I don’t understand why we Jews in most synagogues sit when we recite one of our most important prayers ““ the Sh’ma. I have heard that it is permitted to recite this core affirmation of our faith either sitting or standing. Why then do we most commonly choose to sit when reciting it?
Wants to take a stand
Other rabbis offer social and historical reasons to explain the postures that we prefer for praying. I prefer to listen to the contents of each prayer and understand how its distinct personality dictates its proper postures.
Consider, by contrast, that because of its personality we do stand to recite the Amidah. That prayer is a formal set of rabbinic blessing-declarations, containing praises and petitions that express a mixture of theological, personal, communal, political, and national beliefs and aspirations.
When I recite the words, to me it seems as if I am a priest performing a repeated ceremonial rite at the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. Just as a priest stands up to perform his official public actions, it makes sense to me that I stand up and perform this prayer.
I find in the Sh’ma an altogether other form and personality. It’s easy to see that this expression of beliefs and values comes directly from carefully chosen Torah passages that emphasize a special subset of Jewish values and beliefs. The texts emphasize that we should love our one God, who keeps accounts and rewards and punishes us based on our actions. The passages further underscore that we should patronize our scribes – that is, we should wear their t’fillin on our bodies and affix their mezzuzot to our homes.
To me the Sh’ma encompasses the personality of Torah study and the values of the scribes who write our texts and who keep our accounts. Study, writing, and accounting are done almost always while sitting down at a table or desk. And so, since the contents and personality of our prayer dictates the posture of our prayer, I find it altogether fitting and proper that we should sit down like scribes and students to recite the Sh’ma.
I am sad for my good friend, a respected community leader and a member of a local Orthodox synagogue for many years, who does not like to wear a tie. His synagogue follows an idiosyncratic rule that no matter how nicely dressed he may be, a man who does not wear a tie cannot receive an aliyah to the Torah on a Shabbat or a holiday. So my friend has not received an aliyah to the Torah on any of those days for many years, even on the special occasions of his parents’ yahrzeits. It hurts me to see him suffer this arbitrary form of petty ostracism and humiliation. What should I do?
Fit to be tied
Common sense would dictate that you and your friend not go to places where you feel uncomfortable, even if it is a mere trifling practice that creates a sense of annoyance and intimidation for you. You know that an Orthodox synagogue must follow the many laws and customs that govern who should receive an aliyah. For example, a Cohen receives the first aliyah, and a Levite gets the second. A man who has a yahrzeit often gets precedence, and so does the father of a newborn child and a groom before his wedding. Major donors to a synagogue get some preferential treatment, as do important rabbis. I’ve noticed also that the gabbai who allocates aliyot gets his fair share of them too. And a woman is not called to the Torah at all.
You may know that some non-Orthodox Jews find the exclusion of women from this process of public honors to be troubling or even offensive. Orthodox spokesmen point out that women receive due respect and honor in their community, just not by receiving aliyot.
Forty years ago, when I asked Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik about the possibility of women receiving aliyot in an Orthodox minyan, he quipped to me, “When women write the checks, then they will receive the aliyahs.” The Rav dodged my inquiry. I understood his reply to be a clever observation or a social comment, but not any halachic guidance.
Now, the synagogue that you describe in your question definitely created for itself a heightened odd character when it adopted an additional “tie rule” to further govern its members’ roles and aliyah-rights. Even if its eccentric practice is an approved requirement of synagogue committees, officers, and boards, it still fits the category of a socially undesirable “because-we-say-so” intimidation.
That said, you and your friend may be able to ignore and rise above this nonsense if you keep in mind that Moses, King Solomon, Jeremiah, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon, and many other great non-tie-wearing-Jews would not be offered a Torah honor if they somehow, via time and space travel, showed up in your suburban shul.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com