The week of Parashas Teruma and the introduction to the Mishkan – a sanctified place uniquely suited for approaching and serving Hashem, affords the opportunity to make our annual appeal. This is not an appeal for money, or even for volunteers. The appeal is for some thoughtful introspection about the issue of appropriate decorum in shul and proper Chinuch for Tefilla, for davening. We are blessed with many Batei Knessios – synagogues and Batei Midrashos – yeshivos and kollelim, our mini sanctuaries during our Galus existence. We don’t have the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash, but let us ask ourselves how well we are handling our opportunities, our special places to serve Hashem.
We’ve presented ideas on this topic before, and some of them bear repeating.
Davening with proper Kavana is a major challenge for many adults and children. Equally significant is the lack of awareness of the Mitzva of Mora Mikdash. What is Mora Mikdash, you ask? Exactly! The Torah tells us (Vayikra 19:30) …Umikdoshee Tirau… The Sforno, along with most Rishonim says this Mitzva of guarding the sanctity of the Mikdash refers not only to the Beis Hamikdosh, but to any place of Torah, Tefilla and Avoda. Our awareness of and care for the inherent sanctity of our shuls and shtieblach is sorely lacking. There are clear Halachos concerning permitted and forbidden activities within the confines of a Beis Knesses, and this is even not during the time of Tefilla.
Tackling the enormous challenge of talking during davening that is tragically commonplace in many shuls in our community and around the world appears to be a `mission impossible’ – but anyone who minimizes the devastating impact that talking has, would do well to read the words of Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschitz in Yaaros Devash as he places blame for the destruction of Prague’s synagogues, whose beauty was unparalleled anywhere in the world, on the sin of talking during davening. Even more compelling, is the special Mi Shebairach of the Tosfos Yom Tov in reaction to the cataclysmic events of 1648-49 in Eastern Europe.
I would like to further focus on the Chinuch (educational and training) aspect of davening, and more specifically when it is appropriate and when it is not appropriate to take children to shul. Too many parents look at the world as black or white. Some things and places are unacceptable, to be avoided completely. Other situations are okay, and therefore no restrictions or limitations need be placed on their children’s involvement. Shul going, especially on Shabbos, falls into the second category, that of okay activities. Going to shul is a spiritually positive experience, so let’s all go! But what are your goals and objectives in taking children? Can a three year old learn anything about the sanctity of Beis Knesses, or are we training him to view the shul as an exciting and intriguing playground? What are we teaching a young child when we bring him to a house of prayer – but he’s completely unable to pray? It is not chinuch to simply have a child in shul – he must learn the proper way to behave in shul. When a child is brought at too young an age – we are teaching the exact opposite of what we intend!
What about elementary aged children – they can read, so therefore they can daven. But let’s ask ourselves some questions. The few minutes that the child can (hopefully) remain focused, are a tiny fraction of the time spent in shul. What happens the rest of the time? It’s play time – and the playground is the Mikdash Me’at! What happens as the child grows older – have we trained him or her that the shul is a sanctified place requiring awe and reverence because it is Hashem’s house – or have we initiated yet another recruit of adult shulgoers to not show respect to the shul, and helped a new generation of talkers and interrupters to emerge from our ranks? Our children don’t need to be in shul before the age of 9 or 10 in order to feel comfortable in a synagogue – that is simply not a challenge for them, given the frum environment they are growing up in.
There are times that the mother is feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and her husband feels it his obligation to take the children off the mother’s hands. That is indeed a laudable attitude, and emergencies do happen, but bringing children to shul for babysitting purposes constitutes a very negative chinuch. Perhaps a more appropriate solution to this problem, which many of our parents employ, is to go to a Netz (sunrise) Minyan, get home early and take care of the children at home. The wife is helped, the children nurtured, and the mispallelim including the husband, can really daven.
You may ask – the shuls provide babysitting and activities Shabbos morning – it must be children are being encouraged to come to shul! Be careful not to confuse the attempt to find safe and wholesome activities to fill our children’s Shabbos Day, with proper Chinuch in davening. Think through what you want your child to feel and do about Davening to Hashem when he or she is 18 years old, and then examine whether the way you’re exposing your child to Tefilla and Shul is enhancing that goal, or Chas V’Sholom, subverting it.
Perhaps you are eating the Shabbos Seuda in shul, or are invited out to join a family from shul, and the entire family therefore needs to come to shul anyway. Arriving at the very end, for a few minutes of davening, under your careful supervision, is certainly preferable to an extended amount of unstructured time around the shul. Davening at home, quietly with Ima, before stepping out, can be a much more meaningful and constructive approach to developing good davening habits.
Very chillingly, and frighteningly, we need to add another dimension to the potential negatives of `hanging around’ shul, this one being downright earth shattering. It has become apparent in the larger frum community, that some individuals who have attempted to molest children, R’L, have found the shul on Shabbos morning to be a most fertile setting for their unspeakable behaviors. One convicted predator said of his methods, “I’m a Nishmas pedophile.” “At the beginning of davening there are lots of adults coming into shul and the hall is crowded, but come Nishmas, everyone is focused on their davening. That’s followed by Barechu and Shema, where they’re really concentrating, and then Shemoneh Esreh when they’re all rooted in their places. I had from Nishmas to the end of Shemoneh Esreh to do whatever I wanted.” (source – Mishpacha Magazine issue 491 Jan. 1, 2014 p.42) Not one of us can allow our children to be unsupervised during such a time. We are not only fighting for our children’s spiritual growth – but their emotional and psychological health as well. It is with great pain, that this warning must be included in our discussion of ensuring an appropriate shul experience for our children.
Many of our children struggle with davening in school. Ask your child if he or she is having difficulty. If the answer is yes, first examine your family’s davening practices. If your child has no issue with davening at home, ask your child what the problem is in school and contact us, so we can try to figure out where the challenge is coming from and work together to find a solution. It is so not common for a child to do well with davening in one venue and to struggle in another.
May Hashem enlighten us to provide the best possible Chinuch to our children, in all areas of life. May our efforts to show greater Kavod to our Mikdeshai Me’at , help us to merit the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, Bimheira.
Have a Kedusha-filled Shabbos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann
P.S. A magnificent book entitled “Let’s Go to Shul” published by Feldheim, 2008, is an excellent source for children and families to learn how one conducts him or herself properly in a Beis Knesses and is a great way to generate Shabbos table discussions.