I recently came across the following quote: “Many years ago, someone asked me: What is the phrase most heard in an orthodox shul? The answer was: ‘You are in my seat.’” Recently, someone asked me if I could post rules about makom kavua, about having a fixed place for davening, and whether and under what circumstances could someone be removed from his seat by another person who comes to shul later who claims that that seat is his makom kavua.
In Masechet Brachot 6b, the Gemara states that “Anybody who chooses a permanent place for his prayers will receive help from the God of Abraham as his helper. When he dies, people will say of him: Where is the pious man, where is the humble man, one of the disciples of our father Abraham!” Based on this Gemara, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 90:19) rules that a person should fix a place to pray within his synagogue. There are many explanations for this halacha, but perhaps the most basic reason is what the Meiri writes, that it helps our concentration when we have fixed place. People are creatures of habit and we are most focused when we find ourselves in familiar surroundings.
However, when we come to shul and a guest is in our seat, we should not ask the guest to leave. In his Sefer Chashukei Chemed, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein writes that the mitzvah to love the “ger” applies not just to the convert, but to the stranger, as well, and in our instance, to the guest who comes to shul and sits in our seat. We should love him and not make him feel uncomfortable by asking him to leave. Furthermore, Rav Zilberstein writes that the Shulchan Aruch’s actual ruling is that a person should not change his seat if there is no need. Certainly not embarrassing a guest qualifies as a need. In fact, the whole source of makom kavua comes from Avraham Avinu and Avraham Avinu is the one who gave up his encounter with God to tend to the needs of guests! Additionally, the Magen Avraham writes that four amot, or approximately six feet, within a person’s regular seat is considered a makom kavua. As such, a person who finds a guest in his seat can even sit in his makom kavua if he sits in the seat next to his regular seat.
What about regular shul members who may not come to shul regularly? It seems to me that if a regular shul member sits in another member’s seat, then when the second member comes to shul, he should not ask the first member to move from his seat for the reasons noted above. That being said, I see the value of a makom kavua as enhancing a person’s tefillah and therefore, if a regular member starts to daven in a new minyan then he should see if he can find the Gabbai and find out which seats are open because some people may arrive a little late to davening and with a little forethought, a makom kavua quarrel can be avoided altogether.
In general, when it comes to navigating this tricky issue of makom kavua, in my view the best approach is to proactively seek a peaceful resolution. I asked Rav Hershel Schachter at what point in the davening does a person lose his right to his makom kavua and he told me that if the person comes late, perhaps not five minutes late but ten minutes late, then someone can take his seat. He also told me that if someone has a makom kavua to sit in a specific seat every Sunday morning and he stops coming to shul Sunday morning for a few weeks for no apparent reason, then he loses his makom kavua rights to that seat. It should also be noted that the concept of makom kavua only applies to a fixed place for davening and not, for example, to a fixed place for attending a shiur.
Nonetheless, there are people who may unfortunately have a habit of coming 15 minutes late every minyan and there are people who feel more comfortable sitting in their same seat when attending a shiur week after week. It seems to me that both of these scenarios can be troubleshooted with a little understanding and some modifications to our behavior. My suggestion to both regular members and guests, for that matter, is to inquire to the extent feasible what seats are not someone’s regular seat. Some minor adjustments to our expectations can go a long way to avoid controversy.
Let’s see if we can replace that very popular phrase heard in shul unfortunately too often, “Excuse me, you’re in my seat,” with a more welcoming phrase. Let us model Avraham Avinu’s commitment to makom kavua. And let us all model, with equal enthusiasm, his commitment to making everyone around him feel welcome.