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Man learning in shul (not during Chazaras Hashatz)

Part 4 of 4 of our focus on:



Is It Proper To Learn During Chazaras Hashatz?


It’s always proper to learn Torah. However, Chazaras Hashatz (the reader’s repetition of the Amidah) is the focal point of our tefillah when we are a constituted quorum – minimally a minyan of ten adult males.

The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 34b) explains the concept as an enactment of the sages to discharge the prayer obligation of the congregation for those unlearned in the text. Even now that the masses have become knowledgeable, the enactment nevertheless remains in place.

The Mechaber and Rema (Orach Chayyim 124:3) based on this Gemara rule accordingly. They also rule (infra 124:4) that the congregation is to be completely silent and if there aren’t at least nine individuals paying full attention to the recited blessings and responding “Amen” to each, as the chazzan repeats the Shemoneh Esreh, then the matter is close to a beracha l’vatala – a recital of blessing[s] in vain.

Obviously, the number of nine (with the chazzan, comprising the minimal ten) is a leniency. The expectation is that all respond with rapt attention. However, some people do not have the attention span and may miss out on a few of the nineteen blessings as the chazzan repeats.

Now to open a sefer and learn is admirable; however there is a time and place. To understand the matter better let us ponder the following example. You are in the midst of a conversation with your friend and as you are talking to him you see that he is texting on his phone and has really not heard a word that you said for the last two minutes. For sure you will find it rude and you might even rethink your friendship.

When we are in the synagogue, we are in Hashem’s house and in His presence, supposedly engaged in an earnest conversation with Him – and then we turn from the conversation to look in a sefer or, worse yet, converse with others is there no greater rudeness. Just wonder how will Hashem look upon that person when he seeks support for his needs.

There is a time and place for everything. Chazaras Hashatz is not the time to learn.

Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.

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Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

No, and I plead guilty with an (inadequate) explanation. The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 124:17) exhorts us to be careful not to learn during Chazarat Hashatz. The repetition of the Amidah is intended today not so much to fulfill the requirements for those who can’t read (a rarity) but instead to enable us to focus on this communal tefillah given the difficulties we all have in concentrating during our private tefillot. To learn Torah is not only a wasted opportunity (even if we still answer “Amen”) but engenders the idea in others that the repetition is not that important. For every one person who will learn, five others will be checking emails on their cell phones and ten others will be conversing.

The prohibition seems straightforward, and years ago I made a conscious effort to stop. I failed, for several reasons, but was bolstered in my waywardness when I came across a teshuvah of Rav Menachem Azariah of Fano (102:8) who wrote (in the 16th century; this is not a new phenomenon) that learning Torah during Chazarat Hashatz is improper but most Jews are not careful about this because they have already fulfilled their obligation of tefillah and so grab whatever mitzvah they can during this period.

Most later poskim rejected this contention of the Rema MiFano, but nevertheless conceded that the issue was usually not framed as an outright prohibition but rather as inadvisable given that the less learned will then do what brings them pleasure – idle conversation and the like.

Rav Kook generally noted that divine service requires orderliness. It is as sensible to learn while davening as it is to daven while learning. Each element of avodah demands our utmost attention and is the commandment of the moment that must be fulfilled. The temptation for Talmud Torah is enormous – but even that temptation, I tell myself, must be controlled. It is undeniably true that the greatest of our Torah sages were meticulous in not learning during Chazarat Hashatz.

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.

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There are two basic approaches when it comes to understanding the chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah. According to the first approach, the repetition is akin to the silent Amidah. The audience must stand, not speak, and not give in to any other distraction. Some people even stand with their feet together, as though they are still standing for the Amidah. According to this approach, it is inappropriate even to study Torah during the chazzan’s repetition. Rav Soloveitchik, who adopted this approach, referred to the repetition as the tefillas ha’tzibbur – the congregation’s prayer. The silent Amidah is the prayer of the individual, and the chazzan’s repetition is the collective, communal prayer, for which everyone must stand at attention.

The other approach views the repetition as a prayer for those who were unable to pray on their own. Remember that siddurim were not always as easy to find as they are today. The chazzan would recite the Amidah on behalf of those who could not pray, and they, of course, would stand at attention. Others, however, who had already prayed, were not bound by the same requirements.

There are several practical differences between the two approaches. The custom of saying “Baruch Hu u’varuch shemo” upon hearing Hashem’s name in each beracha of the chazzan’s repetition is problematic if one adopts the first approach, as it would constitute a hefsek, an interruption in prayer. The age-old custom makes much more sense according to the second approach.

It seems quite evident that the prevailing minhag accords with the second approach. Most people indeed say “Baruch Hu u’varuch shemo” and are not careful to stand with their feet together during the chazzan’s repetition. Some, like members of the German community, remained seated for most of the chazzan’s repetition.

This approach seems to have its roots in the works of Rishonim of Ashkenaz. The minhagim of Maharil (R. Yaakov Moelin, late-1300s/early 1400s), considered to be a major source of Ashkenazic custom, especially concerning prayer, reports that Maharil himself would bring the book Arba’ah Turim (the Tur, the major halakhic code composed in the 1300s, on which Shulchan Aruch is organized) with him to shul, and he would learn from it whenever the chazzan would drag out his singing – as well as during Kedushah and Kaddish.

Ultimately, everyone should clarify their familial and communal custom and conduct themselves accordingly. Those who simply can’t help themselves and can’t take their eyes from the pages of whatever sefer they are learning, even during Kedushah, Kaddish, or the chazzan’s repetition – well, may learning Torah be the worst aveirah they ever do.

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.”

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The phenomenon of learning Torah during Chazaras Hashatz, or for that matter at anytime during the davening, is an issue that is prevalent in many synagogues in the United States as well as in Israel. In our shul in Efrat there are many periodicals that are available before Shabbat which are filled with divrei Torah, and which are inevitably read during all parts of the davening.

On a halachic level one can argue that such behavior would be permitted even during Chazaras Hashatz since the original reason for the repetition of the Shmoneh Esreh was for the benefit of people who could not read, and since most people can read Hebrew today it would seem to be permitted. In addition one could argue that learning Torah is essential and one should utilize every minute to fulfill the mitzvah of limud Torah even if it’s during Chazaras Hashatz.

However, regardless of this rationalization and the manipulating of Jewish law, this behavior is absolutely forbidden. King Solomon states that there is a time for everything; and there is a time to learn Torah and there is a time to daven. Everything has its place.

Just imagine one being interviewed for a very important position, an interview that would decide the very future of this individual. Now let’s imagine that in the middle of this important interview, this person takes out a book and starts reading. How do you think the interviewer would relate to this flagrant chutzpah? Do you think he/she would secure the position?

All the more so, when we are standing before G-d and asking, indeed pleading, for our very welfare, our health, and our prosperity. Shouldn’t we remain focused at all times to the task? Is it proper to take out a sefer and study then?

Sanctity in the synagogue is vital for each of us to understand. We are in a makom kadosh, a holy place, which demands our attention at all times to the purpose of our being there.

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, New Jersey. Email [email protected].


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