Many of us have faced at least one of these problems on a Shabbos morning:
-We’re guests in a Shul and we want to avoid taking somebody else’s seat
-We walk into our own Shul and somebody is sitting in our seat or our friend’s seat.
A Person Should Have a Fixed Seat for Prayer
We learn the requirement for a fixed place for prayer from Avraham who went to the same place to pray on a regular basis. The Shulchan Aruch (Halachos of Prayer 90:19) says that one should have a fixed Shul and a fixed place within that Shul to pray where possible. Within 6-8 feet of your seat is considered your fixed place.
The Shul Guarantees The Seat
Most people who daven regularly at a Shul want a fixed seat for both practical reasons and to satisfy the halacha. If there’s a membership charge, paying that charge usually guarantees a regular seat. When there’s no charge there’s often an understanding between the Rabbi and the Shul-regulars, that they will get a seat. A person who supports his Shul with his money or his attendance should be able to count on the Shul to provide him with his seat. Some Shuls have a seating Gabbai to fulfill this function.
No Formal Shul Process
In many Shuls, there’s no seating Gabbai and the members deal with the seating conflicts themselves. It can get tricky because we don’t want to embarrass somebody by asking them to move to a different seat. Although most people don’t want to take somebody else’s seat, people often get embarrassed when you ask them to move, even if they don’t show it. When there are Simchas like Bar Mitzvahs, many Shuls wave the fixed seat right to accommodate the expected guests of the Baal Simcha.
What to Do
-The first suggestion is to try to get to shul early or on time so nobody takes your seat.
-If someone is in your seat for whatever reason, take a seat within eight feet of yours and don’t ask the person to move. One caveat is that people can sometimes detect during the course of davening, that they’re in someone else’s seat and this can also be a source of embarrassment.
-Even if you can’t find a close seat, foregoing this halacha for this davening is better then embarrassing someone.
-Sometimes friends will protect each other’s seats, but that doesn’t really solve the embarrassment issue.
-If it’s known that a person is insistent on his seat and he might really embarrass the person that is sitting in it, it might make sense for another person to find the guest a different seat to minimize or eliminate the embarrassment.
-Try to direct a guest to an unoccupied seat before they get comfortable to avoid this problem.
Members have rights to their regular seats, but not at the cost of embarrassing guests. Try to be sensitive to both parties when resolving seating conflicts.