Question from a number of rabbinical students: Why do Jews from Islamic lands object to sitting with crossed legs in a synagogue?(1) What are the sources? Is their objection justified?
Responsum: This topic is not that important in and of itself, but we can derive from it a number of important things about the development of Jewish law. We shall see how one sentence written by a halakhic authority in 13th century France influenced Jews throughout the world beginning in the 17th century, thanks to the invention of printing and to the widespread circulation of the Shulhan Arukh. We shall also learn that sometimes one Jewish ethnic group adopts a specific law or custom due to the influence of a number of specific halakhic authorities.
I do not know to what extent this is a general custom today of Jews of Islamic lands, but there is no question that it is a custom of the Jews of Iraq, which passed from Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (d. 1909) to Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer (d. 1939), to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (d. 2013), and to his son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who is now the Sefardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.
There are very few sources about this custom. I found most of the sources below via the works of Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (2), and via the notes of Rabbi Eliyahu Yair Bakshi to the Ben Ish Hai. (Many of the sources quoted below are not found in the Bar Ilan Responsa Project.)
I) Derekh Eretz Rabbah
Derekh Eretz Rabbah is a rabbinic work written in the style of rabbinic wisdom literature such as Avot and Avot Derabi Nattan. In Derekh Eretz Rabbah Chapter 11 (= Tosefta Derekh Eretz Chapter 6, ed. Higger, pp. 316-317; and cf. the translation ibid., English side, pp. 118-119) we find this paragraph:
He loosened his shoes and went out to the street – he is of the haughty.
He [who wears his cloak] hanging sideways and [his hat turned back],
His thigh on the other [thigh],
The tefillin straps in his hand and he turns them around (?) when he is walking in the street – he is of the haughty.
And all of the haughty are like idol worshippers, as it is written “and you shall bring not an abomination (toevah) into your house” (Deut. 7:26), and later on He says “all who are haughty are an abomination (toevah) to God” (Proverbs 16:5) – just as toevah mentioned here is idol worship, so is toevah mentioned there.
We do not know when Derekh Eretz Rabbah was written, but this source is apparently quite old, since they still wore tefillin all day long, including in the street, as they did in the Talmudic period.(3) It is clear from examining the entire paragraph that the author is opposed to whoever goes out into the street and acts with haughtiness. He even quotes a Gezeirah Shavah (a law derived from the same word which appears in two verses; cf. Sotah 4b for a similar teaching) in order to say that haughtiness is like idol worship. It is also clear that this source is not discussing crossing legs in a synagogue.(4) It is discussing a person who walks in the street without shoes, with his hat tilted back, wearing his tefillin in a disrespectful fashion. I do not know how one can walk “with his thigh on the other [thigh]”, but it is clear that it is referring to some form of haughty gait and not to someone sitting and praying in a synagogue. In other words, this is an interesting source, but it has nothing to do with our topic.
II) Rabbeinu Peretz of Corbeil and those who ruled like him
The following source is the only relatively early source for the custom under discussion. All of the other books we shall cite below copied from him, even though most of them did not know they were copying from him.
When you pray while seated [i.e., not during the Amidah], do not lean back, and do not lean to the sides,
Do not stretch out your legs, and do not put one leg on the other,
For all of these are haughtiness.
Rather sit with your head bowed, so that you don’t see the face of the person sitting opposite you outside of four cubits [= two meters],
And put your hands under your cloak, the right on top of the left, and sit in fear and trembling.
Rabbeinu Peretz is of the opinion that a person who sits and prays in the synagogue must sit in a dignified fashion without leaning back or to the sides, without stretching his legs out or crossing his legs, but rather to sit with his head bowed in order to avoid looking at the other worshippers. He does not want the worshipper to sit in “haughtiness”, but rather “in fear and trembling”. And as for his opposition to sitting with crossed legs, it is possible that he was influenced by French etiquette in his day, as we have seen in connection with other customs.(5)
And in the seated prayer [i.e., not during the Amidah], he should not lean back, and he should not lean to the sides,
because that is the way of haughtiness.
And he should not stretch out his legs, and he should not put one leg on the other,
For all of these are the ways of haughtiness.
Rather, he sits with his head bowed, so that he should not see the face of the person sitting opposite him outside of four cubits [= two meters]…
his hands under his cloak, the right on top of the left, as a hint to increase the attribute of mercy over the attribute of justice.
