Pardon Me, But You’re In My Seat

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.

16 thoughts on “Pardon Me, But You’re In My Seat”

  1. I like the first suggestion about getting to shul early. What gets sticky is when you get to shul and save a seat for your son who is “right behind you” and he doesn’t show up until leining.

    I happen to always save a seat for my boy, because I have heard (and saw) that one of the rabbeim in a major yeshiva in the New York area has a son who went OTD and he always has a seat reserved for his son on Shabbos and Yom Tovim, just in case his son decides to show up at the yeshiva.

    As an aside, Rabbi Efraim Twerski in Chicago (a son of Reb Michel from Milwaukee) tells the member of his shul that it’s a mitzvah to give your set to a guest. I don’t daven bei him on Shabbos, but I do usually go hear his drashos after my hashkama minyan is finished.

    1. Neil, a whole other issue is how to allocate seats to your members on a regular basis taking into account the often sporadic attendance of their children as they grow through the years. I have a lot of experience with that particular issue and G-d willing I’ll post something about it in the future.

      Saving a seat is good advice, but we always have to weigh the costs of our actions, and in this case the cost is someone else not having a seat.

      I agree with Rabbi Twerski that it’s a mitzvah to give your seat to a guest, but I think the highest collective mitzvah is for both members and guests to have the proper seats – that’s the ultimate goal.

  2. And what of the visitor, who knows the halacha. He wants a place to sit, but is afraid to sit down because he might be in somebody’s seat.

    One doesn’t even know who to ask (especially on weekdays, when there really isn’t a gabbai) or of the fellow you are about to ask even knows the halacha and will understand your concern.

    1. Ed, it might be a good idea to go to a section where people are seated and ask which seats are usually unoccupied. Be aware that different members have differing levels of awareness and you have to try to find the right guy to ask.

      One rule of thumb is to try to look at the layout and figure out which is the least popular area and which are the last popular seats – for example don’t sit in an aisle seat since the member who usually sits there probably cares more about his seat.

      If you can’t ask anybody look for the worst seats and try to sit there. It might be an interesting exercise to go into Shuls and try to figure out based on the layout which are the best and the worst seats and then ask a member to see if your hunches were confirmed.

  3. You wrote “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.”

    All true, but you ought to add two things: (1) on a practical level, the shulchan aruch there says not to switch places of prayer “im lo l’tzorech” –if not for a need. Clearly not offending a guest is a need. (2) On a theoretical level, Avraham Avinu himself “put aside” his meeting with G-d in order to be hospitable to guests, and this should inform our own priorities.

    1. Shmuel, I alluded to your first point here: “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 I also explicitly stated: “Even if you can’t find a close seat, foregoing this halacha for this davening is better then embarrassing someone.”. Perhaps I’m missing your point here.

      Of course we should always be hospitable to guests and we should never embarrass somebody, but since the guest usually doesn’t want to take somebody else’s seat the best solution would to seat the guest warmly and comfortably without depriving the member of their seat.

      I was thinking about the hospitable to guest issues in general and was wondering what the nuances are when applying it to a partnership like a Shul as opposed to a household.

      Another thing that crossed my mind is that I can’t ever recall a head of the household giving up their seat at the dining room table to a guest. Sometimes they will give up there son’s seat, but that’s also not always the right move.

      Also, take a look at Rabbi Noson Weisz essay which deals with this conflict that Abraham faced at a deeper level.

  4. Mark–

    you are right. I misphrased what I wrote. I should have said that I think these items need to be emphasized rather than added. I was specifically referring to the fact that built into the s’if in the shulchan aruch where the halacha of makom kavua is found itself is the safety valve of “tzorech,” rather than it being a case of balancing a technical halachic requirement with a general obligation to be nice, and built into the source of the idea of a makom kavua (Avraham Avinu) is the idea of being nice to guests even at the expense of one’s prayer routine.

    I also should say that I am biased in that for the last 12 years or so I have davened regularly in two shuls (in different areas, I moved during that period) where the Rabbi explicitly forbade congregants from kicking someone out of what they regarded as their or someone else’s seat. So those experiences have informed (or perhaps formed) my views on this.

    1. Shmuel, I have to think about it and talk to my Rav as to how to understand all the parameters of Tzorech in this particular halacha.

      I don’t think there are many (or any) Rebbeim on the planet who would say you should kick a guest out of their seat, so I don’t think that’s the real issue.

