they have to? Isn’t it basic derech eretz to put something back on the shelf when we finish using it? “Being people of the book” means not only learning what is in it, but modeling what we literally do with it.
It is one thing to not go to a shiur, but it is an altogether different thing to get up and choose to walk out of one. Over the holidays, and daily between Mincha and Maariv, someone gives a short Dvar Torah. Sometimes, a person may have an obligation or responsibility at home or elsewhere that necessitates their leaving shul. On the other hand, some people leave to stand in the lobby and shoot the breeze, share the latest gossip, or simply pass the time. Others make an exit for what they consider a noble reason—to go to the Beis Midrash for “real” learning. Some remain in shul and brazenly open a sefer to study, oblivious to the impression it leaves and the message it sends. Whoever is speaking in the front of the room worked hard to prepare, is putting in effort, and is making themselves vulnerable by speaking. Walking out, opening a sefer, or staring at or texting on the phone, isn’t menschlich and is unintentionally hurtful.
The Torah and its many laws and directives isn’t given until Sefer Shmos, the second book. Yet, we have an entire first book preceding it to teach us about proper character, respectful behavior, and fine qualities. Indeed, the famous midrash (Vayikra Rabba 9) tells us “Derech eretz kadma laTorah,” derech eretz preceded Torah by 26 generations.
In his introduction to his commentary on Bereishis, the Netziv writes that the first book of the Torah was referred to by our rabbis as Sefer HaYashar, the book of the upright, because it tells the story of our patriarchs and matriarchs who lived honest, respectful, kind lives. One has to be a mensch in order to be a vessel to receive Torah, as the Mishna in Avos (3:17) teaches: im ein Torah, ein derech eretz v’im ein derech eretz, ein Torah, If there is no Torah, there is no derech eretz and if there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah. On this Mishna, Rabbeinu Yonah writes, “One must first improve one’s own character traits and with that, the Torah can endure with him because it cannot endure with a person that doesn’t have good character traits. One cannot learn Torah first and then acquire good character traits because this is impossible.”
Shul is perhaps the most powerful classroom our children attend. They are watching and learning what we do to see if it matches what they hear us say. With a little more thoughtfulness and effort to be mindful of the unintended consequences of our innocent behavior, we can teach them to emulate our ancestors and to earn the label yashar, to be counted among the upright, honest and menschlich.