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"In the King's Presence" Teaching for Tefillah: A Communal Responsibility

by: Wallace Green

This article was originally published in Ten Da’at 12 (1999), pp. 60-70.

Preface:

There is no gainsaying that education towards proper comprehension and performance of Tefillah, and proper comportment in a beit hakeneset, are perennial problems in day school education.
In the following essay, we shall attempt to address some of the more blatant issues in this regard, providing both sources for additional contemplation and advice for alternative pedagogy: We shall begin with a definition of the problem and cite selected sources that highlight the approach of Hazal. These sources treat the essential question of the role of children in the performance of mitzvot and, in particular, examine the consequences of rote versus informed performance. We shall look at the importance of parental role modeling and conclude with suggestions for a collaborative effort utilizing the resources of parents, teachers and rabbis.

The Problem Defined

Many observant Jews -adults, teenagers, and children -seem to suffer from halakhic amnesia or a form of spiritual schizophrenia when attending their synagogues for prayer. They know- at least on a visceral or subconscious level- what is appropriate behavior during prayers in a synagogue. However, too often all this is ignored and what takes place is at variance with the Halakhah and with the goals of educating our children. Individuals do manage to sit silently and in rapt attention at a symphony, the opera, or the theater. Respect is shown to rashei yeshivah, and aficionados sit quietly during cantorial concerts. It is therefore difficult to fathom the disrespect and rudeness shown by some when they are “standing before The King.”1 It is even more difficult to comprehend the tolerance exhibited by pulpit rabbis towards those who talk during the repetition of the Amidah, or to those who allow their children to cavort with abandon disturbing the prayers and the concentration of others.
Generally speaking, we have successfully inculcated the notion of hefseik (a prohibited interruption by talking, walking, etc.) during birkhot keri’at shema, the Amidah, Kedushah, and the reading of the Torah. We have failed to convey and imbue that same seriousness of purpose to the repetition of the Amidah, the Kaddish, and other parts of the service.2 Standards are maintained regarding kashrut, Shabbat, hametz, arb’ah minim, and shofar. But the strictures concerning talking in the synagogue and the distractions caused by children who are not supervised by parents, or who are too young to be there in the first place, are ignored and overlooked.3
This problem is not new. Talking during prayers has vexed leading rabbis who have railed against it for centuries.4 We shall focus on the educational issue of disrespect and lack of reverence in the synagogue as manifested by the noise and distractions generated by conversation, and the disruption caused by bringing very young children to the synagogue. It is an example of the experiential impact of Jewish practice on children. The entire community is the classroom. Day school students spend many hours in the synagogue, and this practice continues into adulthood. Therefore, the environmental influence of this informal educational setting is an extremely crucial determinant of future behavior. Children are often taught by example to ignore what they have learned in school. This is an educational issue, and we shall offer some pedagogic suggestions to curb this behavior.

Sources: Our Sages’ Approach

There are many sources that can be used to teach and create the correct environment for prayer. The first Midrash Rabbah on Parshat Terumah (Shemot 33:1) teaches us that we are bidden to create a Sanctuary, a place of holiness, for God. It must be a place where He is welcome, shown respect, and will feel comfortable. 5 The obligation to create a Sanctuary applies to synagogues as well as to the Mishkan and the Temple (Megillah 29a).6 The Talmud lists many activities that are prohibited in a synagogue at any time, surely during the time of prayer (Megillah 28a-28b).7 These forms of behavior are the opposite of how a person should behave in the House of God. Anything that detracts from the intrinsic holiness attendant upon prayer and the respect to be shown to God in His sanctuary is considered inappropriate, and is to be prohibited. Certain acts which interrupt one’s concentration are considered to be a hefseik, and are likewise prohibited (Eruvin 65a).8
Our Sages understood that what should be common sense and elementary good manners required a legal framework. They knew that complete and total attentiveness and concentration in prayer is difficult to attain. Therefore, they insisted that one must make every effort to pray in an environment that is conducive to this level of “total immersion”. Even kissing one’s child during prayers is considered a hefseik since, during prayers, one’s love and kavannah should be directed only towards God.9 The Talmud teaches that one is not to pray in a place where there are distractions (Eruvin 65a).
In his Mishnah Berurah commentary to Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim (98:1:3), R. Israel Meir Hakohen quotes a lengthy peroration on this subject by R. Isaiah Halevi Horowitz (the Shelah, 1565-1630):

