Ask Miriam | What to Do About Distracting Davening

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Dear Miriam,

I belong to a shul that often has out-of-town guests. Maybe I am just used to quiet praying among our congregants, but among our guests, many of them daven loudly, by which I mean you can hear them several rows or seats over. There are certain times when you’re supposed to say words aloud, but not so that you can be heard by others, and times when you’re not supposed to say anything besides the prayer itself. How can I be welcoming to our guests and focus on G-d?  It’s great they have so much kavanah, but it is truly distracting.

Signed,

Silent Shul Seeker

Dear Silent,

Just like not everyone prays the same, not everyone has the same vocabulary to talk about it. So, first off, daven means pray, shul means synagogue and kavanah means intention. This is not just by way of definitions, though: the difficult and uncomfortable answers to your question lie in the difficult and uncomfortable truth that we all have a different relationship to religion and prayer. Without shared expectations — which we can never entirely have — we will have conflicts like the one you describe.

I would urge you to keep this conflict internal. I have been to a lot of synagogues in my life, and I honestly cannot imagine any way in any context at any of these synagogues to say to someone, “You’re praying too loudly.”

When someone who is a regular in a community does something that irritates you, it’s possible to move to another seat or maybe — and this is a big maybe — have a conversation with them about other people’s need for more quiet. However, especially when we’re talking about guests, there is no way to convey what you want to say without becoming entirely unwelcoming.

Some congregations have norms around talking in shul that is not praying, and there are respectful ways to ask people to save their conversations for kiddush, especially depending on the space layout and acoustics of a given prayer space. In general, though, prayer spaces are both private and communal, and anytime you try to dictate how someone else functions in a prayer space, you risk creating an uncomfortable situation for both you and the other people involved.

You can’t control what anyone else does, and visitors to your shul aren’t likely to pick up on the norms of davening volume in one visit. Even if they did, they might not change, and even if they changed, there would be more visitors next week.

Your task is to focus on your prayer. Maybe your kavanah presents itself differently from these louder guests, but your best, and possibly only, option is to focus the best you can on your prayer, tune out those around you and hope that you’re treated with similar respect when you’re a guest somewhere else.

Be well,

Miriam

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