We humans are programmed to filter out our memories of pain. If we didn’t we would be emotionally paralyzed and perhaps basket cases. How can the human sustain the memory of pain? Women wouldn’t give birth a second time, nor would Jews attend synagogue services after the painful experience of attending a Bar Mitzvah as I did and as I’m sure many of you have.
In the Beit Kenesset there are two kinds of Jews-- talkers and those who want to talk. At the outset let me say that I understand the need to talk and socialize in shul as I shall explain later. I do however also believe that a shul isn’t a market place where hawkers sell their wares. That is what I felt like on the particular Shabbat that I attended a particular Bar Mitzvah. I had to pinch myself just to make sure that I wasn’t imagining that I was at the shuk Mahane Yehudah on a Friday afternoon instead of shul on Shabbat morning. Hamavin Yavin.
Having spent this past week reviewing and studying for the first time in twenty years laws pertaining to hafsakot during davenning I realized that talking was going to be inevitable. Something like the prohibition era. It just isn’t going to work. All the halachot and all the castigation in the world wouldn’t change this phenomenon. Whereas the same yid was makpid on every little detail of shmiras shabbos, kashrus and davening three times a day, come shabbas in shul he was destined to talk. He was going to talk because essentially he was bored and I think somewhat resentful of the powers that be. There was a time that I thought that compulsive talkers suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder, but having reviewed the halachic literature pertaining to hafsakot (From a halachic point of view, it is important to distinguish between those portions of the davening where talking is prohibited because of hefsek i.e. birchos kerias shema, shema,shemone esrei, kedusha etc., where a word can’t be uttered regardless of need, and those portions where the prohibition of talking is used more on decorum issues, i.e. chazoras hashatz, where exceptions for talking can be made.) I realized that the problem wasn’t so much with the davener but with the establishment and structuring of tefillah.
In reality, the davener wants to daven, but the mechanism to do so has been corrupted by the rabbinic establishment who were control addicts. When I studied the development of the siddur it struck me that our rabbis were in need of controlling the “amcha” for better or worse, resulting in a seder teffilah that is totally different than how it all started out.
Initially in the period of the first and second century every synagogue in Palestine had their own version of the tefillah. There was innovative language by design or default since the shaliach tzibur may have forgotten what and how he said it the day before. Please keep in mind that there were no printed texts and prayers were committed to memory. The emphasis was on oral performance very much like good jazz players who never play the same piece of music twice. This improvisation of tefillah was called kavannah because it came from the heart or from the depths of one’s soul. What was important however was that the tefillot were said in the right way. This is very different from the systematic, institutionalized format of the prayer book.
Improvisational prayer is nothing new to us. The Bible is peppered with such moving tefillot. Moses beseeches G-d for Miriam’s cure when he prays Kel Na R’fa Na Lah. Let us not forget Hannah’s extemporaneous bargaining prayer to G-d, or Solomon’s prayer for wisdom. However by the last century B.C.E. the Rabbis began the process of changing this extemporaneous style of prayer to something regulated by time, how to do it and structure. kavannah yielded to keva, predictability, possibly resulting in rote and tedium. By the second century C.E. the rules had grown and multiplied to the point that the keva was growing at the expense of kavanah. Sages such as Rav Papa in 400 C.E. resisted the rigidness that tefillah was becoming and Rav Ashi when visiting a town and asked to recite the Kiddush Rabbah improvised rather than give the standard one. In essence then ad hoc oral improvisation gave way to structure imposed by the rabbinic elite, developing regulation and standardization. Much became fixed, but much still wasn’t, because there were still no prayer books to speak of not until the ninth century and that with the help of Islam.
The emergence of the Abbasids in the 8th century and their standardization of Islamic law and prayer, provided impetus to the Gaonim to do the same and by the ninth century they were in the process of standardizing performance of mitzvot and making tefilla uniform. The Palestine Jewish community resisted these efforts claiming that local custom outranked law. It was however with the confluence of events and the rise of the Gaon Amram in that the standard prayer book became regularized. Palstinian Jews resisted for as long as possible, relying upon their improvisation and piyyutim. They refused to canonize any single version of their prayers as the proper one. They were content with balancing fixity with creativity. Whereas they abandoned the previous purely improvisational form of tefillah they allowed for considerable variation. Amram did not because he had the model of the caliphate which molded universal Muslim practice. With the onset of the crusades, the Jews of Palestine fled to Europe. They retuned to Palestine a century later in time to adapt to the Amram prayer code and forgot the way their ancestors prayed.
Let’s face it, the rabbis, in their quest for control regulated and institutionalized prayer, and in the process sucked the life out of he extemporaneous tradition of pouring out ones heart to Hashem. Its no wonder than that there is so much talking in shul. It reminds me of a boring history teacher in an unruly high school class, whose only weapon for class discipline is to threaten students with demerits, etc. Bad and boring teachers never succeed in the classroom. That is the system the rabbis employed when setting up the elaborate set of halachot, making allowances for the hafsakot. The system doesn’t work and the noise continues. On the other hand to punish a yid for talking in shul by insisting that he stay away from the synagogue is like depriving him of oxygen. He needs the shul, it is the life line to his community and his G-d and tradition.
There is a solution. True tefilla can only be uttered if the heart and mind are on the same path. To perfunctorily mumble tefillos without kavannah is like reading without comprehension. I would urge those that have a compulsion to talk in shul to rise early Shabbat morning with the purpose of davenning at home, (but arriving in shul for kriyas hatorah). Before davenning at home, however, I would strongly recommend that one prepare properly with either saying tehillim or serious meditation inorder to achieve mindfulness. I prefer meditation which can prepare the psyche for serious tefilla. If the aforementioned remedy fails, come for Kiddush.