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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Shush Yourself!

Why you can talk in Shul

Well you can’t. But this article is aimed at you, and now that I have your attention, I’ll get right onto the business of berating anyone that doesn’t have a problem with talking in shul.

Different types of shuls

Before we really get into it though, I believe an analysis of the talking in shul phenomena is appropriate.

Shuls can be categorized into three types as regards talking:

  1. Quiet
  2. Buzzing
  3. Roaring

  1. Quiet. The quiet shul is categorized by extreme quiet. For people who are unaccustomed to this, the experience of entering such a shul can come as quite a shock. They become disoriented and confused and start to question what denomination temple they have entered, or perhaps it’s a different religion altogether. Once they’ve understood it’s still the same religion and even the same prayer services (though they may be unfamiliar with actually praying), they become uncomfortable and antsy. Their palms start to itch and they get sweaty. They look nervously around to see if anyone else is suffering from this strange predicament. They are not unlike addicted smokers who suddenly find themselves without a light and with no one in sight to assist them. More on the phenomena of a Quiet shul later.
  2. Buzzing. The majority of the shul is quiet and participating or paying attention to the services. However there is a comfortable group of people yapping away. The group is usually situated in a corner of the shul. The group is usually characterized by one main yapper, the buddy sitting next to him to whom most of the conversation is directed and who is listening dutifully, and then the immediate surrounding audience who may chip into the conversation and/or have nearby murmuring discussions of their own. This relatively low level talking activity creates an effect not unlike the sound of bees buzzing which permeates the shul like a warm blanket. This sound is annoying to the majority of shul-goers especially those sitting close to the yappers. It prompts the regular “shushing” which does give very temporary and short-lived relief. More importantly, the buzzing allows others in the shul to comfortably start their own conversations when they desire.
  3. Roaring. This is the most interesting and the most disturbing phenomena to Rabbis today. Roaring is when the majority of the congregation is talking. This is most common during the reading of the Torah. It is characterized by the fact that someone may be standing adjacent to the Torah reader, but because of the simultaneous discussion of the majority of the shul, one cannot hear what is being read. The phenomena is further characterized by the Rabbi, President, Gabbai or some other shul official getting up, and stopping the services completely. He will wait until quiet is restored. Then the services will commence again. Within a few seconds the roar is back, as unrelenting and as loud as crashing waves upon the shore. The display is comically sad.

The Problem

Talking in shul is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in Orthodox Judaism today. It indicates a lack of seriousness by people for this aspect of the religion. It demonstrates poor education and lack of respect or sensitivity to the shul and the Rabbis. It makes it perfectly understandable why Orthodox youth from such homes will look at their parents worship and dedication in shul and realize that the service and by association the religion is not serious. The youth are more honest with themselves and decide to chuck the whole false social rituals of their parents and seek spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.

These problems seem to continue to grow in many quarters. Many respected authorities speak and write about these issues and continue to do so. The aim of this article is to focus on the specific problem of talking in shul, suggest solutions and perhaps by successful implementation have a positive impact on other aspects of the trouble outlined above.

The Solution

Talking in shul is a multi-faceted problem. As such, a multi-pronged approach is suggested.

Credit: Part of the inspiration for this article came from the best-selling book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Mr. Gladwell explains with tremendous insight the underlying causes of ‘social epidemics’ and how small changes can have major effects. Talking in shul is a social epidemic, and there is obviously a ‘tipping point’ where a shul transforms from a buzzing one to a roaring one. Many of Mr. Gladwell’s thoughts and analysis are being brought to bear on our particular problem.

The Power of the Few

It’s just a few ringleaders. There are a few people who just can’t seem to help themselves from talking. They are the ones that get it started. When these people are absent on a Shabbat, the talking volume goes down and the congregants breathe a sigh of relief.

Profile of a Yapper

A yapper is the term I am using for the person who can’t refrain from talking in shul. The yappee is his accomplice, who is generally a close friend and is being polite and listening attentively, to what one of my Rabbi’s once termed ‘verbal diarrhea’. The yapper is often a leading or established member of the community and perhaps a little too self-important. What he has to say is more important than anything else going on and he frankly doesn’t really care who he disturbs and doesn’t really consider or think twice that his talking is profane and out of the place in the shul.

It is almost like the man that goes into a mikvah holding a ‘sheretz’ – the mikvah has no effect on him and he does not accomplish anything.

They are probably the single most important factor in the talking problem. There are a variety of strategies in affecting these people:

  1. One on one discussion: Scheduling individual meetings with the prime offender(s) to discuss the topic and not only ask him to minimize his talking, but encourage him to have a more positive effect on those around him.
  2. In-the-act attack: This can take two forms a) walking up to the offender during services an asking him to quiet down (this can be done with various levels of loudness, which may cause various levels of embarrassment; b) calling out the offenders’ name from the podium – I have heard that this can be very effective.
  3. Expulsion: This is obviously a last option. But just as a shul wouldn’t tolerate someone suddenly smoking in the middle and refusing to stop or leave, so to there should be a limit to the blatant disrespect a person shows to the shul.