In the Shelah (Shnei Luhot ha-Berit) he inveighed mightily against those who bring children to the synagogue, i.e., youngsters who are not yet in school. The reason for this is that young children play and jump around in the synagogue and desecrate its sanctity. They also disturb those who are praying. Furthermore, when they get older, they will not stop these practices which have been inculcated in them from infancy to act wild and demean the sanctity of the synagogue. However, when they are able to understand [the purpose of prayer and why they are in shul], of course they should be brought with him [i.e., the father} to the synagogue and he should teach them how to behave, to sit with awe and reverence. A parent must not allow a child to wander from his place. He must be taught to answer Amen, [to respond during] Kaddish and Kedushah.

The Mishnah Berurah then continues to warn about the severe consequences which will befall a father [parent] who allows his/her child to chatter idly and prattle in foolishness while in shul.10 He further warns that terrible things will happen to synagogues that tolerate talking, citing the Magen Avraham and the Pri Megadim as follows:

It, is imperative to educate [children] to demonstrate awe and reverence [in the synagogue]. Very young children, who run back and forth and play in the synagogue would be better off not being brought [to the synagogue] at all, since habits develop into behavior patterns. In addition, they disturb the prayers of the congregation. (124:7:26,27,28)

Nevertheless, the emphasis on this in the texts cited above indicates that, in fact, young children were brought to the synagogue.

The Role of Children in Tefillah

The Halakhah does deem it appropriate to introduce children to certain rites. For example, much of the Passover Seder, which takes place at home, is geared to children. Those who are old enough to attend school are encouraged to hear the Megillah in the synagogue so that they will become accustomed to attend Purim services when they are older (S.A.O.H. 472:15; 690:6;7). 11 However, the Mishnah Berurah warns against bringing very young children to hear the Megillah, since they will disrupt the service for the adults who are trying to listen:

Now, due to our many sins, [this practice of bringing young children to hear the Megillah] has been turned upside down [venehafokh hu]. Not only don’t they [i.e., the children] listen, but their disruption prevents the adults from listening as well. The entire purpose of their coming is only to make noise at the name of Haman. In this, the parent is not fulfilling the mitzvah of educating [the child] at all! In truth, from an educational perspective, a father must make his children sit with him and supervise them so that they listen to the Reading [of the Megillah]. When the Reader gets to [pronounce] the name of Haman the Aggagite, a child may make the customary noise- but this should not be the primary reason for bringing him to shul (MB to S.A.O.H. 690: 17).

Rabbi Moses Isserles cites the Or Zarua that it is customary to bring infants to kiss the Torah as a means of imbuing them with a love for the Torah and its mitzvot (gloss to S.A.O.H. 149: 1, end). In context, however, the reference is to returning the Torah to the Ark before the Musaf service. Perhaps, bringing children that late in the service is a valid means of gradually acclimating them to sitting quietly during services.
According to Rabbenu Tam, children below six or seven years old are exempt from the obligation of reciting the Shema. When they reach the age of comprehension, they are obligated to recite that prayer- on time, and with all the attendant blessings before and after.12 Rashi, however, disagrees and rules that even if a child is capable of understanding the concepts contained in the three paragraphs of the Shema, he or she is still technically exempt from this obligation. His reasoning is based on the potential absence of the father to instruct the child. Since he may not be home early enough in the evening and often leaves early in the morning before the child wakes up, he will be unavailable to teach his child. Rashi clearly links the obligation upon children to begin the performance of mitzvot with parental role models.
All this refers to the commandment to recite the entire Shema. However, there is a consensus that the first line of the Shema must be taught as soon as a child is able to speak, and not necessarily at the regularly appointed times. It is also agreed upon that when a child reaches the age of understanding, prayer in general becomes obligatory, i.e., a parent must be an appropriate role model. Today’s parents have no excuse not to follow Rashi’s position.13 The extrapolation of the principle of age appropriate religious behavior, modeling, and participation in rituals flows easily from the discussion relating to Shema.

