During Rosh Hashanah, I noticed a few people who were reading books other than the machzor during services. It seemed both like a great idea to have something else to do, and also leaning towards rude/disrespectful not to be paying attention to the actual service. But after seeing them, I’m also thinking of bringing a book with me on Yom Kippur. Is that considered acceptable synagogue etiquette?
People of the book
Many synagogue communities come with their own set of norms and expectations, and these are generally slightly different – typically more formal – for High Holidays as compared to a normal Shabbat service. If you saw more than one person with a book, I think you can assume that this is within the acceptable standards for people attending services, with some caveats that we’ll discuss as we go.
Part of what I find beautiful about these special days of services is how the words, the melodies, the act of gathering, and the totality of the experience can impact people in very different ways, so before we go further, it’s important to note that there is a wide range of what engagement in services can mean. Even if someone is sitting in services without another book on their lap, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re paying attention. You can have the machzor (High Holiday prayer book) on your lap, open to the right page and everything, without following along. You can have no book on your lap and be sitting with your eyes closed and listening attentively to every word.
If you’re feeling somewhat hesitant about bringing your own book, consider that the machzor itself probably has a lot of material in it that you don’t hear as part of the service. Whether it’s translations, notes, additional poems, or other commentaries, if you go this route, you can look like you’re keeping pace with the rest of the congregation in the prayer book, but you can also delve into other topics and thoughts. If you do bring another book with you, I recommend paying enough attention so that you can stand and sit along with the rest of the congregation. During the processional, use the machzor (and not another book) to kiss the Torah. Out of respect for the Torah, it’s probably a good idea to put your book down when the ark is open, and out of respect for the rabbi, it’s also probably a good idea to put your book away during the sermon. You may also want to pay particular attention to the service during important moments and prayers when the congregation is singing in unison.
And though I waited until the very end to say this, if you bring your own reading material with you to services, it should be thematically appropriate to the day: a piece of Jewish thought or about Jewish history, a memoir about forgiveness, a nonfiction work about self-improvement or societal responsibility, or articles you printed before the holiday specifically about Yom Kippur. Anything you bring with you should enhance rather than detract from your experience of the services taking place around you and should serve the purpose of increasing your opportunities for self-reflection. Further, in that spirit of self-reflection, go ahead and try bringing your own reading material this year, and then next year you can look back and decide if this is something you want to continue or leave behind.
Wishing you a g’mar chatimah tova – may you be sealed for a good year.