Praying to the Sound of the Neighbor's Rock Music

When silent prayers are pierced by excessive noise, what’s more important: peace with neighbors or peace with prayer?

Friday morning in Jerusalem, the phone rang. It was my mother calling from Florida. She was in the hospital emergency room, having fallen in the middle of the night. X-rays revealed a broken hip. I booked myself an airline ticket for after Shabbat and arrived in Miami Sunday afternoon. After picking up my father and driving to the hospital, we found my mother in good spirits, with a positive prognosis from her doctor and the operation scheduled for the next morning.

After an early rise on Monday, and my first Starbucks for the day, I pulled into the synagogue parking lot at 6:15 A.M. The synagogue I frequent when visiting my parents in Florida is located at the back of a shopping center. Normally the area is quiet and there are plenty of parking spots. But on this day, I had to drive to the end of the lot to find a parking place (meanwhile thinking the rabbi had hit a recruiting homerun for his early morning Talmud class).

As I made my way through the parking lot, I was first aurally assaulted by increasingly blaring rock music, and then had to duck out of the way of a steady stream of runners in various shapes and sizes. I turned the corner to the entrance to the synagogue, and next door, in what once was an empty storefront was a gym. Not your typical South Florida gym with state-of-the-art equipment and atmosphere. This was a military-style gym, modeled on boot camp: heavy on decibels, discipline and sweat.

As I stepped into the synagogue building and then its sanctuary, the booming of the music I encountered outside was now vibrating through the walls. The rabbi was away for a family celebration, but my old friends filled me in on the details of the gym’s arrival and the negotiations over noise levels.

In the Laws of Neighbors section of his Mishneh Torah (6:12), the Rambam (Maimonodes) rules that neighbors in a courtyard enjoy a perpetual right to protest excessive noise, even if the offending party’s business was established first and even if there was no initial complaint. The situation may not be remedied by removing the business itself, but restrictions may be placed on the number and timing of customers in and out of the premises.

The Talmud cites smoke, smells, and noise as an exceptional class of damage. An average person is naturally sensitive to these afflictions, finding them difficult to endure when subjected to persistent suffering. Only if a person makes an explicit sale of his “smoke, smell or noise” rights, would he then be deemed to have waived the ability to later protest and register a complaint.

In the 1874 by-laws to the Mea She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem, noise, smoke, or ground movement are only permitted with the consent of one’s neighbor, according to TorahMitzion.org, which adds:

“Everyone is under an obligation to watch what he does, even in the privacy of his own home, to ensure that he does not cause any damage or distress to his fellow and his neighbor, both near and far, even against excessive noise, smoke or ground movement, and even if the immediate neighbors voice no objection, those further away can protest his conduct… and may good and peaceful neighborly relations reign between them… and no one has permission to open a cowshed or sheep pens, even in his own house and yard, without the permission of the Board…”

“And may good and peaceful neighborly relations reign between them.” With that ideal in mind, the synagogue and gym management had reached an agreement: At 6:30 A.M., the time morning services commence, and until they conclude at about 7:15 A.M., the music ceases and remains silent.

At the Kotel (Western Wall), starting early each morning, while it is still dark in the sky, many minyanim (prayer quorums) form and begin the morning prayer service. These groups represent many different traditions, each having its own cadence and melodies. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people each morning, and the sound can crescendo to a deafening level. However, at the precise time of sunrise, all the minyanim fall silent in unison, as each worshipper pours out his heart in the quiet devotion of the Amidah.

That contrast, that sublime silence that I had experienced many times at the Kotel, was what I appreciated that morning in the synagogue next to the gym. And for that I was grateful. For my friends at synagogue, constantly having to deal with the noise is challenging, but they continue working with the gym to find a fair balance between their competing needs.

A week later, I am back home in Jerusalem. My mother’s surgery was successful, Barukh Hashem, and she is already in rehab. A second memory of the gym persists: the dedication of those exercising, their religious devotion to getting into shape and staying in shape, and the collective support of the group in providing the inspiration and motivation to do so. Perhaps there is something to be learned here, too…

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

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