Respect in the Synagogue

Rabbinic restrictions on behavior in the synagogue reveal continuing tension between ordinary Jews' sense of being at home and at ease there, and the desire of rabbis to set it apart as a sacred place.


Reprinted with permission from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Jewish teachers, legalists and moralists, never tired of stressing that strict decorum and reverence are to be observed by worshippers in the synagogue. There must be no idle conversation in the synagogue and the worshippers must always be aware of the fact that they are in the presence of God. These constant appeals for decorum in the synagogue demonstrate that the problem was acute, naturally so since for many Jews the synagogue was the main place for social intercourse, often serving, whether or not the rabbis approved, as a kind of club. 

Behavioral Norms in Rabbinic Law

The mishnaic rule (Berakhot 9:1) that one must not use the Temple Mount as a shortcut is applied in the [Babylonian] Talmud (Berakhot 62b) to the synagogue as well. This together with other rules is recorded in the [16th century standard code of Jewish law] Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 151) under the heading: “The Laws With Regard to the Sanctity of the Synagogue.” This section of the Shulhan Arukh reads in part:

“One should not behave in a frivolous manner in a synagogue or house of study, by cracking jokes there, for instance, or by indulging in humorous or pointless gossip. One should not eat or drink there nor should one adorn oneself there or walk about there. One should not enter there in summer to cool off or in winter to seek shelter from the rain. In an emergency, scholars and their disciples are permitted to eat and drink there.” ([The commentator Moshe] Isserles[, a contemporary of the author of the Shulhan Arukh, whose authoritative glosses to that work recording opinions and practices of Ashkenazic Jewry ] adds: “Some say that in a house of study this is permitted even where there is no emergency.”)

[The Shulhan Arukh continues:] “No monetary calculations should be made there unless they are for religious purposes, collecting money for charity, for example, or for the redemption of captives. No funeral orations should be delivered there unless it is for one of the leading citizens of the city when all assemble there for the purpose. If a man finds it necessary to enter there for his own needs, to call someone, for instance, he should read or study something and then call him so that it should not appear as if he has entered for his own needs…. It is forbidden to have even a short nap in a synagogue but this is permitted in a house of study. It is permitted to eat and sleep in the synagogue if it is for religious purposes. For this reason [of religious purpose overriding the prohibition] one may sleep in the synagogue on Yom Kippur.”

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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