Finding a Seat When You’re a Guest in a Shul

On a Shabbos a few years ago, I was davening out of my neighborhood. As we walked into the Shul on Friday night, my host told me that we can sit anywhere, except in the aisle seats, because the more involved members of the Shul sat in those seats.

In the shul where I daven, we have Makom Kevuahs (reserved seating for Davening) and when people requested seats when we first move in, the aisle seats where the most requested and generally we allocated them to the more involved members. In both cases, involved members where the ones who volunteered most in the running of the Shul, or were members for the longest amount of time or were very generous in supporting the Shul.

I don’t think in either Shul, any guest would be asked to move if they took someone’s seat, whether they were involved members or not, but I think it makes sense that when you’re a guest in a Shul, not to take an aisle set unless you know the person who normally sits there won’t be there. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a rule that makes sense if you’re like most people and don’t want to unnecessarily upset a person to any degree by taking their seat.

What seat should you take? Well the best section in our shul is the one furthest from the door. As far as which seat, it’s generally a good idea to ask any member already in the Shul, informing them that you don’t want to take another person’s seat.

I think some people will respond to this idea that any Shul member should be accommodating to guests and not care that somebody is taking their seat. While that is true, I think there is also a case to be made that the guest should try to avoid taking a member’s seat if they can avoid it.

In summary, as a guest try to avoid sitting in someone’s seat and as a member if somebody does sit in your seat, don’t make them feel uncomfortable.

15 comments on “Finding a Seat When You’re a Guest in a Shul

  1. Bob,

    “makom” is masculine. Of course, if the grammatically correct forms were used more frequently, I wouldn’t need to remind you of that.

  2. What is (are?) “makom kevuahs”? Are they “m’komos kevuim”?

    I can understand talleisim — that one is well established from Yiddish, but to make up new totally ungrammatical phrases strikes me as odd.

  3. Shuls used to have someone (a shammos, ushers…) to show visitors to seats. In the shul our family belonged to when I was growing up, the shammos would also give the person a siddur open to the right page.

  4. Allow me, please, to expand on the issue of losing one’s seat in shul to a guest. Let’s be frank about this: if one’s seat is taken by a guest, it *usually* means that you have arrived late for davening, and there is a problem here far greater than sacrificing one’s makom kevuah.

    Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Goodman, shlit”a (Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Far Rockaway) wrote the following regarding chronic lateness to davening (Five Towns Jewish Times, 10/21/2009): “I mentioned that I once admonished people who regularly arrive late to shul by stating that they would never do that if they had a regular job with an employer…It is an unfortunate lamentable fact that many people set their own pace for arrival, whether ten minutes late or a half-hour late, and do so consistently. This is a horrible habit and there is no excuse for it.”

    In the pasuk in Vayikra (26:27-28) Hashem says: “If you behave casually towards Me; I will be wrathful in my casualness towards you.”

    If we act in a casual manner towards the Ribbono Shel Olam, being in no particular hurry to come on-time to shul, how can we not expect Him to respond in kind – middah k’negged middah – and so, for example, be in no particular hurry to bring us the final geula? When we keep Him waiting, will He not keep us waiting as well?

    Rambam famously writes regarding the sounds of the Shofar: “Wake Up you sleepers and you slumberers, rouse yourselves and return to G-d.” And yet, I am continuously amazed at how many men wander into Shacharis 10, 15 and even 20 minutes late EVERY morning, and nowadays, without any further regard to the fact that it’s Chodesh Elul of all times! They are oblivious to the damage that they are doing to themselves, their families, and to Klal Yisrael collectively. And so it is that losing your seat is the least of one’s problems when it comes to arriving late to one’s appointment with the Ribbono Shel Olam!

