Our four part focus on davening in shul started in our last issue.
This week’s question is:
Is it proper to ask someone to leave your makom kavuah in shul?
First, I assume that we are discussing where one arrived late to shul. My first reaction is that one who came late would wish to make the least commotion, not wishing to call attention to his tardiness.
Yet, there is an important matter involved here. The Torah (Genesis 19:27) tells us: “Vayashkeim Avraham baboker el ha’makom asher amad sham es p’nei Hashem – And Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he stood before Hashem.”
The Gemara (Berachos 6b) derives from this verse two things. First is that Abraham set a special place – a makom kavuah – for his prayer before Hashem. Additionally our sages say that whomsoever sets a makom kavuah for his prayers the G-d of Abraham comes to his aid.
We find as well that Jacob also set a special place for his prayer, as it says (Genesis 28:11): “Vayifga bamakom, vayalen sham ki vah ha’shemesh – and he reached that place and he rested there …” The Gemara (Sanhedrin 95b) teaches that he arrived at that place and fixed it as a makom tefillah – a place for prayer.
The Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chayim 90: sk 23, citing the Mechaber O.C. 90:19) that not only is one to set a fixed place for his prayer, but a specific synagogue, or a specific beis ha’midrash as well.
The Mishnah Berurah (O.C. ad loc sk 59) adds that even in one’s house one is to set a fixed place, so that members of his household do not confuse him in the midst of his prayer.
What we see is that the main object of a fixed place is that one find his comfort zone to offer up his prayer before Hashem.
Yet, the Gemara (Shabbos 31a) cites Hillel’s dictum that what is anathema to you do not do to your fellow; similar is Rabbi Akiva’s exposition from the Torah (Leviticus 19:18) “V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha – you shall love your fellow man as yourself.” This is a major rule of the Torah.
We also have the verse (Exodus 20:21) that says: B’chol makom asher azkir es Shmi avo eilecha u’veiracticha – in every place that I let my name be known will I come and bless you.” This verse teaches us many things but paramount might be that “if My children gather together in harmony and sanctify a place (such as the Holy Temple) I will bless them (by responding favorably to their prayers).”
Now let us pause for a moment. Is my “makom kavuah” more important than my respecting my fellow who also prays to Hashem and he does so for me as well? The Shemoneh Esrei prayer is completely in the plural (aside from Elokai Netzor, a personal supplication at the conclusion) because we pray not only for ourselves but for each other. In such circumstances, spare me the fool who will pick a fight.
– Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu, Flatbush, Brooklyn; is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; he also serves as chairman of the Presidium of the Rabbinical Alliance of America He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Rabbi@igud.us.
* * *
The old joke just happened to me. A few months ago I was somewhere in northern Israel, found a shul for Mincha, walked in ten minutes early, and saw one person sitting already. The shul contained about 150 seats. I sat down in the middle of the shul. Two minutes later, a fellow walked in – now the third person in shul – approached me and said (in Hebrew): “You are sitting in my seat.” I burst out laughing – and graciously moved over two seats.
There is certainly a value in having a makom kavuah, which is derived from no less a personage than Avraham. It helps our kavanah and it also stamps a particular hallowed place with our personal commitment. Yet, too much is made of it. In our shul, I instituted a rule that a makom kavuah would be honored up to one minute past the start of davening. After one minute (allowing for watch discrepancies), you were no longer entitled to “your” seat, which, if it meant so much, you would have graced with your presence in a more timely fashion.
Underlying this conclusion was the halachic reality that makom kavuah does not necessarily mean a particular seat but rather a particular area. And within four amot (roughly, seven feet) of that seat is still considered your makom kavuah, as the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 90:60) notes. So it is not necessary to be so insistent on a particular seat, and certainly not to be aggressive or abrasive about it.
As it is, the aforementioned shul in northern Israel did not assemble a minyan for Mincha that day until 12 minutes after sunset, by which time I had already davened. I wondered that, perhaps, if the members were less adamant about their personal spaces they might attract more people.
– Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is Israel Region Vice-President for the Coalition for Jewish Values and author of Repentance for Life now available from Kodesh Press.