      I think the issue in a nutshell is that members have rights (seating rights in this case) and guests should not be embarrassed. We need to balance these two concerns to try and achieve the ultimate goal of everybody getting the best seat for them which ideally would be the member getting their seat and the guest getting a comfortable seat without being embarrassed in the process.

      I will point out again that guests don’t want to take somebody else’s seat, so giving them someone else’s seat is not optimal.

  5. I wonder if it makes sense to post some kind of sign directing guests to the person who can help them find a seat.

  6. I feel that if you want a particular seat, come early. I come early enough that I can almost can almost always find a seat with 6 – 8 feet of my ‘regular’ one. If I’ve come too late or a lot of people came earlier that is just encouragement to come earlier still next time.

    When someone is sitting in ‘my’ seat and asks me about it I tell them there is no reserved seating in this shul.

    I wonder how the importance of fixed seating is correlated with the incidence of talking. One who doesn’t talking during davening can be less particular about who they are sitting next to than someone who might be eager to talk to Shmuel while Shmuel talks to Hashem.

    1. Larry, coming early is a good idea as I mentioned in the post, but it’s not an option for everybody due to what’s going on in their household on Shabbos morning and their temperament regarding being a morning or a night person.

      I know that when I go to a Shul, I never want to take someone else’s seat, so if I come to your Shul and sit in your seat, please tell me about it in a nice way.

      Besides being next to your friends, the fixed seat has to do with Kavannah during davening and there are probably deeper mystical issues at play here.

  7. It would be helpful for a shul to have one or more volunteer ushers each Shabbos and Yom Tov to show visitors and infrequent shulgoers to seats. If someone shows up later to claim an already occupied seat, the usher can cool him off or usher him out.

    “him” meaning that latecomer

  8. I am so glad to see this discussion. As a Rabbi of a large shul I have recently begun to teach about this issue. In fact, a major part of my Shabbat Shuva drasha was devoted to it. I would say that the people likely to sit in somebody else’s seat are visitors or first time attendees. As such they are likely to be feeling self-conscious and awkward. Being ejected from a seat, even if done sensitively (and it rarely is) is humiliating and embarrassing. I have had countless conversations with people who have told me how they felt when that happened to them. The gemara in Chulin (54b) talks about the necessity to greet and encourage farmers coming to Yerushalayim with their Bikurim, lest you make a michshol in the future, which Rashi says means that they aren’t going to come back again unless people are friendly and warm (panim zahuvim) to them.

    In fact the Gemara learns out concept of Makom kavua from Avraham Avinu in last week’s parsha. Do you think for a second that if you were sitting in Avraham Avinu’s seat in shul he’d ask you to leave??

    I have asked people in my shul not to ask people to leave their seats, instead enjoy the fact they get to do Hachnasat Orchim with their makom kavua. (if a newcomer adopts the seat the following week, then at kiddush they can go over and introduce themselves, explain the issue etc)

    Many thanks for this wonderful and invaluable forum!

    Shaul Robinson

    1. Rabbi Robinson, thanks for participating here and sharing your thoughts on this issue from a Rabbi’s perspective!

      The friendliness of a Shul is important and even more important where non-observant people come to daven for the first time. Your lo-plug (non differentiating) rule of never asking a first time attendee to change their seat makes perfect sense to me in your situation, however there may be room for a different guidelines in other Shuls where the guest might be embarrassed to take someone else’s seat.

      I think asking what Avraham Avinu would do is not always the right question. Here’s a story that happened to me over 20 years ago when I was a newcomer: I was meeting somebody in the Yeshiva to learn and I unknowingly sat in the Rosh HaYeshiva’s seat. A student of the Yeshiva pointed out to me in the nicest possible terms that I was sitting in the Rosh HaYeshiva’s seat. I was a little embarrassed but I’m glad that he pointed it out, rather than other people seeing how foolish I looked sitting in his seat. I am quite sure that in a million years, the Rosh HaYeshiva, like Avraham Avinu, would not ask me to move from his seat, yet nonetheless I think it was the right thing to do and I am thankful that the student did point it out.

  9. “Within 6-8 feet of your seat is considered your fixed place.”

    Which means that there is no reason to reserve a seat! Most of us aren’t 6-8 feet wide.

  10. There would be fewer seating conflicts if weekday prayers were conducted in the larger Main Sancutuary area of my local synagogue instead of the much smaller weekday minyan room.

Comments are closed.