In other words, other than the final phrase, this is a quote from Rabbeinu Peretz, which has been changed from the second person to third person. However, for some reason, and in opposition to the other sources quoted in that paragraph, Rabbi Auerbach did not indicate that this is a quote from Rabbeinu Peretz. Therefore, all of the later rabbis who cite this law do so in the name of Ateret Zekeinim from Poland in the 17th century and not in the name of Rabbeinu Peretz from France in the 13th century.
In other words, originally, this was not an Iraqi custom. This entire custom is based on one sentence written by Rabbeinu Peretz in France in the 13th century. From there it passed anonymously to Rabbi Menahem Mendel Auerbach in Poland in the 17th century,
And from there to Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi in Poland in 1742,
And to Rabbi Y”Y Algazi in Jerusalem in the middle of the 18th century,
And to the Hida in Livorno at the end of the 18th century,
And to Rabbi Eliezer Papo in Bulgaria at the beginning of the 19th century,
And to Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad at the end of the 19th century,
And to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen in Poland at the end of the 19th century,
And to Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer of Baghdad and Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century.
And now let us examine what RabbI Yitzhak Yosef wrote in his Yalkut Yosef (Part 2, Jerusalem, 1990, 151:11, pp. 246-247):
It is forbidden to sit in the synagogue one leg on top of the other. Because it is like arrogance and pride. And even in his home it is not appropriate to sit like this. And in any case, if his intent is to put a book on his legs so that it will be convenient to read, it is permissible, “for God desires the heart”. But even so, in the synagogue it is not appropriate to do so, even when his intention is to put a book on his legs and the like. And especially if he is a ben Torah [a learned person].
It should be stressed that only the first sentence is based on Ateret Zekeinim (or on Rabbeinu Peretz); all of the rest was invented by Rabbi Yosef himself. In note 17, he refers to Derekh Eretz Rabbah, the Ben Ish Hai, and Rabbeinu Peretz.
Finally, in She’erit Yosef (Part 3, Jerusalem, 1996, 150:14, pp. 287-288), Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef repeats his opinion in brief and explains in note 14: “We heard this law more than once from our teacher my father [i.e., Rabbi Ovadia Yosef] in his many classes, but he did not cite a source for this, and therefore we brought what the Semak [=Rabbeinu Peretz] wrote…”. He then quotes Derekh Eretz Rabbah, admits that people told him, and rightly so, that that is not connected to our topic, and then he quotes again from the Ben Ish Hai. And he concludes: “And we saw ma’aseh rav [action as a precedent] by our teacher my father a number of times, that he scolded whoever sat in the synagogue with one leg on the other, and said that it is not the honor of the synagogue to sit in such a fashion. [Except if he did it in order to put a book on his leg to study it.]
In other words, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was quite strict about this custom and so is his son in his footsteps. Apparently, the Jews of Iraq are strict about this custom due to the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
III) Summary and Practical Halakhah
To summarize, we have seen that this law or custom has no Talmudic basis. It began with one sentence written by Rabbeinu Peretz in thirteenth-century France. From there, it passed anonymously to Ateret Zekeinim a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh written in Poland in the 17th century, and from there – due to the immense popularity of the Shulhan Arukh – it passed to many halakhic authorities in Poland, Eretz Yisrael, Livorno, Bulgaria, and Baghdad.(6) Today, this custom is apparently practiced by Iraqi Jews due to the influence of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
In light of all of the above, Jews of Iraqi descent and others who wish to observe this custom may do so, but there is no requirement to observe this custom. There is no doubt that one should sit in the synagogue with “fear and trembling” and without “pride”. But this custom is, in the end, the lone opinion of Rabbeinu Peretz without any Talmudic basis, and he may have been influenced by French etiquette in his day. Furthermore, it is very difficult to force people to sit in a certain fashion in the synagogue for an extended period of time. In other words, “one does not impose a decree on the public unless the majority can endure it” (Bava Batra 60b and parallels). Indeed, it is desirable to sit in the synagogue in a respectful fashion without leaning back or to the sides or to stretch out one’s legs, since such postures can be interpreted as disrespectful of the synagogue and of God. But it is not recommended to scold people who cannot sit straight for an extended period of time. In our day, we should be happy that they have come to the synagogue and encourage them to return.
6 Elul 5778
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.