  5. I think a lot depends on shul policy and what behavior is expected from both guests and regular mispallelim. Special consideration should be given to elderly, ill or disabled individuals, particularly those who may need an aisle seat for an important but personal reason. Hopefully the shul makes it clear to both regular daveners and guests who walk in what their seating policy is. The baal simcha may be too overwhelmed by everything else he has to take care of to think about where his guests will be sitting in shul. This is the time for a practical application of Hillel’s advice to do to others what you would like others to do unto you. What would you want the mispallelim to do if/when you make a simcha?

    Women in the ladies’ section may have additional problems, coming as guests. Visitors may be lugging toddlers or babies who are loud and lively. The regular women in the Ezras Nashim may not agree that our visiting grandchildren are sooo cute if they disturb the davening. Also, who gets top priority for a seat: a pregnant woman with swollen ankles; a great-aunt leaning on a walker; or the gabbai’s wife who davens there all the time and has her name on the seat?

  6. This past Shabbos I was in Woodmere, NY at Cong. Aish Kodesh, a shul known for it’s davening and the fact that is is usually PACKED.
    I was there as a guest for a Bar Mitzvah. I stayed with the Baal Simcha and was early for all davening. I asked my friend where I should sit and was told to sit at the end of his row. I then commented that I was uncomfortable about taking someone’s seat. My friend assured me that in this shul, when there is a simcha it’s expected that eventually someone will end up sitting in someone’s makom kevuah. So, I sat down (in the candyman’s seat, as it turned out). No one said anything to me expect, “Welcome”.
    Someone even took the stash of candy from the shtender, so that I wouldn’t be bothered with parents and kids asking for a treat.

  7. David, great question and I should have added the caveat, that in the above discussion, we’re assuming there are other seats available in the Shul.

    Here are some considerations in making that decision:
    1) Does paying for a seat give you the absolute right to a seat?
    2) At what time in the davening does that right expire? (The advice to get there on time or early often makes sense.)
    3) Is there a Gabbai to enforce your rights?
    4) What are the rules for Simchas?
    5) What is the nature of the guest? From out of town? A community member who does not pay? A special case like somebody new to Judaism?

    I think you do have a right to your seat, the question is how and when to enforce those rights?

    I don’t think it’s a simple question and if it happens often I would escalate the issue to the Rav, or the Gabbai or whoever appreciates the fact that you pay your dues.

  8. Let the people who are so makpid on makom kavua wake up early and get to shul on time! :-)

    On a more serious note – I was informed that the halachically mandated space for makom kavua would permit someone sitting one seat over.

  9. This is very good and thorough advice. I wonder what you think, Mark, about a situation where the shul, really a shteibel, is always crowded, standing room only, and if someone is in our seats it means we have to stand in the aisles (not that there’s any place to stand there, either).

    This is not just an issue about being makpid over a makom kavuah, since many people would have a hard time standing up for the over two hour Shacharis on Shabbos morning.

    On the other hand, if I ask them to get up it means they’ll have to stand, because there are no longer any available seats. Does the fact I am paying for the year round use of the seats give me the “moral” right to move them, or do the guests also deserve the right to be comfortable, and after all, they got there first?

    In this case, all the seats have someone’s name on them, there are no seats reserved for guests.

    Obviously, from the point of strictly viewed law (al pi din) I may ask them to move, but I’m wondering if there is a point of mussar and chessed here to relinquish my rights and let them stay. After all, they’re guests.

    Or does the detriment to my intention during the tefillos and my aching feet override this consideration?

  10. I agree with the post, ie that eveyone should be polite and courteous to others –try not to sit in someone else’s seat and don’t ask anyone to move from what you regard as your seat if they happen to sit there.

    From my observation over the years, I think that having a makom kavua l’tefila is one of the areas most likely to result in yetziat scharo b’hefsedo –ie someone is very makpid about having a makom kavua l’tefila and ends up being rude to a guest, embarassing a new member, etc.

    It is clear that not everyone behaves this way and not even a majority of people do, but I’ve seen it many many times and I believe it is worth it for each of us to be aware of the potential michshol.

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