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Synagogue Etiquette: The Sequel

Well yesterday’s post about synagogue etiquette and the unwritten rules of the synagogue struck a chord! I have had hundreds of people share things they have observed and have questions about.  So today-the sequel. More unwritten rules for those who are part of a synagogue community whether a member or just a visitor.

First no talking on  your cellphone in services.  If you are in an Orthodox synagogue on a Shabbat or holy day you should not be on your cell phone on Shabbat or the Chag in the first place. It violates the strict interpretation of Halakah (Jewish law).  If you are there during the daily minyan, or in a Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Shul at any time–refrain from talking on your phone in the prayer space.  If you absolutely must–leave the sanctuary, chapel, or prayer room and attend to your business.  But it is a distraction from the kavannah, the spiritual intentions necessary for prayer.  On Shabbat and holidays we are not to conduct business! At the very least silence your phone.  And please do not snap photos during services.  It is tempting I know to take a picture of the Bat Mitzvah giving her d’var torah and upload it immediately to Facebook or Instagram.  I know everyone wants to hear the Bar Mitzvah chant his Haftarah portion and you think no one will mind if you video record just a few seconds to upload to You Tube but it is not appropriate to utilize these devices during worship. It destroys the holiness that is present by creating an intrusion in the sacred space.  A b’nai mitzvah is not a performance.  It is a sacred moment of transition for the young person and their family from childhood to young teen age responsibilities.

Same at a wedding.  The ceremony is a holy ritual called kiddushin. From the word for holiness.  If you have been invited to the wedding, you are part of the congregation and holy witnesses to the couple’s creation of their family! The wedding ceremony is a holy moment and most likely the couple has hired official photographers. Leave your phone in your pocket or your purse!

Next a reminder when the Holy Ark is open-Jews stand up as a sign of respect. If you are physically unable to stand then sit taller in your chair.  Above many arks are written a phrase “Know Before Whom You Stand”. Of course this means God.  We aren’t so casual around the Holy One of Blessing–so when the Torah is lifted, or the ark is open we stand.  If you have left the prayer space to go to the restroom and you are coming back in to the service and the ark is open- WAIT.  It is a peak moment in the worship service.  If the Torah is processing or being held aloft, WAIT to return to your seat.  It is a sign of respect and honor to not be distracted when the ark is open or the Torah held aloft. So if you must go out and come back in please do so in the least obtrusive way.

Other areas of importance are the gatherings before and after services.  Often there will be on Shabbat evening an Oneg Shabbat either before or after the Friday night service.  Oneg means joy.  This is a time to gather to socialize and visit and build holy relationships with each other.  On Saturday morning after services this is called a Kiddish or kiddish luncheon.  Sometimes after the daily morning minyan there is also a light nosh before people go on their way.  At any of these gatherings even if you don’t know someone else there it is always appropriate to introduce yourself. Synagogues want to know you.  And if you are a regular at temple-then you have an especial obligation to welcome newcomers. Don’t just hang out with  your own friends. One of the biggest criticisms of synagogue life that I hear as a rabbi is that I went to such and such temple and  no one bothered to talk to me.  I don’t think anyone does this on purpose. But it is important to be mindful that there are always visitors and synagogue members even if not a board member or a chair person should warmly embrace those who are not a regular part of the community.  Who knows they may be checking your temple out!

Every synagogue is different when it comes to saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. In some congregations everyone stands to say the Kaddish prayer. In others only those in the period of mourning or observing a yarzeit stand.  In others they begin with the those in mourning and those observing a yarzeit and then ask everyone to stand in support. In some communities there will be an opportunity to say the name of your loved one that you are remembering aloud.  In other congregations it is appropriate to call ahead if you want to ensure that your loved ones name is said aloud and they don’t have a yarzeit (memorial) plaque at that synagogue.  But it is appropriate if you ask for a name to be read aloud for Kaddish and you are a visitor or they don’t have a memorial plaque to make a donation to the congregation. You can sponsor the bima flowers, sponsor the oneg in your loved one’s memory or give to one of the many funds of the congregation.  This is a free will offering for the synagogue.

Synagogues vary in custom and culture and vary from place to place.  North America is different than Australia or Germany.  If you aren’t sure the best advice is to ask. Ask the rabbi about or a lay leader if you are unsure about what to do.  It is not a sign of weakness or ignorance.  When we ask about the customs we are learning and showing respect for the community.  So don’t be shy.  After all, in Judaism we love questions! Don’t we?


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