Chopin and Shema Koleinu

A few years ago, reporters who were covering weddings of the rich and famous in four Monterrey, Mexico, churches were chagrined to find that they weren’t able to call or send messages to their editors. They routinely got a “no service” or “signal not available” message on their cell phones.

When one reporter asked the priest in one of the churches if he knew why, the answer he received, offered with a smile, was: “Israeli counterintelligence.”

He went on to explain that Israeli-made cell phone jammers the size of paperback books had been tucked unobtrusively among paintings that were hanging in the chapel. The jammers emit low-level radio frequencies that thwart cell phone signals within a 100-foot radius. Thus, technology developed to help security forces avert eavesdropping and phone-triggered bombings had been purchased for a more mundane (the priest would probably say holy) purpose.

Although cell phone jammers are employed in India’s parliament, Italian universities (to prevent cheating on exams), Mexican banks (to keep robbers from calling their accomplices) and Tokyo theaters and commuter trains, federal law prohibits their use in the U.S., and so shuls, alas, cannot legally utilize them to prevent davening from being punctuated by jazz, Beethoven or Hatikva (all of which have been heard by this writer during the silent Shemoneh Esrei).

Once, not too many years ago, the worst electronic interruption of tefillos in shul was the very occasional beeper; and the fact that it was usually summoning a doctor, presumably because of a medical crisis, mitigated the rudeness of the disturbance.

Today, though, as we all know, cell phones are ubiquitous, and so the satan has been able to add classical and pop riffs, and an assortment of utterly annoying chimes, tones and melodies, to his arsenal of davening disruptions, which once consisted only of mindless conversations among those who find silence a painful vacuum in need of filling.

What would the Tosfos Yomtov — who lamented talking in shul as courting tragedy, and composed the well-known, if too-often-ignored, Mi Sheberach for those who maintain shul decorum — say? Had cellphones existed in the 17th century, would he have showered special blessings on those who took three seconds to turn theirs off every time they entered a mikdash me’at?  I have little doubt that he would have.

It is often said, generously, that the laxity of decorum in some shuls results from the comfort that Jews feel in their place of prayer. We feel at home in shul, the diyun l’chaf zechus goes, and so we converse.  Indeed we do, but we shouldn’t.

Because it’s still a shul. Those are siddurim, not newspapers, and the people holding them and moving their lips quietly are talking to the Creator, not the bartender. And they want you to please hold your tongue, and your calls.

It is, to be honest, easy to forget to turn off our phones when we enter a shul. I once neglected to, although thankfully it didn’t ring (or ping or sing) during davening. But it could have, and I have been more careful ever since.

And I was witness, not long ago, to another man’s neglect to power down his phone before a tefillah, and his phone did ring. What happened afterward, though, was truly remarkable.

During the week I daven Minchah at the national headquarters of Agudath Israel of America, where I am privileged to work. Many men who work in lower Manhattan attend Minchah at our offices during their lunchtime. During the silent Shemoneh Esrei at Minchah one day, the man’s cellphone went off. (I don’t recall what the selection was; something Jewish, I think.) No, that wasn’t what was remarkable (unfortunately). What happened after Minchah was.

The man whose phone had serenaded us during davening looked embarrassed and I noticed that he left the beis medrash quickly after Aleinu. (Please don’t even get me started about Aleinu, which cannot be recited by a normal human being in less than 45 seconds but seems to benefit from some odd sort of kefitzas haderech in all too many shuls.)

As I left the room myself, I saw the gentleman whose phone had asserted itself standing near the elevator bank, where all the mispallelim would have to pass, both those headed down to the lobby and those of us who work in the Agudah offices.

The man stood there and politely accosted each and every one of us individually — to apologize for not having turned off his phone when Minchah began.

What mentchlichkeit, I told myself.  And what a poignant lesson about how we should feel if we have disturbed someone else’s davening.

And, of course, about how careful we should be to not do so.

© 2014 Hamodia

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