Eliezer Zwickler is not the first rabbi to object to chatter on Shabbat in the pews. Back in 1797, the hasidic Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi inveighed against “idle talk” during prayers and threatened “supernal excommunication” for those who indulged.
Zwickler is not going that far but he has decided to invite his congregants at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange to be part of the solution. After introducing the idea during Shabbat on March 8, he sent an e-mail on March 11 asking congregants to commit “to remain quiet during the recitation of Kaddish and Chazarat Hashatz [repetition of the Amida] for the next year.”
“To a certain extent, shuls have become a social experience,” Zwickler said in a telephone conversation on March 28. “People work hard all week, and they finally see their friends. Sometimes, they need to be reminded of the tone and purpose of a shul — that it is first and foremost a place of prayer.”
As of the time of his conversation with NJJN, 140 people had signed up for the challenge. For those who feel “queasy” about putting their names on the list, Zwickler is happy to have them commit to taking on the challenge privately.
“I want to be a community that is not just sitting and stagnating, but I want individuals to feel they are growing on a spiritual level,” he said.
Zwickler said the repetition of the Amida and Kaddish in particular demand the congregation’s undivided attention.
The repetition of the Amida, or Shemona Esrei — the long prayer of praise, petitions, and thanks at the core of every Jewish worship service — is chanted aloud by the hazan so that people who do not know how to daven could have the need for prayer fulfilled by someone else. During Kaddish, it is important to create a respectful space for people to remember their loved ones, he said.
Zwickler pointed out that sometimes, silent prayer can be quite difficult. “I think that there is much to be said about the meaning of Shemona Esrei as private time that the individual spends with themselves and God. For some that time can be therapeutic on a spiritual level, for others it may be difficult for personal reasons,” he said.
“In a world where people are looking everywhere for spiritual fixes, our rabbis composed a liturgy which, when focused on correctly, reaches the deepest areas of our souls and serves as our spiritual nourishment,” said Zwickler. “Those who say that prayer is routine and lacking of spirituality may really just need to deepen their knowledge of prayer itself.”
But he continued, “What synagogue in the world does not have this issue?”
“I’m not looking for a home run,” he added. “I just want to take some small steps. And I’m very proud of my community for taking on this initiative.”