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Was Talking in Shul De Rigueur During the Mishnaic Period?

October 4, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Prayer

Was Talking in Shul De Rigueur

During the Mishnaic Period?

by Jack Bieler

            A well-known Mishna in Berachot presents a disagreement regarding the permutations of what to do when the fulfillment of a Commandment between man and God, i.e., the recitation of the three paragraphs of Shema, comes into conflict with the etiquette and civility that governs relationships with other human beings, perhaps to be categorized under the general rubric of Kavod HaBriyot (honor/dignity to which human beings are entitled), a fundamental principal of Mitzvot that govern the relationships between man and fellow man.

 Berachot 2:1

…At junctures (between the paragraphs) [1] one can ask (initiate a greeting) because of honor (RaMBaM, Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Kriyat Shema 2:15—when when one sees an individual whom one must honor, e.g., one’s father,[2] one’s teacher[3] or one who is greater in wisdom[4]), and one can respond (to another’s greeting, according to the Talmud, also only in the case when the individual is one who one must honor, as opposed to ordinary individuals.)

And in the middle (of either a paragraph of Shema or the preceding or following blessings) one can ask because of fear (if the greeter is capable of meting out punishment in the event that he feels slighted) and one can respond (it is   inferred by the Talmud that the restriction per force must be greater than in the previous scenario, and therefore a response can be given also only to those whom one fears; but not even if one is obligated to honor the other individual.)—these are the words of R. Meir.

R. Yehuda says: In the middle, one can ask because of fear and one can respond because of honor (thereby setting up one disagreement with R. Meir in the case of responding to someone whom one must honor, in the middle of a paragraph or blessing.)

At junctures, one can ask because of honor, and one can respond with a greeting of Shalom to every man (a second disagreement with R. Meir concerning the case of responding to an ordinary individual at a juncture point.)

 Shulchan Aruch both codifies R. Yehuda’s position and adds detail:

 Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 66:1

At junctures, one can ask regarding the welfare of “Adam Nechbad” (an honorable man),[5] and one can answer (a greeting of) Shalom to every person.

And in the middle, one can ask regarding the welfare of someone of whom one is afraid, e.g., his father, his teacher or one who is greater than him in wisdom,[6]  all the more so a king or an “Anas” (lit. a coercer; someone who could potentially report you to the government in order to cause you a financial loss), and you can respond with a greeting of Shalom to an honorable person even in the middle of a verse,[7] with the exception of (Devarim 6:4) “Shema Yisrael” and “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto LeOlam VaEd” where one should not interrupt at all, unless one is afraid that he is danger of being killed.[8]

It is also to be noted that these rules for interrupting one’s prayer in order to exchange greetings are not confined to the Shema recitation. Berachot 14a quotes R. Chiya to the effect that similar considerations apply to the recitation of Hallel as well as the reading of Megillat Esther.           

            While the instances of one finding himself in a position where he has to act obsequiously to a king or a government informant will most likely rarely occur, this is not the case with respect to cordially interacting not only with “everyman” to whom one can respond at “junctures”, but even those who either one is obligated to respect, fear, or who are held in high esteem due to their social or financial standing (“Adam Nechbad”). Samuel Heilman, in his classic ethnographic study of the Modern Orthodox Synagogue, Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbollic Interaction[9] describes a scenario that is quite apropos to the Mishna and Halacha in question and perhaps accounts for at least some of the decorum problems that adversely effect many Orthodox synagogues:

            For some latecomers, especially those who emphasize the social character of Tefilla B’Tzibbur (congregational prayer)…(they) may try to draw others out of their prayers and into conversational help in warming up. (Heilman proposes that it is difficult for people to simply come into the synagogue and begin to pray; they need a “warm-up” period, e.g., words of greeting, supportive interchanges, etc. in order to reach a comfort level that will allow them to engage even in small amounts of prayer.) The expectation is here that if the situation were reversed, the latecomer would provide the same help. Those who respond to this implicit request are usually the ones who consider the shul as essentially a place characterized by sociability…

 Yet Aruch Hashulchan unabashedly cites opinions that strongly object to such behavior:

 Aruch HaShulchan, Orech Chayim 66:4

…There are great Rabbinic scholars who have further written that currently we have not seen anyone who carefully follows this (making interruptions either at junctures or in the middle of paragraphs/blessings in order to mollify certain individuals) and therefore we shouldn’t answer with greetings of Shalom, and that is not our way even with respect to his father or his teacher, and even at the junctures one should not interrupt. On the contrary, now it would be considered irreverent for someone to interrupt. And behold we have seen that even when a minister comes to a Jewish home and finds him praying, he will not speak with him and will wait until he has completed his prayer. Therefore now, all types of interruptions are prohibited until prayers have been completed.  And this is the simple custom, and one ought not digress from it.

