During the past few weeks when, thank G-d, many of us have slowly begun some sort of return to prayer in synagogues and houses of study, we must focus our energies on preserving the sanctity of these houses of worship and to draw the appropriate conclusions between the current pandemic and degradation of the sanctity of the synagogue.
The Gemara (Megillah 28a) states, “One may not act with levity in a synagogue.” The Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 151) explains that included in the levity prohibited in synagogues is engaging in idle chat. This is a reference to actual idle and unnecessary chat, i.e. speaking about politics and other mundane matters in the synagogue. (Nevertheless, there is room to abstain from any kind of unnecessary speech in the synagogue, as is the stance of the Reshit Chochma and Peri Megadim.)
The Mekubalim explain that speaking idle chatter in the synagogue during prayers and supplications causes the two letters of Hashem’s name incorporated in the Hebrew word for speech (“Yod” and “Heh” from “דיבור”) to be removed and all that remains is “דבר”- the Hebrew word for plague, G-d-forbid.
It is well-known that approximately eighty years ago, many great and righteous luminaries of the generation were asked the difficult question of why all the prayers on behalf of the Jewish nation were not sufficient to save them from the unimaginable tragedies that befell them at the time. The saintly luminaries, the Imrei Emet of Gur and Hagaon Rabbeinu Yisrael Abuchatzera zt”l (the“Baba Sali”) replied that this was because they were not adequately careful regarding the sanctity of the synagogue. (We are not addressing why these horrible calamities befell the Jewish nation; we are merely addressing why the prayers to prevent such decrees from happening were not accepted.) The Baba Sali added that Israel and other places where the wicked Nazis were unable to enter were protected by the merit of prayer since people in these places were exceedingly careful regarding the sanctity of the synagogue.
The moral of the aforementioned anecdote is that a lack speaking idle chat in synagogues causes our prayers not to be accepted.
The same idea is recorded in Megillat Eicha regarding all of the prayers our ancestors uttered to save them from all the death and destruction that were rampant during the period of the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash. Yirmeyahu Ha’Navi writes, “You have screened Yourself off with a cloud so that no prayer may pass through.” It is as if Hashem placed a thick cloud to separate between Him and the Jewish nation so that he would not accept their prayers. Hagaon Rabbeinu Yehonatan Eibeschitz zt”l explains (in his Ya’arot Devash, Darush 5) that the cloud referred to by the prophet is created by one’s breath, especially that which is generated when one speaks idle chat in the synagogue during prayer services. This breath ascends to Heaven and creates a cloud that separates us from our Father in Heaven.
One should therefore point out to those who speak in the synagogue that they preventing the prayers of the entire congregation from being accepted by Hashem. The Sefer Vavei Ha’Amudim (authored by the son of the saintly Shela) writes that the prayers of one who prays in a synagogue where people engage in idle chat during services ascends to Heaven filthy with sins and is not lovingly accepted by Hashem, for “a prosecutor cannot become a defender.”
In the years 5408/5409 (1648/1649), unspeakable calamities befell the Jewish nation and tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered, maimed, and put to death in the cruelest ways during the Chmielnicki Massacres (may this wicked man’s memory be blotted out) and even infants were thrashed in their mothers’ arms. Some of our nation’s most saintly martyrs where murdered during this period, such as Rabbeinu Shimshon of Ostropoli who was butchered while still wearing his Tefillin. In those days, there were many devout Jews who studied Torah intensely and served Hashem fervently and everyone asked, “Why has Hashem done this to us? There are many reasons why we are deserving of punishment, however, why did our prayers not protect us?”
No one was able to explain the reason for these harsh decrees until the great sage, Hagaon Rabbeinu Yom Tov Lipman Ha’Levi Heller zt”l, author of Tosafot Yom Tov, fasted and prayed copiously before Hashem so that the reason behind these calamities becomes revealed to him. In a dream, he was notified by an emissary from Heaven that the reason why the Jewish nation’s prayers were not accepted was because people would speak idle chat in the synagogue during prayer services.
During one of his visits to the United States, Maran zt”l spoke in some synagogues about the terrible custom of speaking during prayer services, especially when the Torah is being read, which is rampant among certain congregations. There are even some places that the talking creates such a cacophony that it even becomes difficult to hear the Chazzan chanting the prayers and this creates a massive desecration of Hashem’s name. He instructed rabbis everywhere to ensure that this comes to an end and thus, to restore Hashem’s crown to its rightful place.
May Hashem accept all of our prayers with love, Amen!