Friday, 21 March 2014

Shemini- behavior in synagogue!

Parashat Shemini is chocked full of interesting and relevant material, especially when compared to the last few weeks. The construction of the Mishkan is finished! There is a big and exciting inauguration ceremony! 

And then something goes horribly wrong. Nadav and Avihu, the two oldest sons of Aharon, bring a strange sacrifice, a korban which Hashem did not request. A fire came from before Hashem and consumed the two men. What transpired in this moment is discussed extensively by the commentators, but I wanted to discuss it with my girls and get their insights.

"I am going to tell you something that is scary and sad, but I want you to listen carefully, ok? I began.
"I already know about it," Gabi quickly interrupted. "A helicopter crashed into the Space Needle and two people died."
I clarified that it was sad and scary, but that I was going to talk about something from the parasha. The girls' listened attentively to the story. Gabi wanted to know lots about their fire. 
I redirected. "Could it happen today?"
"Nope. We don't have the Mishkan or Beit Hamikdash anymore," Cohava explained.
"True. What do we have instead?"
"Beit Kenneset [synagogue], but its ok, because we don't bring fire or sacrifices anymore, so we can't do the fire wrong. And there is no Kohen Gadol, like Aharon," Gabi elucidated further.
"What do we have instead of those things?"
"We do tefillah [prayer] and we have a rabbi, our Abba, in charge instead of the Kohen," Cohava said.
"So fire from Hashem making Aharon's sons die, wouldn't happen today. But are there things you can and cannot do in shul, like in the Mishkan?"
"We have to be quiet, and not run!"
"And keep our shoes on!"
"Not yell!"
"Not interrupt people when they are davening!"
"Especially not interrupting Abba."
"What happens if you do those things?" I asked, impressed with their quick answers.  
"We don't die!" Gabi replied worriedly. Of course not. She knows it because all of those forbidden activities have happened with little consequence.
"True, so we don't have to be too worried about being punished for doing the wrong thing. What should we do in synagogue, what is the right thing?" Ironically, this time they struggled more with answers. 
We discussed sitting nicely, attempting to pray, follow along in the book, or to think about Hashem and what makes you love Him. 

To me the parallels between the Nadav and Avihu with my two big girls are apparent. I don't know how clearly they see it. But the modern problem of behavior in synagogue being as demanded by God and community, extends far beyond my family. Here is an article discussing the problem at large and how we can only improve the situation if we change ourselves and model better decorum.

In addition to this, there is the idea that children should not be in a synagogue until they are at an age when they can really sit and understand the importance of the service. In our synagogue, and many others, there are youth groups to educate and occupy the children, during the main service. These groups are wonderful! But I personally struggle with the question of whether or not it prepares children for integration into actual synagogue services. When are children old enough to make that move?

Maybe your synagogue doesn't have a children's program, or maybe you choose not to participate. Here are some suggestions for making your time at Beit Kenneset more enjoyable for everyone. 

  • Share your expectations:

Talk to your kids about synagogue. Explain that it is God's special house and how we must act there. Listen to their ideas about it. Make them mindful of all the other people who will be in shul as well. These conversations should happen way before Shabbat.

  • Breakfast of Champions

There is an idea of 'Shabbat Cereal' a special sugar cereal on Shabbat morning which was not allowed the rest of the week. Yes, we should make Shabbat special in many ways. But an extra dose of sugar and artificial flavor, isn't going to improve anyone's behavior. They will get treats in kiddush and from the candy man.

  • Shabbat Clothes
'The clothes make the man' especially on Shabbat. My girls have an entire section of the closet set aside for Shabbat. Each day they look at it longingly, thinking about Shabbat. Ruti understood this early on and before she was two she would often tug on the special dresses and says, "Soon! For Shabbat!"

A new 'reward' I created is that for good behavior on Friday night, my girls get to borrow a bracelet or necklace of mine. I choose which and we try on a few different ones, deciding which suits, but obviously the value of the jewelry plays a big role. [This is much easier thanks to my super organizational system] The girls are very proud to get to wear something so special on Shabbat. Dressed like princesses, act like princess in the King's house.

  • Strategic Seating
Women always politely invite me to sit next to them, and there is an idea that I should have a place of honor at the front. Thank you, but I sit in the very back. There I have a wide space for the little girls to play in front of me, none of those flip-up chairs for the children to play with and trap a finger, and an easy escape route.

Think about where you sit from the stand-point of safety and comfort as well as neighbors. Don't sit near people who you know expect complete silence around them. It is unfair to disturb their time in synagogue and it will just stress you out.

  • Special Toys
I vacillate between whether or not to bring toys from home to synagogue. They just get lost and cause fights. But if you are in a synagogue with no toys, peers, or groups for your child, they will need something when their attention span wanes. Last week another mother hung a baby toy from the siddur holder and it quietly entertained my infant for a good 15 minutes.

  • Encourage Tefillah
Maybe this should be the first suggestion and not the last. We are in synagogue to pray and we need to teach our children that. It can be distracting for others because knowing the proper prayer and volume does not come naturally to little people. Yelling 'shema'during the kedusha is not appreciated by others. 

Encouraging them to look at the letters in the prayer book (how many 'alefs' are on this page) is one of the first steps to reading and understanding Hebrew. Trying to read the words on the page. Asking the children to think about some of the wonderful things Hashem helped them with this week. How do we say 'Thank you' to Him?
The real parts of tefillah, reading it, when we say what, and comfort in using a siddur are areas the big girls work on at school and home because it is too much to tackle in synagogue, when I am trying to pray.

Do you have any suggestions on encouraging proper behavior for children in synagogue? 

Shabbat Shalom!

[If you were looking for something more fun and interactive for a parasha project, shemini also explains laws of kashrut. Have fun cooking with your kids. Or have your child play this game or this one about kosher animals, while you do the Shabbat cooking.]


  1. My pleasure! I am glad you found the ideas useful.