And when one is asking questions regarding Jewish law of an Halachic authority, they can be answered at the junctures. However, if the asker is someone of understanding, he should wait until after the prayers, and this is what is appropriate to do unless the matter is urgent and requires an immediate response, for then it is a Mitzva to ask even in the middle of the prayers, and the Halachic authority will interrupt at the junctures and answer the question.

 Chafetz Chayim similarly insists that while such practices might once have been the order of the day, they are no longer:

 Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 66:1, Mishna Berura #2

…According to our custom today, that we are not accustomed to exchange greetings of Shalom in the synagogue during prayers, Heaven forbid that one should ask or respond even with words of Tora neither at the junctures or in the middle…

Since Aruch HaShulchan and Chafetz Chayim lived a relatively short time ago, one wonders whether their comments about the “current” custom of refraining from exchanging pleasantries and Divrei Tora in the synagogue during the course of prayers was something to which they hoped Jews would aspire, or whether it was actually extent for some time, and only recently has common practice reverted back to what the congregational experience had originally been like even during the Mishnaic period. Clearly human beings are social creatures; however, it would appear that for at least certain times during the day, they are to assume the role of lonely men and women of faith, and consequently hone in on relating to God via prayer.



[1] The “junctures” or natural transition points where interruptions are considered less egregious and therefore more acceptable are listed in the following Mishna:

Berachot 2:2

And these are (the places considered) between the paragraphs:

a)       Between the first blessing (ending in “Yotzer HaMe’orot” during morning services; “HaMa’ariv Aravim” during evening services) and the beginning of the second blessing (beginning “Ahava Rabba” in the morning, and “Ahavat Olam” in the evening;

b)       Between the second blessing (ending “HaBocher BeAmo Yisrael BeAhava” in the morning, and “Ohev Amo Yisrael” in the evening) and the beginning of the Shema (Devarim 6:4);

c)       Between (the conclusion of the first paragraph of) Shema (Devarim 6:9) and “VeHaya Im Shamo’a” the beginning of the second paragraph Devarim 11:13);

d)       Between  “VeHaya Im Shamo’a” (the conclusion of the second paragraph Devarim 11:21) and “VaYomer” (the beginning of the third paragraph BaMidbar 15:37);

e)       Between “VaYomer” (the end of the third paragraph BaMidbar 15:41) and “Emet VeYatziv” (the continuation of the morning prayers following the conclusion of Shema.) R. Yehuda said: Between “VaYomer” and “Emet VeYatziv” no interruption is to be made….

[2] Shemot 20:12; Devarim 5:16.

[3] While the exact source for the obligation to honor one’s teacher is a matter of dispute, one view recorded in Siphre Devarim #34 suggests that just as Elisha referred to his teacher in II Melachim 2:12 “My father, my father”, a precedent is established that the same honor due parents is due teachers as well.

[4] VaYikra 19:32.

[5] The terminology “Adam Nechbad” reflects a different nuance than the words of the Mishna which discussed “Kavod”, i.e., not necessarily a person whom one must honor due to Divine or Rabbinic Command, but rather one who is naturally honored by society. See fn. 6 below.

[6] Shulchan Aruch is taking issue with RaMBaM with regard to the types of people that one must honor and/or fear. And in fact not only is one to show respect to parents, teachers and scholars, one is required to fear them (hold them in awe?) as well, as in VaYikra 19:3 (once again, whatever applies to one’s biological parents applies at least as much to one’s spiritual parent—see fn. 3 above); R. Akiva in Pesachim 22b interprets Devarim 6:13; 10:20 that delineate fear of God  to include Talmidei Chachamim within the word “Et”.

However, this then requires an alternate definition for one who is due honor.

                Mishna Berura #3

One to whom it is appropriate to initiate a greeting of Shalom, like an elderly person, or a scholar (this particular example appears to overlap the category of those to whom one is Commanded to show honor/respect), and similarly if the individual is wealthy and he is worthy of honor due to his wealth.

[7] This obviously is a reference to the three paragraphs of Shema taken from Devarim 6, 11 and BaMidbar 15. The blessings before and after these three paragraphs are not comprised of verses.

[8] As important as the statement of Shema constituting Kabalat Ohl Malchut Shamayim (the acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven) might be, it is not comparable to the three transgressions for which one is required to sacrifice his life, i.e., idolatry, murder and sexual impropriety—see Sanhedrin 74a.

[9] U. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1973, p. 136.

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