Keeping Quiet – How to Talk to Talkers in Shul

Should We Ever Talk in Shul
It is clear from this summary of the halachos of talking in Shul by Rabbi Doniel Neustadt, that much of the time a person should not be taking in Shul. In the time periods where it is permitted, I agree with those who point out that a Shul is both a place to daven and a place to relate to members of our community and therefore permitted talking serves a positive function. For this post we’ll focus on how to reduce prohibited talking.

Reasons to Reduce Talking
At its core we should reduce talking because it’s against the halacha, but I think there are three reasons people want to stop the talking:
1) Out of concern for the talker and their violation of the halacha;
2) It personally disturbs our davening or Shul experience; and
3) It goes against the environment that the Shul is trying to maintain

Concern for the Talker
It’s usually rare to find this reason in practice, because hostility towards the talker is the prevalent emotion. This hostility is manifest in both the shush and outright embarrassment of the talker.

If we are truly concerned about the talker, we should think of ways we can be effective in helping them stop. This involves being friendly and showing concern for them and quietly and privately suggesting that they adjust the times they talk or to go to the lobby to talk. A person has to assess each person and determine what, if anything, will be effective in influencing the talker, as we must do with all types of tochacha (rebuke).

Disturbing Our Davening
Thank G-d more and more people take their davening seriously these days. We’ve pointed out previously that davening is difficult and unwanted talking distractions often annoy us. A general suggestion is to constantly work on our concentration so the talking disturbs us less. If we have a relationship with the talker, we can sometimes appeal to him to reduce or stop his talking for our benefit.

If the talking still disturbs us, it is often wise to refer the issue to the Gabbai, President or Rabbi and ask them to make an effort to deal with it. We can also appeal to the people who listen to the talker, to signal to the talker that they will converse with them later.

Against The Shul’s Principles
In the increasingly competitive Shul environment in larger neighborhoods, many Shuls are looking to be known as having a quiet davening, which is a worthwhile goal in its own right. In some Shuls, members are asked to sign explicit contracts that they agree to abide by the minimal talking principles.

It is the responsibility of the authority structure of the Shul to enforce the Shul’s principles. When we take the matters into our own hands, the talker will often question our authority in asking them to stop talking. The issue will sometimes unfortunately be deflected from the proper focus of reducing talking, to that of who has the authority to ask for quiet.

Going Too Far
Some of us have been in the situation where our desire for quiet has caused us to embarrass the talker. Even if this would be permitted in certain situations, it is certainly not what we or the Shul want to become. Unfortunately some quiet Shuls are known for publicly embarrassing talking, which seems to be inconsistent with Torah ideals.

We need to use intelligence and discretion in this worthy cause. Sometimes we can let the talking go, but we have to be vigilant that it doesn’t get out of hand. We need to distinguish between the most important times for quiet, like Shomoneh Esrai, the repetition, and the reading of the Torah and other times where there is more room to look the other way.

As we pursue this goal, we need to maintain a friendly, warm and caring atmosphere and not turn the Shul into a battleground.

Orginally posted February 2012

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22 thoughts on “Keeping Quiet – How to Talk to Talkers in Shul”

  1. I heard some advice about how to increase concentration. I followed this and it worked :-).
    For ten minutes do not look up from your siddur. No matter what noises or movements are going on around you, do not look up.
    At first this is hard. It takes much more than a couple of weeks to master this ability.
    I chose Pesukei DeZimra as my ten minute slot.
    When I lived in Efrat, I often davened in a shul with a lot of talkers. A friend of mine was very bothered by the talking (rightfully so). He asked me why I wasn’t so bothered. That’s when I realized that my ability to concentrate really had improved.

  2. Would it be permissible to use a Cone of Silence in Shul on Shabbos—either over the talkers or over yourself?

  3. I think it’s important for daveners to distinguish between what they see and what they hear. What I often observe is that people clear across the shul will “Shush” people they SEE talking even though they can’t hear it. I understand that it may bother them on a theoretical level that someone in their “quiet shul” is talking. However, most of the time the Shushing itself is far more disturbing to more daveners than the actually talking being Shushed.

    1. Menachem, see the post Is Shushing Worse Than Talking in Shul?

      Bob, there are white noise devices that work like the Cone of Silence. But if I remember correctly in the original Get Smart, in the Cone of Silence the people in the cone couldn’t hear each other, so it wouldn’t quite work because you need to hear your own words that you utter quietly in Shomoneh Esrai.

      Shlomo, I think you and your friend might be focused on two different perspectives, one’s own concentration and the principles of the Shul. Even if you can concentrate, it’s still nice to daven in a Shul with minimal talking, which usually indicates a more serious approach to prayer.