Rote versus Intent: Children and Mitzvot

The Halakhah places great importance on intelligent performance of religious obligations as opposed to rote, perfunctory, or pro forma observance. That is why such stress is placed upon having the proper kavannah (full concentration and attention without distractions) during prayer as well as while performing other mitzvot (Rosh HaShanah 28a-b).14
Proper concentration need not initially involve sophisticated knowledge of each aspect of every prayer or commandment. However, the minimal requirement is a general understanding of what the prayer means or what the commandment represents. Even the mere conscious awareness that one is fulfilling a religious obligation simply because it is a commandment is sufficient.15 That is the reason for training children properly in the observance of mitzvot. Properly trained, children will grow into adults habituated to proper observance of mitzvot including synagogue decorum. They in turn will educate their children.
The Mishnah states that when a child knows how to properly wave the lulav, it becomes an obligation upon him to do so. The Gemara indicates that this applies to other commandments as well (Sukkah 42a).16 Elsewhere, the Mishnah describes what happened to the lulavim and etrogim of young children after prayers were completed on the last day of Sukkot indicating that, in fact, children did have their own arba’ah minim (Sukka 45a).17 Today we train children to observe mitzvot, but generally do not offer the full accoutrements. Young children, however precocious, are not usually given a kosher lulav and etrog until a few years prior to their Bar Mitzvah. However, we do allow minors to recite the haftarah, wear tefillin prior to their Bar Mitzvah, and to stand by their fathers to offer the Priestly Benediction. Since, with the exception of blessings relating to eating, prayer is the most frequently performed mitzvah, it seems that it should be taken seriously by the adults who serve as role models and by educators who often neglect adequate instruction about prayer, the siddur, and proper “davening.”

Decorum: Parental Model and Influence

Children are influenced by their parents. They seek to emulate their ways. It follows therefore that if a parent takes prayer seriously, it is likely that his or her children will follow: Hence we are taught that it is prohibited for anyone to talk during the repetition of the Amidah. Furthermore it is “… a sin of the greatest magnitude, one that is too great to bear! Anyone who talks should be severely rebuked.” (S.A.O.H. 124:7) 18 The Mishnah Berurah advises us to imitate the pious who follow the repetition word for word in the siddur, thus maintaining their proper level of concentration. Not only is talking during the Repetition of the Amidah a very serious transgression (MB to S.A.O.H. 151: 1:2), but the integrity of the repetition is compromised if at least ten men are not listening attentively. The Shulhan Arukh quotes the Tur who cites his father, the Rosh, that each person listening to the repetition of the Amidah ought to consider himself the tenth man. Otherwise the repetition is totally invalid, a berakhah le-vatalah (S.A.O.H. 124:4). The Mishnah Berurah teaches that one should not read other prayers or even study Torah during the repetition. Even if one listens peripherally and answers Amen, the Amen is devoid of its significance if the listener did not pay full attention to the entire blessing. Furthermore, scholars (including rabbis and teachers) who study Torah and do not give their full attention to the repetition actually lead astray the less learned who will see them, and commence talking (loc. cit. #17).19
The Aruhh HaShulhan makes the same observation and states succinctly that there is a time for study and a time for prayer, with the only exception being a rabbi to whom an urgent question is posed which requires an immediate answer. He condemns in very strong language those who converse during the repetition of the Amidah. He is frustrated by this practice since it is quite prevalent and is very difficult, if not impossible, to stop. He reserves his most severe criticism for those who have once learned the law but persist in violating it. Furthermore, he characterizes talking in the synagogue as a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. This is especially offensive, he says, when it occurs in the presence of non-Jews (Aruhh ha-Shulhan, O.H. 124:12).20
The lack of synagogue decorum by an otherwise observant congregation is a manifestation of that phenomenon known as halakhic compartmentalization. Jews who abstain from non-kosher food, leave work early on Fridays, don’t eat gebrukts on Passover, and observe many, many mitzvot- not to mention extra stringencies- daily, have difficulty with this basic law. What of those who take their prayers seriously? If the atmosphere in the synagogue is not conducive to prayer, why go to shul? Under these circumstances, some authorities have in fact endorsed praying at home.21 The rationalization that is offered by frequent shul-goers that they feel “at home” and “comfortable” in the synagogue is at variance with the prescribed requirement of awe, and reverence.22 What lessons do children learn from this behavior?

