Shul etiquette “commandments”
There’s no use in pretending it doesn’t bother me. The woman has invaded my sacrosanct space and time! But what can I do about it?
Let me explain.
I have a precious and brief time that I dedicate to enhancing my well-being each week. I attend a yoga class on my doctor’s order to become mindful of my time and space. I have come to cherish this opportunity to shut out the constant and disparate white noise that my brain exudes during the rest of my week. It’s the noise that reminds me to pay a bill, check my calendar for meetings, and note the items I have to remember to add to the shopping list. Not to mention all the family obligations that must be juggled. I’m anxious just writing these items, worried that my life is spinning out of my control, hence my doctor’s suggestion-cum-order.
In the first few minutes of each class, I focus my energy, breathing in and exhaling slowly. Recently, just as I was reaching the plateau that allows me to connect mind and body, the door to the quiet room opened with a woman who was not quite finished a phone conversation.
“Yeah, I know just what you mean, Sally. I had the same issue with her. I’ll have to tell you about it after my yoga class. I’m just getting in to it now.” Sally’s friend looks around, finds a spot, dumps her bag and continues to talk. “Oh, you do? Which one do you take?” She tucks the phone between her ear and shoulder, then unrolls her mat. “Really? Uh huh. Oh, and how much is it? Wow, that’s a lot less than I’m spending.” She upends her bag, looking for her water bottle. The instructor looks at her and smiles, suggesting she is ready to begin. “Listen sweetie, I gotta go, this class makes the British rail schedule look slack! Yeah, let’s do that, I’ll check my schedule for next week. No problem, I’m always here for you.”
As the instructor takes us through the first movement, Sally’s friend declares that this first stretch is feeling good, especially after such a stressful day. I am regaining my initial plateau, reminding myself that I need to judge others favorably. But with each position shift Sally’s friend has a comment. I’m finding these verbal utterances very intrusive.
Sally’s friend is not content with oohing and aahing. Now she is complimenting other classmates on their yoga attire. My desired state of mind is now wishful thinking. The only thing I am mindful of is how aggravated I am getting. Doesn’t Sally’s friend realize that this space and time is sacrosanct to me and to the others? Surely she must realize that there is a time and place for everything, and that this is neither the time, nor the place for her behavior. How can she be so oblivious to her poor yoga etiquette? Can she not see the distress she is causing?
This is related to my other dilemma. I don’t go to yoga to enhance my well-being and connect with my soul and my soul-maker; for that, I go to shul and pray with my community. And Sally’s friend’s behaviors reflect behaviors that regularly occur each Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and on any given Shabbos, from people both religiously observant and not. So, I humbly submit for consideration and hopeful implementation “10 commandments of etiquette for shul attendance.”
- Remember in whose house you are a guest. The sanctuary is G-d’s domain, not yours. People often comment they don’t find shul a “spiritual experience,” but a little preparation can help. Just as you ready yourself for a day of work, ensuring you have briefed yourself for an upcoming meeting, for example, so you should ready yourself for prayer. Avail yourself of the many sources of Jewish inspirational writings for the appropriate holy day. It’s up to all of us to bring our own spiritual thoughts and emotions to the sanctuary.
- No cellphones. Just as theatres request that you refrain from talking, texting or photographing, shul is not a place for cellphone use during Shabbos or Yom Tov. If G-d needs you, He’s got a better way of getting your attention. And, if you can’t separate yourself from your communicator for the length of services, you’ve probably got an addiction and may need some professional help – perhaps even a yoga class.
- Stop the chatter. Shul is not a baseball diamond, and you are not in the outfield yelling, “batter, batter, batter, swing batter.” The rabbi, chazzan and Torah reader do not require a cheering section and you are not there to provide color commentary. They do require your respectful attention.
- Socialize outside the sanctuary. Any conversation longer than the prerequisite greeting of “Good Shabbos or good Yom Tov” should be held outside of the sanctuary. Nobody else wants to hear about your bad back and why you can’t golf or play tennis anymore.
- No market reports, please. Whether it’s Bloomberg, BNN, the Wall Street Journal or the costs of buying kosher meat and poultry, if it is important enough to discuss at length, see Commandment #4.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Women, you are not walking the catwalk in a Jimmy Choo or Louboutin fashion show. There are lengthy periods of the services that require standing in front of the open ark. Sitting down while the ark is open is disrespectful unless you’re over 70 or have a serious medical condition or impairment. If you regularly suffer from foot fatigue, pinched toes or aching bunions, bring a pair of flats.
- No beach, cocktail or lingerie wear. It should be obvious but if your outfit suggests you need to apply sunscreen, then don’t wear it to shul, as it’s unlikely that there will be a tanning bed provided. Likewise, men, jeans – no matter if they are considered “dress wear” – are not appropriate unless you are under the age of 6, and even then it’s questionable. As well, unless your shul sports a disco ball from the ceiling over the bimah, leave the booty-shaking togs at home.
- Don’t show off your offspring. Bubbies and zaidies, your grandchildren are not fashion accessories. They are small human beings, worthy of your respect. If you insist on traipsing them through the sanctuary to have your shul mates ooh and aah over them, you are doing yourself and your grandchildren a disservice, and creating a distraction for all around you.
- Bribing children into the sanctuary. From a small child’s point of view, the sanctuary is crowded and there are a bunch of strangers wanting to pinch their cheeks or kiss them. Offering bribes in the form of candy, juice, cookies or an iPad or other tech gadget often results in major negotiations that would impress even the most accomplished CEO. Save yourself the grief and sign the kids up for shul programs for their age group, or leave them at home with Mary Poppins.
- No electronic gadgets. This is for shul attendees of all ages. Just as police are cracking down on distracted driving, there should be a penalty for distracted davening. Do not engage your smartphone or Star Trek communicator during “slow parts” of the service. Answering your email, checking Facebook or sharing your latest photos are not earning you any extra credit with G-d.
We all have a lot to be grateful for and Rosh Hashanah is the time to express our gratitude to our creator on the anniversary of the creation of the world. At a time when we ask for emotional, physical and spiritual help on behalf of ourselves and others, we should be mindful that we are being judged by the king of all judges regarding our behavior, our attitudes, our compassion and our consideration for our fellow human beings.
Ellen Freedman is a native Vancouverite. She is a longtime reader and first-time writer.