How should a shul respond if a member suddenly pulled out the Wall Street Journal (illustrious paper that it is) during davening and began reading it? How would fellow members react if someone began playing Scrabble during Chazarat Hashatz – assuming that the observer was himself not playing?
The distractions during tefila (prayer) have certainly changed over the years. I remember when a beeper was a novelty, but such was limited to potential medical emergencies. (Come to think of it, I remember as a child seeing one fellow actually read a newspaper in shul, during the Torah reading!) As we all know, the scourge of today’s shul has long been the cell phone whose chimes, in many places, are regularly interspersed with the cadences of tefila. Many of the chimes are recognizable – generic, factory-installed sounds; others are majestic (Beethoven’s Fifth), some are uplifting (Beethoven’s Sixth – the Pastoral Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee) and some are inspirational and nationalistic (Hatikvah). But all, in the context of the davening are, frankly, inappropriate and annoying.
This problem transcends all boundaries – religions, denominations within Judaism, as well as within Orthodoxy. Far be it from me to speculate as to where the challenge is worse – Shtiebel, shul , Young Israel, ModO, etc. It is pervasive. Fortunately, in our shul we have succeeded in eliminating this bane of the modern mitpallel almost entirely through repeated reminders and gentle admonitions, such that the occasional offender is almost always an unknowing guest or a visiting meshulach, or (rarely) a regular who forgot he was carrying his phone with him. In fact, we encourage people to leave their phones at home or in their cars, as they really have no acceptable use during davening.
But fast forward to today’s smart phone that not only functions as a telephone but also as a siddur, chumash, newspaper, joke book, encyclopedia, Scrabble game and window to the infinite world of knowledge and nonsense. It does everything but daven for you, although I am sure that App is in the works. How should we relate to this modern contrivance which has both sacred and profane uses?
Our Sages went to great lengths to ensure that we would be able to maintain kavana (concentration) during davening. Reciting words by rote and without attentiveness is compared (by Rabbenu Bachye in Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh, Chapter 3) to a “body without a spirit.” It is lifeless.
Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 90) notes that, if possible, we should daven facing a wall, with nothing or no one in front of us. We should never daven in back of someone wearing bold, bright-colored clothing – it is too distracting. The Rema adds that, for the same reason, we should not even pray from a siddur that has pictures in it.
And not only that: the Shulchan Aruch (OC 96) contains further admonitions: “When a person prays, he should not hold in his hand tefillin, nor a sefer from the holy books, nor a full plate, nor a knife, money or a loaf of bread, because in all those cases he is focused on not dropping them, and his concentration will be disturbed and nullified.” In the initial instance, this applies to the Shemoneh Esrei (the classic tefila) but it is extended as well (by the Pri Megadim) to Psukei D’Zimra and Shema, so essentially it applies to the entire davening. These laws are rooted in the Talmudic discussion (Masechet Berachot 23b) wherein Rashi states that all these activities “unsettle the mind.” The plate might break or its contents spill, the knife might fall and impale your foot, money might be dropped and lost, and a book will divert your attention. What should we hold in our hands? Nothing, except for a siddur, if necessary.
Anything that can be diverted for other uses, or whose primary purpose is not tefila, cannot be held during the davening. Anything that is valuable such that its potential loss or breakage weighs on one’s mind also cannot be held during the davening. The Pri Megadim adds another cogent reason for these limitations: it is not derech eretz (here meaning “courtesy” or “common decency”) to stand before eminent people holding extraneous objects in one’s hand, and certainly not while talking to them. How much reverent should we be standing before the King of Kings?
It is obvious that cell phones should be prohibited from all shuls. Phones are a means of communication with the outside world – the very world that we try to shut out for a few minutes several times a day so that we can concentrate on our relationship with the Creator. I have been left aghast in some shuls in which people actually carried on conversations after they answered their ringing phones – and nothing that was remotely life-threatening (just mundane business, and the like). Those whose jobs require constant access to a telephone (e.g., the president’s military aide who carries the “football” containing the codes that the president will need in order to authorize a nuclear attack on our enemies) are really exempt from public prayer. Certainly, a doctor’s life-saving work is held in esteem, and most know to keep their phones on “vibrate” so as not to disturb others. This is old news.
But this is new. Several months ago after discussing this topic in shul, I announced a ban (since then, thank G-d, strictly adhered to, for the most part) on the use of smart-phones during tefilla. A smart-phone, for all its wonders, is actually a holy book, a full plate, a knife, money, a loaf of bread – not to mention a telephone, a newspaper and a Scrabble game – all in one. It is everything that Chazal prohibited – valuable, breakable and a fount of distractions. Even if the phone element is turned off, the temptation is too great and the diversions are too accessible. The email beeps, the texts ring – and worse – it is the intrusion of the outside world that we struggle to keep afar during tefilla.
In a shul, the smart-phone has no place. Use a siddur! They are available in abundance.
That is not to say that the siddur/chumash, etc. apps have no value or use at all – on the contrary. Every smart-phone owner should have them (as if you didn’t know that!). They come in handy when a siddur is unavailable or where the lighting is so dim that a siddur can’t be easily read. It is also salutary even to see the siddur or Torah icon on the phone during the day, good reminders generally and especially when one is using the phone for other purposes.
By all means buy and use the holy apps! Just not in shul. I would hope and pray that other shuls will follow our lead. Rav Yosef Karo entitled that Chapter 96 of the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim “to preclude all nuisances so that one can concentrate.” There is no greater, more consistent nuisance imaginable. The ban seems obvious and long overdue.
In its proper place, the new technology can often benefit and enrich our lives. But we control the technology; it doesn’t control us. When it comes to shul and to davening, let it wait outside. Just for a few minutes. It will still be there when we finish, but we will be better off for the few minutes’ respite. And we will be able to daven in peace and quiet, and with a little more kavana.