Education for Tefillah: A Collaborative Responsibility

We have written about the importance of training and modeling in order that children come to appreciate the importance of the proper attitude during prayers. Training and modeling takes place in shul and in school. Unfortunately this area of the curriculum and synagogue practice is not always given the seriousness it deserves. As far as the synagogues are concerned, rabbis, who deal mostly with adults, need to make major changes in what they are willing to tolerate. They also need to spend time teaching and reviewing hilkhat tefillah and hilkhat beit hakeneset with their congregations. Children, as well as adults, generally perform up to the level of expectation. Therefore, if the rabbis can get the adults to behave properly, the children will follow.
Schools, and summer camps, on the other hand, have a better chance of affecting a child’s behavior. First of all, a child in a day school or at camp spends much more concentrated time with his teachers/counselors (i.e. positive role models) than he/she does with parents. The opportunities abound for instruction and instructional modeling. Aside from specific curricular time devoted to prayer, teachable moments present themselves every day when children daven, bentsch, or make berakhot. Schools and summer camps that tolerate or encourage banging on the tables and adding questionable words during birkat hamazon, or who advocate speed reading of the prayers, are losing valuable teaching opportunities.
Beyond what can be accomplished by what is considered acceptable behavior during the school day, much can be achieved by allotting time in the school curriculum for bei’ur tefillah. Beyond teaching the basics of structure, the text, the halakhah and the hashkafah of the prayers, the siddur can and ought to be taught like any other Jewish text. Just as the Torah is taught with more sophistication and commentaries as a student matures, so too can a teacher teach the siddur and the mahzor.
With adequate preparation and motivation, any teacher can provide age appropriate materials in the area of hilkhot tefillah, bei’ur tefillah, and kedushat beit hakeneset. Primary grades are most important, since this is when attitudes are formed. As children learn to read, they can have instilled in them the same awe and reverence for the synagogue and for the prayers as they do for a fallen siddur or humash. As they progress, there are ample texts available so that they can “learn” a prayer in the manner that they study a verse from the Bible or a passage from the Talmud. Principals need to be proactive in this area to encourage both teachers and students, and to stress the importance of this subject.
It is unfortunately a truism, that too often we wait for graduates of our yeshivot and day schools to spend a year in Israel to make up for what they didn’t get in twelve years here. Paraphrasing a Talmudic dictum, there are three sets of partners who influence the religious development of our children- parents, rabbis, and teachers. If they are all on the same track, then “the threefold bond will not easily be undone” (Ecclesiastes 4:1.2).

Endnotes:

