Monday, February 27, 2006

Public Prayer

Shtender at HaYom posted an essay on minyans formed in public.

Reading that, I was reminded of something I saw last week that moved me. I went to a shopping center near my office to get a cup of coffee. There are many construction projects in this part of town, so it's common to see dusty, dirty Ford pickup trucks driven by strong guys in jeans, workboots and caps. I'm always a bit amused by the way they store their shoes -- stuck in the space between the cab and the truckbed -- so that it looks like someone has been stuffed inside the truck somehow.

I was passing by one truck when I noticed that the two guys hanging around the truck were not lounging in the usual posture of guys taking a work break. They both had bent their heads and rested their elbows on the truck bed wall, clasping hands together. In prayer. They remained that way, looking downward, as I stood nearby. I heard one of the them speaking softly, the words not quite audible to me. Beside him was a stack of books that had the same multi-colored pattern on the edges of the pages that Jewish "Sifrei Kodesh" have. I figured those were Bibles and other holy books.

I went in to the coffee shop, got my coffee and came back out. One of the men was now reading from a book as the other listened. Clearly, these guys were taking time out from their paid-by-the-hour day to pray and read the Bible.

It's not something you see every day.

Now here in Central Texas, we don't have minyanim forming in public places. I'm pretty sure it takes a Herculean effort just to keep a daily minyan going. (The Chabad house has them for Shacharit and Mincha.) But what if a group of ten Jewish men were gathered at the corner instead of two Christian guys?

Well, first off, that's 10 not two. At what point does a group of people, even engaged in prayer, begin to look vaguely threatening? Perhaps rather quickly, especially if the group is dressed differently than most of the population.... And even benign curiosity can be distracting if you want to focus on your prayers. Do you really need gawkers? Generally, I would agree with R' Y. Kaminetsky, quoted by Shtender, that it's best to keep your davening (praying) private, rather than become a public spectacle.

But on the other hand, seeing people praying or learning together is inspiring. One person praying on the street looks like a loon. Ten people praying may look like a gang of sorts. ("Run, they've got a siddur!") But two people praying brings a taste of peace into a busy shopping center.


Anonymous said...

Good post.
We live in a mostly Christian country. When people see two people praying in a Christian way, they recognize it for what it is. When they see 10 guys swaying and muttering to themselves in the corner of a highway rest area they probably think they now have proof for alien abductions.

Also, RYK wasn't saying that becoming a spectacle is a problem in itself, rather that becoming a spectacle will have the affect of not praying with the required concentration.

Anonymous said...

I never feel comfortable praying in public. I always think people looking at me think I'm some kind of nut-job.

Anonymous said...

PT, that's not because you're davening.... ;)

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I think it's great that people are taking time to grow their faith, public or private :) Nice post!