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Thursday, 17 September 2015

Should cellphones be banned in shul?

Daf Yomi Nazir 25


Lately, more and more shuls have been instituting cellphone bans.  We’re not talking about Shabbos and Yom Tov; that goes without saying.  No, during the week.  After all, you’ve come to talk to G-d, not sit there playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds, right?  Every text and tweet that buzzes in your pocket is a distraction from your conversation with the One Above.

One shul I know of has a rule that if your phone rings during services, you are immediately suspended for twenty four hours!  A friend of mine’s family are members there.  He decided not to schedule his aufroof at the shul, for fear of having his cell go off on Friday morning and being unable to attend his own simcha the next day!

Should shuls ban cellphone use during services?

The Torah declares, “Only your sanctified animals that you shall have and your vows shall you raise up, and come to the place that Hashem shall choose.”
It was taught in the Yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael: The verse is dealing with offspring of sanctified animals and their substitutes.  What should be done with them?
One might assume they should be brought to the Holy Temple and then he should withhold food and water from them so that they will die.  Therefore the verse continues, “You shall make your offerings, the flesh and the blood.”
Tosfos explains: The Torah already discussed the sanctified animals themselves in the Book of Vayikra.  Therefore, the Talmud concludes that this verse in Devarim must be talking about different animals, i.e. the offspring and substitutes, instructing that they too – although mere by-products of sacrifices – must be offered upon the altar.

The Yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael suggests one might assume one should bring certain animals to the Temple and then withhold food and drink from them.  What would be the point of bringing the offerings, only to have them starve there?   If you don’t end up sacrificing them upon the holy altar, would it be worth all the shlep?!

And yet many people come to shul and do just that.  They’ll drag themselves out of bed.  They’ll get themselves and their kids all ready for shul.  And after making all the effort to get there, they spend the entire time chatting to their neighbour! 

Of course there’s a place for socializing in shul.  It’s not called a beit tefillah (house of prayer); it’s a beit haknesset – a place of gathering, which includes so much more than prayer alone.   But prayer must still be the primary component.  If it’s only about socializing, you could do that at Starbucks.  And the coffee is much better there than the instant stuff most shuls serve!   Yes, socializing in shul is important; but the main reason you’re there is to talk to G-d. 

Sometimes you’re not chatting with the person seated next to you.  It’s a weekday and you’re taking care of important business matters via text.  But what could be more important than beseeching the Almighty for His blessing?  Would you interrupt an important business meeting to talk to G-d?  So why do you interrupt your conversation with G-d to respond to your client?

Personally, I’m not in favour of complete cellphone bans in shul.  Technology has been very helpful in making our lives more convenient and peaceful.  Doctors on call, who otherwise would have had to stay at the hospital, can now go to minyan and watch for any emergencies that might call them back. 

As a father, I might shoot my wife a text and let her know the minyan has gathered on time and I can take the kids to school.  But otherwise, unless one is dealing with a truly timely matter, one should try to avoid checking the phone during services.  Every individual should be the judge of their own urgencies and determine whether they really need to keep their phone on or not. 


You made the effort to come to shul.  Now give the Almighty your undivided attention.  May you merit building an intimate relationship with your Father in Heaven and resisting the urge to get distracted by man or machine!