* * *
About five years ago I came across a fascinating document, a pinkas beis knesses from the town of Miklos (Liptovský Svaty Mikuláš, Slovakia). The physical document is held by the Braginsky Collection in Zurich, but it is available for viewing on their site and on the site of the National Library of Israel (and pictured below).
At the beginning of the pinkas from 1805 is a full-color diagram of the shul’s interior, both the men’s section and the women’s section. At each seat, a name is written in. Surprisingly, there are names of men on seats in the women’s section, and names of women on the seats in the men’s section. Continuing through this manuscript makes it clear why: The rest of the book is a record of any transfer of ownership of seats, seat swaps, and inheritance of seats. In other words, a makom kavuah in shul was not merely a place to daven, but a piece of real estate that one owned!
The responsa literature is filled with questions about how to resolve disputes about seating. For example, the Reisher Rav, Rav Aharon Levin, Hy”d, was asked (Shu”t Avnei Chefetz #6) about a case where a shul widened the Aron Kodesh and thus encroached on the seats to its immediate right and left along the prestigious eastern wall. Did everyone have to move down one, or was it tough luck for the owners of those seats?
Thus, the idea that a makom kavuah is, essentially, private property whose owner is entitled to designate who may and may not use it, is well-founded in the classic halachic literature. From this perspective, the designated user of a seat in shul has the right to that space and to kindly ask someone who is encroaching on that space to relocate. Of course it must be done pleasantly, especially if the seat’s occupant is a newcomer or guest.
Still, I am proud to belong to a shul that not only has no names on seats, but no fixed seating altogether (except on the Yamim Nora’im, and except for the rabbi’s seat year-round). Some worshippers have their preferred seats, but they make sure to arrive on time or early, so that they can take those preferred seats.
In contrast, I have been to shuls with fixed seats and small plaques with the owner’s name on the seat, and with special gabba’im to direct guests to “ownerless” seats, even if the guest has already seated himself; even long past the beginning of davening; even if the regular occupants will not be coming. The shul’s members may be well within their rights to implement such a policy, but that does not make it a good idea, and it will not give the shul a reputation for being welcoming, warm, or friendly. These qualities may not have been in high demand 200 years ago in towns along the Carpathian foothills, but expectations have changed over time – for the better, in my view. From a practical standpoint, insistence on fixed places can engineer the wrong kind of membership drive – driving members out to any of the shuls, shtiblech, and backyard minyanim that have proliferated.
There are always mitigating circumstances, but I think the general attitude should default toward making the shul inviting. My father summed up the proper attitude pithily:
“We should feel that we belong to the shul, not that the shul belongs to us.”
– Rabbi Elli Fischer is a translator, writer, and historian. He edits Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha in English, co-founded HaMapah, a project to quantify and map rabbinic literature, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus. Follow him @adderabbi on Twitter or listen to his podcast, “Down the Rabbi Hole.”
* * *
Our Sages attach great significance in seating at a designated place in shul.
The Talmud states that G-d looks for the individual at their makom kavuah every time they pray. The importance of having a special place in shul cannot be minimized. Thus to insist and ask a person who is seating in your place to move, ostensibly, would be correct.
However, there is a second issue. If by asking the person to move, it would cause him embarrassment, then one should think twice before doing this. The sin of embarrassing a person is much greater that your possible discomfort in not being able to sit in your makom kavuah. In fact, if you give up on your kavod, which is interpreted as being ma’avir al midosav, then G-d looks very favorably on your actions.
Bottom line: In our shul in Efrat the rule is that if you come late to shul then you forfeit your makom kavuah. If, on the other hand, you arrive on time and you see someone sitting in your seat, you may ask him politely to move.
Most people however would just take another seat and forego their kavod on the chance that the person sitting there might be embarrassed if they ask him to move.
A good rule to follow when one visits a new shul is to ask the people nearby if the seat that you’re about to take is a makom kavuah of someone in the shul. That way you will avoid any embarrassment or discomfort.
– Rabbi Mordechai Weiss lives in Efrat Israel and previously served as an elementary and high school principal in New Jersey and Connecticut. He was also the founder and rav of Young Israel of Margate, NJ.