Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Seating arrangements

A few weeks back, a distinguished looking elderly gentleman began showing up for the Mincha/Ma'ariv (afternoon/evening) service.  He'd been in Florida since I began coming to shul.  I was sitting in the seat I'd become accustomed to sit in.  He sat down next to me and explained that, since he had joined the shul in the 1950s, he'd been sitting in the seat where I was sitting.  That was his "makom kavua." I moved to a nearby seat.  It didn't matter much to me, but it meant a lot to him.

The phrase "makom kavua"  cannot be directly translated into English.  Literally, it means "permanent" or "fixed place."  It refers to the seat you regularly sit in.  But the "makom kavua" has near cosmic significance for many people.  Why?  There are a number of ways to understand it.  Perhaps some people feel there is a certain physical location in shul from which they can connect with God.  If they were displaced, by even a seat, the connection could be lost.  Another possibility is that people like to mark off space, sort of like how animals demarcate their territory to assert dominion over a specific area.  On a mundane level, one's "makom kavua" may simply reflect general preferences based on proximity to various features of the shul such as the exit, aisles, the shaliach tzibur (prayer leader), the rabbi, etc.  Some people like to sit in the back, some in front, some on the sides, etc.  I generally prefer to sit at the end of a row toward the back of the shul. 

A few days ago, I noticed that a young man was sitting in the elderly man's seat.  Just before davening began, the gentleman walked in.  I asked the young man to move over, explaining that the gentleman usually sat there.  The young man moved.  The gentleman smiled, shook my hand and thanked me for "taking care of him." 

There is an idea that during the year of mourning, the mourner shouldn't sit in his "makom kavua." The mourner is supposed to move back from his normal seat.  That's what I've done.   In his book Living a Year of Kaddish, Ari Goldman writes that he rebelled against this notion and stayed in his regular seat.  But to me, the idea makes sense.  Moving back reminds the mourner that his or her sense of normality has been altered.  While, as a kaddish-sayer, the mourner draws the attention of the congregation, the mourner is too preoccupied with grief to be at the community's center. Moving to the periphery of shul's physical space mirrors the mourner's own psychological state.

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