1 See Berakhot 28b; Sanhedrin 22a (based on Psalms 16:8); and Hayyei Adam 20:1 (last line). Cr. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hil. Tefillah 4:16. See also Chava Willig Levy, “Why There Was No Gabbai at The Regency Theater,” Jewish Action 55:1 (Fall, 1994), 88.
2 “We” refers to the necessary partnership of school, shul, and parents.
3 Similarly neglected laws are the prohibitions relating to gossip, shatnez, showing respect to Torah scholars and parents, honesty in business, appropriate relationships with non-Jews, minyan during the week, etc. Each community differs, and different lists can be drawn up by any rabbi.
4 See Moshe Halamish, “Profane Conversations in The Synagogue: Reality and Conflict” (Heb.), Milet II (Tel Aviv, 1984), 225-251. The issue of talking in shul is surveyed here from the perspective of the pietistic Hasidei Ashkenaz, kabbalists, and some Hassidic writers. For modern treatments of this issue, see Riv-Ellen Prell-Foldes, “The Reinvention of Reflexivity in Jewish Prayer,” Semiotica vol. 30 no. 1/2 (1980), 73-96, and Chava Weissler, “Making Davening Meaningful,” YIVO Annual vol. 19 (1 990), 255-282.
5 See Torah Temimah to Exodus 20:21, based on Sukkah 53a; Rabbi Yosef Grossman, “Letting HaShem In,” Kol Torah III: 18 (Torah Academy of Bergen County; February 12, 1994) 1; and Rabbi Michael Taubes, “Respect for a Shul,” ibid. 3-4.
6 See Torat Kohanim, Behukotai 6:4; and Semag, Positive Commandments #164. See also Yerushalmi, Brakhot 4:4; and Brakhot 6a. Cf. Maimonides, Hil. Tefillah XI: 1. Cf. R. Moses Schreiber, Drashot Hatam Sofer (Pressburg, 1829), vol. 11, 309d. He writes that synagogues with decorum have the sanctity of the Land of Israel where prayers ascend directly to heaven.
7 See Maimonides, Hil. Tefillah XI:6; and R. Joseph Caro, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 151:1. Cf. Berakhot 31a.
8 See Shulhan Aruhh, Orah Hayyim 98:2; and 104.
9 Shulhan Aruhh, Orah Hayyim 98: 1-2, gloss of Rabbi Moses Isserles.
10 Loc. cit. Cf. Tanna de-bei Eliahu 1:13. See also below, n. 25.
11 Commentary of R. Asher b. Yehiel to Pesahim 108; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 472:15; 690:6,7. See also Bi’ur Halakhah, loc. cit. In general, the entire Jewish educational enterprise is predicated upon introducing children to texts and rituals at the appropriate age.
12 Berakhot 20a; Tosafot, s.v. uketanim; Mishnah Berurah, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 70:2,6. Obligating children in this context means that the obligation is upon the parent to train the child.
13 Berakhot 20a; Rashi s.v. ketanim; Shulhan’ Aruhh, Orah Hayyim 70:2; Mishnah Berurah 70:6,7.
14 See Rosh Hashanah 28a-b for the discussion of whether mitzvot require kavvanah. See also Arukh ha-Shulhan, Orah Hayyim 104:4.
15 Maimonides, Hil. Tefillah 4:15; Rabbenu Bahya ibn Pakudah, Hovot haLevavot, Sha’ar Heshbon ha-Nefesh III:9. See also the comments of the Magen Avraham to Shulhan Aruhh, Orah Hayyim 60:3. He writes that “… mitzvot that require speech (as opposed to action) definitely do require kavvanah.” See also Bet Yosef, Tur Orah Hayyim 589, and R. Avraham Danzig (author of the Hayyei Adam), Zihhru Torat Moshe (Vilna, 1821) who writes that even according to those who hold that mitzvot do not require kavvanah (as far as their fulfillment is concerned), nevertheless, absence of kavvanah constitutes a violation of “And you shall serve Him with all your heart” which applies to all mitzvot.
16 Sukkah 42a. A father must purchase a “kosher” set of the arba’ah minim for a child who can perform this mitzvah. See Bi’ur Halakhah, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 657, end.
17 Sukkah 45a; Tosafot, s.v. miyad; Sukkah 46b; Rashi, s.v. miyad.
18 Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 124:7. It is interesting to note that even the saintly Hafetz Hayyim who was the exemplar par excellence of avoiding lashon hara, mandated rebuking anyone who spoke during the repetition of the Amidah. See R. Israel Meir Hakohen, Hafez Hayyim (Warsaw, 1873) IV:7 and X:30, especially his comments in Be’er Mayyim Hayyim, loc. cit. IV:7:32. This form of constructive rebuke is for a positive purpose (leto’elet) and is therefore not considered lashon hara (ibid. X:4). Cf. loc. cit. 69-71 regarding those who critique their rabbi’s sermon. He also suggests that ushers be employed to control conversation. See Mishnah Berurah, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 124:7:27. See my The Life and Times of Rabbi Judah ben Asher unpublished doctoral dissertation; (Yeshiva University, 1979), pp. 114-117, for references to widespread and selective laxity in religious observance in the fourteenth century in Spain. Even the grandsons of the illustrious Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel had to be admonished not to speak during prayers! See “The Testament of Judah Asheri”, Israel Abrahams, ed., Hebrew Ethical Wills (Philadelphia, 1976), 175.
19 See Mishnah Berurah, ibid. 124:17. See also Sha’agat Ar’yeh and Magen Avraham to Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 90:18.
20 Arukh ha-Shulhan, Orah Hayyim 124:12. See below, n. 22, and Maimonides, Responsa, printed at the end of the El ha-Mekorot edition of Mishneh Torah (Jerusalem, 1944), #55, who also categorizes talking during the repetition as hillul Hashem.
21 See Hayyei Adam 17:5-“Even though it is very important to worship in a synagogue, if one’s [evil] neighbors [i.e., pew mates] will cause a disruption [of concentration] because of frivolous conversation, or prevent hearing the Torah Reading or the Repetition of the Amidah- it is preferable to worship at home with a Minyan…” See also Arukh ha-Shulhan, Orah Hayyim 98:4.
22 See Psalms 2:11; Berakhot 30b; and 28b. cf. above n. 1.