Do Something by Saying Nothing

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A few weeks ago, I was travelling and davened in a shul in another community.  In the middle of davening, I was trying to concentrate on my conversation with Hashem when I heard a voice loudly say, “Hello.”  It caught me off guard and I wondered if Hashem was acknowledging my prayers when I looked up and saw there was someone wearing a tallis and tefillin talking loudly on his phone.


Over the last five months, we have been focusing on doing things in the zechus of our brothers and sisters in Israel, but perhaps in the merit of our brothers and sisters in Israel we have been neglecting something that we should not be doing.


Most communities have added Tehillim at the end of davening, some have been saying Avinu Malkeinu, others have taken on a new practice or positive change.  But possibly, instead of going directly to adding, we should focus on subtracting.   The idea should be simple: Let’s stop talking during davening, let’s eliminate conversations among one another, when we are supposed to be talking to Hashem.  Let’s leave our phone in the car or put it on airplane mode when we walk into shul so we can truly be present and focused, especially in these moments that our tefillos matter so much.


In the early 1600's, Poland functioned as a feudal land with landlords ruling over the peasants who served them, causing great resentment.  Beginning in 1648, Bogdan Chmielnicki led a rebellion against the magnates and nobility claiming freedom and territory for the Cossacks, peasants, and outlaws he represented and led. In that period of upheaval between  1648 and 1653, it is estimated that some 300,000 Jews were killed, representing 30% of the total Jewish population of Eastern Europe. (Despite the calls for cancellation and removing statues, Chmielnicki remains a hero of the Ukrainians, with a statue dedicated to him in Kiev).


Those massacres are known in our literature as Gezeiras Tach V’tat, the decree of years 5408 and 5409.  They are considered among the most devastating in all of Jewish history.  Rav Yom Tov Lippman Heller (1579 – 1654), known best for his commentary on Mishna called Tosfos Yom Tov, lived during that time  in Prague and in Poland.  The Chida writes that it was revealed to the Tosfos Yom Tov from Heaven that the terrible tragedy and loss of life was associated with the talking that was taking place during davening and the general disrespect for Shul. 


To be clear, we aren’t God and cannot and should never engage in an effort to categorically explain why things happen, but the tragic and devastating loss of his day inspired the Tosfos Yom Tov to suggest that his generation reflect on how they could improve their decorum and general respect for davening and shul. In an effort to motivate and incentivize his contemporaries to be more vigilant about not talking during davening, the Tosfos Yom Tov composed a MiShebeirach to be recited for the benefit of those who don't speak during davening. 

The Tosfos Yom Tov’s generation was in crisis and rather than introduce something new like saying extra Tehillim, he thought it was critical to return to something old, eliminating talking during davening. 


While Baruch Hashem it is not of the magnitude of Tach V’Tat, our generation is confronting a profound crisis, fighting a real war, and facing enemies around Israel and embedded in countries around the world.  We can and we should add things in the hopes of meriting the outcomes we desperately want, but we must not forget to also subtract, to remove, and eliminate our talking during davening.


There are two reasons that now is the time to be more careful with this.  Firstly, as has long been said, if you come to shul to talk, where do you go to daven?  With all our initiatives and efforts, ultimately, we will only merit to see the hostages come home, to win this war and defeat the wishes of antisemites when Hashem consents and enables.  Each time we daven, we are meant to genuinely and desperately pour out our heart to Him, beg and beseech Him to shower us with compassion, hear our heartfelt pleas and intervene on our behalf.  The stakes are high, the moment is great, and we cannot afford to be distracted or unfocused.


Several centuries after the Tosfos Yom Tov, the Chafetz Chaim, (Mishna Berura 124:27) quoting the Kol Bo, warned us further of the danger of speaking during davening: “Woe to the people who speak during davening.  We saw several Shuls destroyed because of this sin.  There should be people appointed to work on this issue.” The Shulchan Aruch, (OC 124:7) discussing the terrible aveira of talking during Chazaras Hashatz uses the expression, “v’gadol avono mi’neso — his sin is too great to bear,” the only place in his extensive code of Jewish law that he uses that phrase.  


