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Sshh, we’re in shul!

How many times are we told to turn off our phones? Just after the flight attendants’ “arm the doors and cross-check”. Before the start of a funeral. At a wedding. We’ve all squirmed when a ringtone distracts the groom as he’s about to place the ring on his bride’s forefinger. 

Oh, and at Shul. This past Shabbos, Nokia’s anthem chimed in with Ein Keloheinu at ours. I’ve learned not to react. The Nokia sound gave away the age of the phone’s owner, so we understood that it was an oversight. Older people often take longer to silence the ringing, making it extra embarrassing. No need to stare. 

Truth be told, that ringtone was less of a disturbance than the nonstop chatter. The bar mitzvah at our Shul brought in a larger crowd than we have seen in two years. Most of the guests were not shul-goers before Covid and were really out of practice. I had to hush the buzz a few times during the Torah reading, just to be heard.  

Shul decorum is a constant challenge. We don’t pray in complete radio silence. Kids tear through the room, people high-five and back-slap on the way in, some stage-whisper investment advice before the Shema. Maybe I’m out of practice after twenty-four months of Covid non-crowds, but this Shabbos’ noise levels were jarring. 

One of our regular attendees fretted over the lack of respect. “Why do people come to Shul if they don’t participate?” 

The easy answer would have been that they had come for their friend’s son’s barmi. But, they could have skipped the service and arrived for the kiddush afterwards. (I’m sure I’ve seen that somewhere before). Why sit through Musaf? Why chat through the service if you could catch up at a coffee shop? I calmed the disgruntled congregant and went to toast lechaims with the talkers.  

Rabbis love full shuls. We also enjoy calm, focused prayers. The guests are great, but it feels more spiritual when the prayers are serene. 

That begs the question, “Are noisy Shul members good for the Jews?”

On Sunday, I came across an apt and fascinating teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe asks why the High Priest wore bells on the hem of his kaftan when serving in the Temple. I would have pictured the High Priest in absolute stillness as he communed with G-d in the inner sanctum. I imagine him gliding from the Menorah to the incense in silence. 

That’s not what happened. The Kohen Gadol jingled as he walked around the Temple, thanks to a series of golden bells sewed onto the fringe of his flowing Meil. A noisy servant of G-d seems inappropriate. Didn’t G-d tell Elijah that he would not find Him where there is clamour?

The Rebbe explains that the High Priest was our spiritual representative in the Temple. Whenever he would enter the sacred space, he would take us all with him. “Us” includes everyone from the deeply spiritual tzadik to the religiously challenged.    

You can imagine that the Kohen Gadol resonated with the spiritual elite. They meditate calmly, comfortable with the Divine milieu. A Jew who agitates when sitting in a Shul pew is spiritually lightyears from the High Priest. Silent devotion represents the serene soul of the righteous; noisy discomfort in holy places indicates deficient spirituality. The Kohen Gadol’s bells clang in the language of the latter.  

Should he dare enter the Temple without them, the Kohen Gadol would not survive. Hear that? No noise in the Temple could imperil the holiest man in the nation. If he could not represent the entire community, he could not act for any of us. 

Shuls should emulate the Kohen Gadol, bells ‘n all. Of course, we don’t encourage or endorse talking during prayers. But, we should encourage Jews to connect with prayer, even if they’re rowdy at first. Next time a phone rings in Shul, think of the Kohen Gadol’s bells and welcome the visitor in. 

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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