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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Ekev

At The Shabbat Table

A Local Call Out of Area

43
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"והיה אם שמע תשמעו אל מצותי אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם היום לאהבה את ה' אלהיכם ולעבדו בכל לבבכם ובכל נפשכם"
.(איזו היא עבודה שהיא בלב? - הוי אומר זו תפלה (תענית ב


This story took place more than twenty years ago, on a crowded street in New York. Benny stepped onto the sidewalk, relieved that his meeting had gone well. He looked at his watch. Mincha! Sunset was in just a few minutes, and Benny had no idea where to find a synagogue in the area. He briefly contemplated stopping on the sidewalk, and praying right there, but immediately rejected the idea. The frenetic pace of Manhattan pedestrian traffic wouldn’t allow for that. Benny frantically scanned the street, looking for some place where he could pray.
Then, he saw it! A public phone booth! After all, he did have a call to make. Did it matter that he didn’t require a phone for this particular conversation? And so, Benny confidently entered the phone booth, picked up the phone, and began to pray. While he was in mid prayer, he began to become uncomfortable, as he realized that a small crowd had gathered outside the booth. Apparently, there were others who also wanted to place a call, albeit to a different party. Left with no choice, they stood outside the booth, crossing their arms, tapping their feet, and looking at their watches, wondering how the man in the booth could be on the phone for so long, even though he wasn’t doing any of the talking.
When Benny finished praying, he saw, to his astonishment, that there were six people waiting impatiently outside the phone booth! Benny mumbled an apology, and raced down the street, wondering if he had acted correctly or not.
Should Benny have prayed in the phone booth? Or was it improper that he inconvenienced others, who were waiting to actually use the phone?

Answer:
Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, shlita:

It was proper for Benny to pray in the telephone booth. If the story happened in Israel, it would definitely be appropriate, because all Jews are responsible for each other’s spiritual welfare. Even outside of Israel, it would still be proper to pray in the phone booth, because, as Mesilat Yesharim states (Chapter 1) "it is a great elevation for all creatures, when they are used in the service of a perfected individual, who is sanctified with the holiness of the Blessed One (i.e. G-d)…" Therefore, because Benny’s prayer actually benefits those around him, it was proper for him to pray in the phone booth. Nonetheless, he should take care to abbreviate his prayers.
Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzal, shlita, feels otherwise. He states that it was improper for Benny to pray there. Public phone booths are dedicated for phone calls, and not for other purposes. In a sense, Benny committed theft, in not allowing others to use the phone. It makes no difference whether the story were to take place in Israel or elsewhere. And, if Benny had decided to pray in the phone booth, if he saw that others were waiting to use the phone, he would be required to leave the phone booth. Even if he had already begun the shemoneh esrei prayer, he would have to move out of his place, although he should not talk.
שבת שלום!
Rabbi Daniel Kirsch
Rabbi Daniel Kirsch studied for many years at the famed Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem. He currently lives in Kedumim in the Shomron, where he studies at the yeshiva and teaches classes for adults. In addition, he teaches at an elementary school.
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