The Chasam Sofer (Derashos 2:309) writes that only Shuls that are homes of prayer, not conversation, will be rebuilt in Israel when Moshiach comes.  The Tzlach, R’ Yechezkel Landau, writes, “There is no greater rebellion against the King of the world than to speak in His sanctuary, in His presence.  Speaking during davening is like placing an idol in the Temple.”


The Piskei Teshuvos (124:7) tells us that when one speaks during during Chazaras Hashatz, not only has one caused that his own tefillos will not be accepted, but one has also caused that the tefillos of others will not be accepted. Therefore, if one knows himself; that he will be unable to remain silent, it is better that he should not come to shul at all, rather than be “a sinner who causes others to sin.”


Have you ever been talking to someone and they pull out their phone and start typing or reading something they received?  Forcing someone to compete for your attention is aggravating, obnoxious, and rude. While Hashem doesn’t have human feelings, we demonstrate our attitude in our relationship with Him if we make Him compete for our attention, if we are talking to others while He is “standing” before us in the middle of a conversation with Him. 

There is a second reason for us to be careful right now.  Putting a bigger-picture spin on the old phrase mentioned above: If you come to shul to talk, where should your friends and neighbors go to daven? The place we come to daven is called a בית כנסת, a hall to assemble and congregate.  We draw energy from one another, we come to connect with one another.  But there are times to greet one another, moments to connect and commune, and there are times to be focused exclusively on our conversation with Hashem.


There are two parts of davening in which talking is prohibited altogether, and at a minimum, now more than ever, we should make great efforts to stay silent during these times:


  • One may not talk from Borchu until the end of the chazzan’s repetition at Shacharis and from the beginning of the silent Amidah through the repetition at both Mussaf and Mincha.


  • Kaddish is among our holiest prayers. It can only be said in the presence of a minyan and is so significant that if given the choice between answering Kedusha or Kaddish, the Mishna Berura (56:6) says one should choose to answer Kaddish.  The Talmud (Berachos 57a) teaches that one who replies “Yehei shmei rabbah…” can rest assured that he has a place in the Next World.


Not talking during these parts of davening is mandated by Halacha and non-negotiable.  But, even for those who don’t connect to davening, don’t feel they are in the presence of the Almighty, or don’t feel bound by these particular laws, not talking during these parts of davening is simply what any decent person would do.


Talking during these parts of davening is not only disrespectful to God, it is also unkind, insensitive, and even cruel to those trying to offer heartfelt and focused prayers. It is a gross bein adom l’chaveiro violation.  Social norms have trained us not to during a show, an opera, or a movie, no matter how bored or distracted we might be. How could we entertain talking when people around you are in the middle of a conversation with Hashem, even if you are done?  It is hard enough to connect with our prayers, to concentrate on the words and to feel we have experienced an intimate rendezvous with our Creator in the best of circumstances.  To do it while people in our vicinity are chatting away is nearly impossible.


Not talking until the conclusion of Chazaras HaShatz, including the time between when we finish our silent Amidah and we are waiting for the chazzan, is doable, it is realistic, it is a fair expectation of those attending and it is the minimum to be respectful of our friends and neighbors.


When mourners recite Kaddish, they are paying tribute to their lost loved one.  When others around them are talking, it is not only rude and unkind, it is an affront to the memory of their family member. We can and must all make an effort to listen quietly and answer enthusiastically when Kaddish is being recited.


Right after October 7, one of our BRS members, Yudi Arem, created a WhatsApp group (click to join) for those who have committed to not talk during davening in the merit of our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Originally, he was hoping for 40 to sign up but the group quickly maxed out at over 1,000 members and other groups have opened to accommodate the now thousands of people all over the world who have made this pledge and are part of a holy effort to strengthen theirs and each other’s davening through taking on this commitment. Join, if not forever, certainly for now. 


The bottom line is this – klal Yisroel needs your help.  Please join the movement and commit to not talk minimally during these points of davening.  Turn off your technology and turn on your connection to Hashem.


In that merit, may all our prayers be answered for good and may we merit only Hashem’s greatest blessings.