      1. “two different perspectives, one’s own concentration and the principles of the Shul”

        Perhaps the two perspectives are not that different. If I learn how to focus better and shut out the distractions, then I could give a D’var Torah on how I improved my praying by shutting out distractions (such as talking). That publicizes the issue in a non-threatening manner, and could even inspire others to follow my example, thus reducing the amount of talking. :)

    2. Menachem,

      We are obligated to pray as a community for a reason. If the community has gathered to pray, no one should speak. Seeing talking can be just as disturbing as hearing it. When people talk, they signal that they are no longer with the community in prayer; they have stepped out of it. Seeing talking therefore indicates that the community is not of one mind, has not come together spiritually, only physically.

      As I wrote below, I am not in favor of rushing to intervene. But it is not merely hearing talking that is a problem; any talking is a problem. It denies the communal nature and experience of prayer.

  4. It is not clear to me why we should be so sensitive to talkers when they are being so insensitive to us. They stand against the very purpose of a shul, and usually ignore quiet signals like looks, and yet we are supposed to go out of our way to be considerate of them? I favor not being too quick to speak because we risk interrupting our own concentration even more than it is already being interrupted. Nor do I advocate deliberate disrespect of the talker. But the talkers are the offenders here – and almost always consistent, repeat offenders – and I do not see why we should be terribly concerned about their feelings. They are behaving like children. If they are bored, they can leave or, at the very least, keep their mouths shut. Not to have the minimum discipline to stay quiet for the duration of a service shows an extreme immaturity.

    I don’t always want to be in shul, either. Sometimes it is the last place I want to be. Nonetheless, I am able to be quiet except when the service requires that I pray aloud. It is not hard. It is something that we reasonably expect of elementary schoolchildren.

  5. By the way, shushing should never be done because it makes a loud, disruptive sound. The question is not whether to shush, but whether to communicate quietly to the persons in question so that they cease.

    1. I think “never” is a bit strong. You can shush locally. I do. It can be done with a smile or a wink, especially to a young person, which can take the edge off the sense of scolding.

  6. Josh –I tend to agree with what you wrote except for the idea that “I do not see why we should be terribly concerned about their feelings.” The reasons for my disagreement are twofold –(1) even when we are “right” we still have an obligation to treat others with respect and sensitivity and (2) I have found it works better practically to take this approach.

  7. Do you think that talking in shul represents a lack of emunah/faith?

    I believe that when I pray, I’m communicating with G-d, or at least attempting to do so. Interrupting the prayers to talk casually with another person seems to be a denial of this belief.

    By trying to stop people from talking, are we addressing a symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself?

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by lacking emunah/faith. Aren’t we all lacking emunah/faith to some degree? I’m hesitant to try and assess other peoples lack of faith.

      On a practical level I think these are the factors
      1) Shul is an opportunity to connect with other Jews (at appropriate times)
      2) Davening is hard
      3) Not everybody is working on trying to improve their davening

      To be clear, I don’t think the above points justify for halachically impermissible talking, disturbing others or mis-aligning with the Shul’s mission and values.

  8. “I’m not sure what you mean by lacking emunah/faith.”

    If a person lacks faith that G-d is listening to prayers, then for that person, the importance of the prayers is diminished, and he may not see a problem with interrupting the prayers by talking.

    That’s all I meant. :)

    1. A good point. I would think most talkers do in fact believe that their prayers are being heard, and simply needed to be reminded – for instance, by a rabbi in a sermon now and then – that talking indicates the opposite.

  9. The article stated: “Unfortunately some quiet Shuls are known for publicly embarrassing talking, which seems to be inconsistent with Torah ideals. ”

    That is NOT inconsistent with Torah values as the Shulchan Aruch itself says one SHOULD strongly condemn people speaking in Shul. (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 124, 7) I have heard one of the gedolim who is a great Ohev Yisroel say that this should be done even today. HOWEVER, practically the Rav of the Shul should be the one to decide how to handle it and he should discuss it it with someone bigger who is also a big Ohev Yisroel.

    1. I believe most Gedolim and Rabbis are against freely publicly embarrassing people for talking. Therefore, if a Shul is known for such behavior today, I’ll stand by my assertion that it is inconsistent with Torah ideals.

      1. The initial attempt to deal with the talker should be tactful and polite. If the talker persists in his lack of courtesy for others (and his lack of respect for G-d), then he deserves to be embarrassed.

  10. Maybe the answer is on the thread about the Growth Shul.

    People are talking because they are not connecting to their davening, and thus are bored. So, talking is just a symptom, and you’ll get just so far trying to treat the symptom. Not only won’t “shushing” solve the problem, even classes about the halakhos of tefillah and speech won’t.

    Instead, I would focus on classes and sermons about thoughts in the siddur. Teach people what is there to connect to, to be thinking about, to get passionate over. Perhaps experiment with singing (depending on the congregation) — particularly in league with whatever was just discussed. Make a smaller service — Qabbalas Shabbos, Shabbos Minchah (feeding into “shaleshudis”) — a special shul event/experience. Etc…

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