Mourning the Destruction and Cell Phone Glancing

The internal conversation goes something like this: I don’t talk in Shul. My phone, text and email are set for relatively non-disturbing vibrating alerts. I get to minyan more or less on time. And I don’t even look at my phone during Shema or Shemoneh Esrai. So what’s the big deal if I glance at my phone when I get an alert during the davening down times?

My good friend, Rabbi Moshe Schwerd, provided a fairly compelling answer in a shiur about Mourning the Beis HaMikdash, which you can download here. He explained that Hashem took away our primary portal for connecting to Him when He destroyed the two Temples because of our sins. However, He did leave us with one primary prayer portal, the Shul. And now we’re blocking up that portal, with a disrespectful approach to prayer and to our Shuls.

Rabbi Schwerd illustrated this by explaining that call waiting is the only way we can insult two people in 5 seconds. First we tell the person with whom we’re talking to hold on because we want to see if the person on the incoming call is more important. And when we find out that he/she isn’t, we tell them we’ll call back because the first person is more important. Of course we don’t use those words, but that’s the message we’re sending and the message we send everytime we interrupt any conversation to check our phone.

The Shul is Hashem’s house. Even when we’re not davening we’re there for an encounter with the Master of the Universe. Do we really want to put Hashem on hold when we come to meet Him? Would we check our phone during a meeting with the President or our boss when asking for a raise? If we want to develop a relationship, shouldn’t we have the courtesy to pay attention?

So the answer to the opening question, is yes, it’s a big deal to glance at our phone. Hashem wants our attention in Shul. He knows it’s hard to have kavana during Peskukei D’Zimra, Shema and Shemoneh Esrai, but He also knows that we can put the phone away for the 40, 15 and 12 minutes at Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv respectively. Listen to Rabbi Schwerd’s shiur and think about it.

11 thoughts on “Mourning the Destruction and Cell Phone Glancing”

  1. I could not agree more that this is yet another manifestation of our lack of sensitivity to the sanctity of a shul and the lack of appreciation for the opportunity at hand to connect with Hashem.

    As in all things we need to be mindful that nothing in life is always so clear cut.
    Reading emails from work or checking your facebook news feed are extreme cases – hard to justify them during davening. Checking to see a choleh’s full name name or texting someone that Mincha is NOT in 10 minutes as you earlier told them, but NOW might be examples that we would not condemn so fast.

    Most often call waiting is, as said, an insult to all parties, but can we never see the need? Are there not emergencies that can arise that necessitate the interruption of the first call? A pregnant wife calling her husband? someone at the train in the freezing cold?

    There is an addictive quality to the “smartphone”. It is quick and the information is presumed to be relevant to me. I am not randomly surfing the internet, I am reading MY emails, MY facebook page. “It will just take a second” somehow is a justifiable excuse to interrupt whatever you were engaged in, be it a conversation with a worker, friend or G-d. I am alarmed though as I have too often seen people in a meeting never making eye contact with the other party since they are “multi-tasking” speaking to someone while engrossed in their Blackberry. It’s dehumanizing to be treated with such apathy.

    I may ruffle a few feathers with this following thought. Yes it is “better” to be looking at a gemora than your facebook page during davening. But how much better? It is true I would not be checking my phone while asking the CEO for a raise. Similarly I wouldn’t be busy finishing the report he is expecting from me while in his office. Is finishing Shnayim Mikra or the last few lines of the daf during Chazaras Hashatz or in the pause after Shma that much different? (I would argue that looking at an insight on tefila which would enhance the davening would be an exception)

    Why are we plagued with this issue in general? It could be a degree of “familiarity breeds contempt” or in our case “breeds callousness”. It is difficult to summon the spiritual energy needed to daven three times a day at a level of full appreciation of the moment. It is hard, it is even uncomfortable for most people to live on a higher spiritual level constantly. It is too demanding. Are we ready to devote the time to daven properly every day or will we reserve that for the Yomim Noraim or times of crisis. Perhaps we can make small steps by making at least one Shmoneh Esrei per day more meaningful, one where time is suspended and we take full advantage (okay, better advantage) to connect to the Rebono Shel Olam.

  2. Michael,

    I think looking at a Gemora, or some other Dvar Torah, while not ideal during Chazaras HaShatz, is at least Shul appropriate, whereas looking at facebook is not Shul appropriate during davening times.

    I think there are three issues here:
    – The sanctity of the Shul and what activities diminish from that sanctity
    – The propriety of giving Hashem (and people) our undivided attention at certain times
    – The immediate feedback demands our communication devices place on us

    As far as your call waiting exceptions, I would agree that when you know that there’s a real possibility that you need to be contacted, then glancing at your phone may be called for, but do we want the exceptions to dictate the norm?

    One big concern I have is that the problem will not get better and more and more people will be using their phones more often, and then the habits and the situation we will find ourselves in will become harder to change.

  3. “One big concern I have is that the problem will not get better and more and more people will be using their phones more often, and then the habits and the situation we will find ourselves in will become harder to change.”

    A good example is using a phone while driving a car. It’s incredibly stupid, but so many people do it now that the chances of stopping it look hopeless.

  4. I’ve heard shiurim against using smartphones to daven (on two separate occasions I heard different people quote R Hershel Schechter from YU), especially if you have a REAL siddur available. There is also the fact that if you’re using a shul’s siddur then the odds are pretty darn good that the siddur was donated and dedicated or in memory of someone, so there’s an added level of zechus when you use it.

    I wish shuls would have a sign up asking people to put their cell phone on “airplane” mode during davening. Of course, then you’d have people playing Angry Birds after Shemone Esrai.

  5. The shul my son belongs to bought a bank of lockers that is kept in the coat room. Everyone is expected to leave their cellphone in a locker and take the key with them when they come to daven. And yes, I know all about the doctor on call and the man whose wife is overdue, etc. etc.

    1. That’s a great solution which I also saw at a shul in Brooklyn. The question then becomes how much non-compliance there is and how is the rule enforced, if necessary.

      1. Clearly, the more the members are interested in a meaningful davening, the less “enforcement” is needed. My impression is that in the shul I’m aware of, nearly everyone is on the same page in that respect so no policing is necessary. A dirty look for offenders usually does the trick; this is the case even in the minyan factory near me with minyanim ’round the clock.

        1. I find it interesting, that even in a shul that is interested in a meaningful davening, a mechanism such as lockers is necessary to ensure that people don’t get involved with their phones during davening.

          A friend in my Shul explained that is takes an amount of will power to shut off your phone and therefore an additional strategy, such as using lockers, is necessary to help someone who wants to do the right thing and not use their phone.

          1. The simple explanation is that most people don’t really believe that G-d exists and that He is listening to our prayers.

          2. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. I think most observant Jews do believe in G-d and the efficacy of prayer, but certainly we can all use improvement in those areas.

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