I don’t think that we go to shul just to daven.
It’s just a theory. I’m not a rabbi, so take everything I say with a grain of salt, unless you’re reading this during the Yomim Nora’im, when you can take it with a grain of honey.
But I recently read an interesting article by Rabbi Dovid Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan writes a chinuch column for Inyan that is usually about 50 pages before mine, if that’s a scale of how much someone knows what he’s talking about. My column gets hidden in the back, behind the recipes you really should have read before Shabbos.
Anyway, Rabbi Kaplan talked about a bunch of things that annoy him in shul. But what I found most interesting about the article is that he mentioned me. Actually, he challenged me to write a humor column about it – to take all those things that make us mad at each other in shul – all those things that people do that ruin our kavana – and write jokes about them so that people can read it and go, “Whew! It’s not just me.”
So I’ve been spending a lot of time in shul this month, thinking about it.
But look at the typical morning. You come into shul, and after fighting past the guy who’s using the bookshelf as a shtender, you turn around and realize that someone’s in your makom kavua. So you sit somewhere else. No big deal. I don’t personally believe that my improvement in kavana in a makom kavua. is better than the guy who actually came on time to shul. Yes, there is a concept of makom kavua, which we learn from Avraham Avinu, but Avraham Avinu was the only Jew at the time, so he never really had to kick anyone out of his seat. Also, it doesn’t really seem like he was the type.
But then, after a while, someone else shows up and finds you in his seat. So he decides to handle it using the internationally-recognized method of putting his stuff down in front of you and coughing a lot.
What are you supposed to say to him? You’re in middle of davening; he’s not. So you move. Hopefully to the one seat in shul that doesn’t have a regular occupant. Or of someone who you know is sick, probably from getting coughed on. But if this seat has no regular occupant, you can definitely see why. There’s not quite enough room for a human being. Your arms stick out onto the laps of the two people next to you, and theirs do the same to you. And it doesn’t help that one of those guys shukkels side to side. Also, to get into your chair, you have to step over the back.
Alternatively, you can wordlessly hold your ground and specifically not get the message no matter how many things the guy piles in your place. But not if the guy has a tabletop shtender. How come he gets to save your seat no matter what time he comes just because he stores a shtender on the table?
Of course, the noises are annoying for women too, especially when they can’t hear the chazan. And that guy yelling out random parts of davening? They have no idea he’s not the chazan
Somebody did that to me last week. He came late, and the main reason I got out of his seat was that he had a massive shtender. I didn’t even want his shtender. It was in my way, and I couldn’t sit down because I couldn’t figure out how to open it.
So what am I supposed to do? Hand him the shtender? Let him walk around the crowded shul with a 25-lb shtender trying to find a place to sit between the two guys shukkeling sideways and slamming shoulders? So I moved. But the only place to sit at that point – because he couldn’t drag himself out of bed to kick me out earlier – was a chair that was parked in front of the bookcase. So I came full circle.
Not that there are that many great seats. You can sit next to the guy who davens too loudly. And it’s not the whole davening – he just yells out random parts. And not always in line with what everyone else is saying.
And these are guys who always refuse to daven for the amud. Yet they have to keep announcing what they’re up to. Or that they remembered Yaaleh V’yavo. And their random call-outs keep confusing everyone, not to mention the chazan.
And speaking of davening too slow, don’t forget the guy behind you who davens a long Shemoneh Esrei so you can’t back up until he’s done. Or the guy in front of you who davens way too fast and who keeps turning around to look at you and sigh.
And then there’s the noise. There’s the guy whose chair squeaks but he won’t stop shukkeling. Then there are the guys with the phones. There is one excuse for a phone in shul and that is to text your rav to ask when it’s okay to back up in front of a guy who’s still davening.
And speaking of noise, don’t forget about the kids. They won’t let you.
Now don’t get me wrong. Bringing kids to shul is great chinuch and also adorable if they know how to be quiet and shukkel in front of a page of alef beis. But some kids just walk into shul and cry.
Do you mind? I’m trying to cry to Hashem. How difficult is your life right now, rolling into shul two hours late with your homemade pekeleh and your picture books?
“I got the wrong color lolly.”
It’s Yom Kippur. Be happy you got any lolly. I’m sitting here with besamim. And it’s not even the kind I like.
Not that we prefer the kids who show up, get candy, and leave. The candy is so you can sit quietly in shul. Not so you can traipse in with each of your friends.
“I have a little sister at home. Can she have one?”
“No. Tell your mommy to buy lollies for her. They’re not that expensive.”
And then there are the temperature-control fights between the people who want the window open for air and the people who want it closed because they’re cold.
“Then why do you sit near the window?”
“So I can close it.”
“Well, put on a tallis!”
Or maybe it’s because there’s noise outside. But no one who’s fighting ever gets the idea to switch seats.
In Rabbi Kaplan’s article, he made it sound like women don’t have any annoyances to put up with in shul. But I’m sure there are pet peeves in the ezras nashim too. I don’t really know them. I know it starts with having to kick the men out when you first get there.
I’ve heard women complain about this. But this is not really different from kicking someone out of your makom kavua. And the men will get out. They won’t challenge it. But I guess it’s still annoying to have to do that. The men never have to do it when they first come to shul.
“Hey, why is the men’s section full of women?”
“What? It’s roomier!”
It also doesn’t help that when the women walk in, the men have an expression on their face that says, “Great. I had a good thing going here. I had my elbow room, no one’s coughing in my ear, and there are zero windows!” The men aren’t annoyed at you for showing up, they’re annoyed that they now have to go sit in the men’s section.
Of course, the noises are annoying for women too, especially when they can’t hear the chazan. And that guy yelling out random parts of davening? They have no idea he’s not the chazan.
And don’t forget the men who shmooze in the back of the shul – or at least they think it’s the back of the shul. It’s right in front of the women. Though my advice for that one is that the women should just keep pekelach on hand from previous simchas that they can throw at the men. Unless you think that’s rewarding them for their behavior. But candy does keep most kids quiet.
“Can I have one more for my son? He’s playing outsi—BOOM!”
So women do have reasons to be annoyed, but they go once a week. Men go 14-21 times a week. But I guess that he’s saying that, in case women are jealous that we get to go off to shul and have you fight with the kids in the morning — just so you know, we’re fighting too. All we want to do is daven, but all these annoying people are in the way.
On the other hand, that seems to be the whole point. The point of going to shul is to daven with at least 9 other people and their various annoying personality traits. You have siddurim at home. Maybe the point of davening together is an achdus thing – learning to get along in service of the greater good. Because you know where people don’t kick you out of your makom kavua? At home. Unless you daven at the same time as your wife.
Going to shul, Rabbi Kaplan points out, is about working on our middos, and maybe instead of getting upset, looking back and laughing because it’s something we all go through. Even rabbonim, apparently.
Maybe that’s what he wanted from me.
Or maybe he wanted a funny, non-threatening way to get the message across to the people who do all these annoying things. Most of them aren’t even aware of what they’re doing. Do you think the guy who randomly bangs on his shtender for kavana realizes how many people he’s inadvertently causing to say Yaaleh V’yavo?
Maybe you should say those words out loud as you get to it, so he knows.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia, a monthly humor columnist for The Jewish Press, and has written three books, all published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com