To some, the above may seem extreme, inappropriate or unrealistic. Many of the offenders are ‘leading’ members of the community or even founders of the shul. I recall a discussion years ago amongst two regular yappers that had just been chastised, how they would found their own shul so they could talk as much as they want, and hire their own Rabbi so they could do whatever they want. This is a dangerous phenomenon that can extend into other areas of religious observance and morality.

It is obviously difficult for a Rabbi to castigate a person on whom his livelihood depends, however, in balance he has the spiritual considerations and needs of his congregation.

Tips for the Yappee

The Yappee finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being the sometimes unwilling accomplice to the Yappers diatribes. They are good friends, this is their opportunity to catch up and the Yappee doesn’t want to offend his friend in any way by suggesting he should stop talking.

There are two practical ‘minhagim’ that while they may make the person appear to become ‘frumer’ it is proven in cutting down on people talking to them. The first is standing. Many people have the minhag to stand during the repetition of the amidah and/or the reading of the Torah (which coincidentally are the main Yapping times). It is a little less comfortable for someone sitting to talk to someone standing.

The second minhag are those that cover their heads with their talit. It is more difficult to get someone’s initial attention and have comfortable discussion, when the sides of a person’s head are covered. The above are non-directed and non-insulting ways to cut down on talking. While the Yappers may be the initiators, they need someone to Yap to, and if you are that someone, you are an equal partner in their crime.

The Sticky Message

Besides zeroing in on the few people that are having a major impact on the noise level of a shul, the congregation on a whole needs to be explained and reminded of the importance of quiet and decorum in the shul. This is a message that bears repeating and needs to ‘stick’. There should be frequent sermons from the pulpit addressing the issue in fresh and inspiring ways. There should be signs and notices and frequent reminders.

There are also people who truly don’t know that it is not acceptable to talk in shul. One worshipper when confronted with this, in all honesty exclaimed: “I thought you’re supposed to talk in Shul!”

Talking in shul is almost an unconscious habit. They need to consciously stop themselves. Reminders help. It’s a marketing principle that a consumer needs to hear a message at least six times before acting on it, and as anyone in sales knows, the hardest thing to change are peoples habits. The message needs to be crafted in a way that won’t automatically be rejected – that will get people’s attention, hold it, penetrate their minds and enlighten them. Again, the Rabbi is typically the best person to customize and tailor the message for his congregation – though fresh perspectives and outside consultations can also be of assistance.

The Context Effect

It has become acceptable to talk in shul. And when one walks into a shul where it is not acceptable, it becomes immediately clear. In The Tipping Point, Mr. Gladwell discusses the dramatic drop in NY crime during the early 1990s. The theory that drove this success was dubbed The Broken Window theory. If one sees a broken window on a building, it sends a signal of neglect and lack of care. Before you know it, there’s another broken window, and another. Then there’s graffiti on the wall. Panhandlers show up. It’s then no surprise when a mugger attacks a victim completely unafraid that anyone will show an interest or trouble him during his criminal attack. By cleaning the graffiti, by removing the panhandlers, William Bratton and Rudolph Guilliani helped bring NY crime down from an all-time high to a 30 year low in the space of just a few years.

The principle is that the shul officials as well as the congregants need to demonstrate that they care. When a non-talking neighbor doesn’t ask his yapping friend to stop talking he is giving tacit agreement. And then it spreads. I don’t know if shuls need to be as draconian as Guilliani’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy, but it is certainly important for shul participants to be sensitive to disrespect of the shul, both big and little, obvious and subtle.

There should never be a place or a time in a shul where there is a feeling of ‘hefker’ – that anything goes, that there is no control on what is occurring.

One tactic that is often used successfully is controlling the times when people are allowed to enter or exit the sanctuary. If done properly, it sends an orderly message.

Another tactic that is done in some shuls is for a Gabbai to announce every so often the page that the congregation is up to in the prayer book. This accomplishes several things, besides informing the usually less initiated where the congregation is up to in the services. It reminds the yappers that services are going on (they may understand this intellectually of course, but it obviously is far from penetrating to a personal and practical level), and it unites on a regular basis the congregation in a common activity – in the past this purpose was served simply by the Chazan reading the last sentence of the paragraph he’s up to, but that has just become background noise to the yappers.

For all its evils, talking in shul does fill an important social need. For many people it is the only time for friends to catch up and socialize. They have no other time during the week where they are in a relaxed and comfortable environment and can converse relatively uninterrupted. A partial solution to the social need is to organize times before and after where people can satisfy their urge to converse.

The key point of context is that it should be directly as well as indirectly clear that prayer is important, hearing the Torah is important, decorum is important, and anything that lessens these is undesirable and cannot be tolerated. This can be structured into the style of services, the timing and organization of the shul activities, what’s hanging on the walls and various other incentives to prayer and impediments to talking.

