Devar Torah Nitzavim-Vayeilech

After re-embracing the commitment to follow their religious obligations, Moses tells the Israelites that they are bidden to enforce public allegiance.  As Rashi explains the verse (Deut. 29:28), “v’haniglos lanu u’lvaneinu” (and the revealed is for us and our children) dictates that it is the Jewish public’s responsibility to eradicate transgression wherever it is found.  And I find talking in shul almost everywhere.Why do people talk in shul?  So there can be only two reasons: they either think that it’s not inappropriate or they think it is inappropriate but they do so anyway.

In his responsa in regards to people’s poor attitudes to prayer, Maimonides lambasts those who don’t take prayer seriously, emphasizing how they likely neither know what they’re saying nor to whom they are speaking (Shailos u’Teshuvos 261).

About 2 years ago, I had my best friend over for Shabbos, and when we were each choosing a siddur from the bookcase in shul, he chose a Hebrew/English ArtScroll while I went for the all Hebrew version, and he accused me of not taking a Hebrew/English siddur because it’s not the cool thing to do.  Well, that bothered me a lot — was that really why?  Is it not cool to know what you’re saying?  So, shortly after that, I began taking only a Hebrew/English siddur whenever I daven.  At first, I would find it very difficult to use, because who can read the Hebrew, glance over at the English and think about what one’s saying, while at the same time trying to keep up with the chazzan who’s only pretending to say all the Hebrew words, let alone know what they mean?

So I decided that I would use the English for things that I already knew by heart in Hebrew — basically the Shema and Shmoneh Esrei.  I would say the Hebrew words by heart while reading the corresponding English words, and boy was that something.  I actually looked forward to davening a lot more than I had used to.  Now I do this regularly, and I also enjoy reading the English during Lecha Dodi (Heshy’s favorite poem, by the way).  It amazes me that people talk in shul as though they have all the time in the world after having completed saying everything — but now I realize that I was once guilty of not really davening myself — as Maimonides puts it, what’s the use of saying lots of words that I don’t even understand?  As the Shulchan aruch puts it (OC 1:4), it is better to pray less with more intention than more without intention.  The key to prayer is, as the Mishnah Brurah puts it, to “direct one’s mind to Heaven.”  And if we each promote an environment in shul in which we direct our minds to Heaven, who’s going to have time to talk and who are they going to talk to?

And to those who continue to talk, let’s issue a fatwa.