I. Talking Destroys Shuls
Talking in shul has been a problem since time immemorial. People who talk about idle matters during the prayer service not only show disrespect for the sanctity of the synagogue and the prayers, they disrupt the prayer experience of others. When there is talking there is shushing—fellow congregants or synagogue functionaries trying to silence the noise. Often, the shushing proves more disruptive and distracting than the talking itself. Is shushing allowed in shul?
The anonymously published Kol Bo (first published in 1490), at the end of Hilchot Tefillah, notes that non-Jews sit quietly in their houses of worship. How much more of an obligation for quiet falls on us, who stand before the true God? He says that we have seen many synagogues in which Jews displayed irreverent behavior that were destroyed and turned into churches. Presumably, this Divine punishment is seen as measure for measure—when Jews do not respect their synagogues, God responds by destroying those synagogues. Significantly, Rav Eliyahu Shapiro (early 18th cen., Austria; Eliyahu Rabbah 124:12) and Rav Yosef Te’omim (18th cen., Germany; Pri Megadim, Orach Chaim, Eshel Avraham 124:11) quote Kol Bo’s implicit warning that talking in shul can lead to the shul’s destruction as a Divine punishment.
Rav Te’omim quotes Rav Shabbetai Horowitz (17th cen., Germany, son of the Shelah, Vavei Ha-Amudim, Amud Ha-Avodah, p. 17b in the 1648 edition) who bemoans the widespread—in his time—problem of idle chatter in shul. He recommends that communities appoint functionaries whose job is to threaten and publicly embarrass those who talk in shul. Famously, Rav Yom Tov Lippmann Heller (17th cen., Poland, author of Tosefot Yom Tov), following the Chmelnicki pogroms of 1648-9, instituted a special mi she-beirach prayer for those who do not talk in shul.
II. The Case of the Loud Shusher
Rav Moshe Chagiz (18th cen., Israel) spent about a decade in Amsterdam where he befriended Rav Tzvi Ashkenazi (author of Chacham Tzvi) and exerted great influence on the community, albeit making enemies who forced him to leave. Sometime in the late first or early second decade of the 1700s he faced the following situation: in order to maintain decorum in the sanctuary, a shul had established a fine on anyone who raised his voice in shul. One man was talking in shul, disparaging a ruling of the rabbis and the rabbis who issued the ruling. Another man, outraged at the chutzpah, yelled at him to be quiet. The community elders wanted to fine the man who yelled in defense of the rabbis but the shusher claimed that what he did was a mitzvah and should not be fined. Rav Chagiz sent this question to Rav Ya’akov Reischer (early 18th cen., Poland).
Rav Reischer (Shevut Ya’akov 1:11) replied that the man was correct to shush the talker. The talker committed three sins that deserve rebuke: 1) he spoke about idle matters in shul, 2) he denigrated a ruling of the rabbis, and 3) he disparaged rabbis personally. A community enactment against raising your voice in shul cannot override the Torah obligation to protest and stop this improper behavior. Even if it was wrong to yell, it would be classified as a sin for a mitzvah purpose (aveirah li-shmah) but, in truth, shushing in shul is a mitzvah. Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel) writes in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 124:7) that someone who speaks during the prayers, “his sin is too great to bear and we scold him.”
III. Shushing Properly
From all the above, it would seem that shushing in shul is proper, even if it causes more disruption and embarrasses the person being rebuked. The Shulchan Aruch even explicitly says to shush a talker.
However, Rav Shmuel Wosner (21st cen., Israel; Shevet Ha-Levi 10:13) cautions that the general rules of rebuke apply to shushing in shul. If you see someone sinning you must rebuke him privately and gently again and again until he is ready to hit you. You can only rebuke him publicly if he still refuses to change his ways. Even then, you have to make sure that your rebuke does not lead to further deterioration of Torah standards in the broadest sense. Sometimes the best response is doing nothing (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 608:2).
Halachic authorities discuss whether to punish sinners even if doing so will push the sinners farther away from Judaism, even to the point of abandoning it altogether (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 334:1 and commentaries). While this topic is obviously sensitive and deserves broader discussion, it raises an important question: Is it worth shushing people in shul if that might drive them not to attend shul at all? Since non-attendance at shul easily deteriorates to complete non-observance, are we willing to be partially responsible for leaving Torah observance? Perhaps the answer is yes. But without question, the best approach is to find a way to increase decorum without alienating our fellow congregants. Like most things in life, shushing in shul requires compassion, balance and forethought.
Rabbi Gil Student is editor of www.TorahMusings.com.