Some clues from the differences

What turns a buzzing shul into a roaring shul? It is usually a critical mass of people. From limited observations (this is by no means a statistically significant study), buzzing occurs when 10 or less people are talking on a somewhat continuous basis. Once more than 10 people are talking continually, the talking quickly spreads into roaring. This can be observed during two periods.

In the early part of the service, when the typically more dedicated worshippers show up, the shul is pretty quiet. There may be a handful of yappers and there is a low level buzzing that slowly picks up as more congregants show up. Then at some point, most typical right after the ‘kedusha’ during the repetition of ‘shacharit’ the buzzing grows in intensity and turns into a roar. There will be at least 10 people talking continually and on-and-off conversations throughout the rest of the congregation.

At this point the stop and start game usually commences. The Gabbai and/or Rabbi will stop the ‘chazan’ until there’s quiet. Then the ‘chazan’ continues. Within seconds, the buzz again turns into a roar, with people continuing conversations that had been suddenly interrupted.

This game can continue throughout the reading of the Torah and until the end of services with the crescendo reaching its apex at the culmination of services. The conversations then continue uninterrupted as worshipers make their way out and then often on to the social ‘kiddush’

A self-reinforcing phenomena

The noise level of a shul is such an important characteristic, that many shuls will be defined and categorized by it. After walking distance to the shul, the noise level is probably one of the more important reasons as to why a person will attend a certain shul – more than the attraction of the Rabbi.

Quiet shuls attract a person for whom that is important, just as noisy shuls attract those that enjoy talking. After a few years, the habit becomes ingrained to the point that children growing up in noisy shuls truly don’t know any better. Children who grow up in quiet shuls tend to be more respectful in general and of shuls in particular.

Dynamic Solution

We mentioned above, ten people as the tipping point between a buzzing crowd and a roaring one. A very practical near term strategy would then be to focus on keeping the yappers from reaching that critical number and unleashing the chaos of the roaring congregation.

One of the reasons that general ‘shushing’ doesn’t work is because it doesn’t tackle the root of the problem. The problem is not that the entire shul is talking, so stopping the entire services and by association asking the entire congregation to stop talking, leaves the offenders in a comfortable group anonymity that let’s them carry on a few seconds after services have resumed.

Shushing by a neighbor is slightly more effective, with the effects often lasting a few minutes. However it is often uncomfortable for the shusher, and on some occasions the shusher himself gets out of control, making more noise than the offending talkers.

The correct approach is for a shul official to single out the main perpetrators. This is generally embarrassing for the person singled out (if it is not embarrassing to the offender – then there is a more serious problem), and while embarrassment is not something to pursue lightly, unfortunately in shuls where talking is rampant, it is difficult to stop the spread of the epidemic without excising the offending cells, one way or another.

If there are unrepentant talkers, the shul may need to make a hard choice about asking such people to leave.

Any of these ‘harsher’ tactics aimed at specific individuals will send an immediate message to other offenders that their talking is no longer tolerable and should have a dampening effect on the talking. Some talkers will be so offended by the new shul policy towards talking that they will leave of their own accord to shuls where their talking is more acceptable. In an ideal world, every shul would demonstrate intolerance of talkers, and most would conform to the proper conduct required in a shul.

Some may argue that there is importance in hard-core yappers having a shul where they can congregate and be comfortable and get at least some minimal exposure to the religious experience that is being played out in shul. This is the same logic that justifies people driving to shul on Shabbat. They may be more comfortable in a Conservative congregation (which ironically is generally quiet and respectful of services – so they may not find any comfort there either).

The Quiet Shul

There are shuls where it’s quiet and the prayer service is an enjoyable and meaningful experience – so we know it’s possible. There is a disturbing trend in Orthodox Judaism today that activities that are antithetical to Judaism and Halacha are becoming acceptable and even the norm. This erodes the entire basis of an individuals and communities observance, and is turning Orthodoxy from a religious path into merely a social club with superficial and meaningless rituals that appear false and pretentious to those around and especially to the next generation.

To paraphrase Shalom Aleichem: “Not only have Jews kept Shabbat, but Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Shul is central to the Shabbat experience. At its best it is a true communion with G-d. It is a time of calm worship and contemplation. It is a time of study and learning, surrounded by the warm (but quiet) companionship of family and friends. Post-shul and meals are the times for more serious socializing. The shul is the time and place for us and G-d, but as part of a community. A community that takes Torah, and therefore Torah reading seriously. A community that enjoys the insight and elucidations of its Rabbi. A community, that as a community prays to G-d.

All of these things are achievable in a quiet shul (and can not even be dreamed of in a loud shul). With intelligence, with patience and perseverance, dedication and commitment, every shul can truly become a ‘Mikdash Me’at’ a small Temple, worthy of Divine presence. The experience will have a profoundly positive effective on us, our families, friends, community and Klal Yisrael.


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