Why do Jews from Islamic lands object to sitting with crossed legs in a synagogue? Volume 12, Number 6, August 2018


(Orah Hayyim 95:2 in Ateret Zekeinim)

In honor of my brother Cantor Abe Golinkin on his birthday


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.

  1. Rabbeinu Peretz of Corbeil lived in France and died ca. 1298. The Tosafot of Rabbeinu Peretz and his students “covered almost all the tractates of the Talmud” (E.E. Urbach, Ba’alei Hatosafot, fourth edition, Jerusalem, 1980, pp. 575-581). Among other works, he wrote Glosses to the Semak, Sefer Mitzvot Kattan, of his teacher Rabbi Yitzhak of Corbeil (d. 1280). This is what Rabbeinu Peretz wrote in his Gloss to Sefer Mitzvot Kattan (No. 11, subparagraph 2, Satmar, 1935, p. 9):

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)

  1. This ruling of Rabbeinu Peretz made its way from France to Poland, where most of it was quoted by Rabbi Menahem Mendel Auerbach (1620-1689) in his commentary Ateret Zekeinim to Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 95:2:

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.

  1. This ruling of Ateret Zekeinim was quoted by Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi, the Dayan of Tiktin in his classic commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, first printed in Amsterdam in 1742 (Ba’er Heteiv to Orah Hayyim 95, subparagraph 3): “And he should not stretch out his legs, and he should not put one leg on the other. At”z [=Ateret Zekeinim]”.
  2.  It was also quoted by Rabbi Yisrael Ya’akov Algazi (1680-1757) who was born in Izmir and made Aliyah in 1735, studied and taught at the Bet El Yeshivah in Jerusalem, was chosen as Rishon Letziyon in 1756, and was buried on the Mount of Olives. In Sefer Shalmei Tzibbur (Salonika 1790, fol. 110b = ed. Jerusalem, 1987, p. 264), he writes: “and in Sefer Ateret Zekeinim he wrote… And he should not stretch out his legs, and he should not put one leg on the other”.
  3. The Hida (Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806), one of the most important halakhic authorities in Eretz Yisrael and Italy, also quoted from Ateret Zekeinim in his Kesher Gudal (Livorno, 1802, paragraph 12:30): “And he should not stretch out his legs, and he should not put one leg on the other” (at”z ibid.).
  4. Rabbi Eliezer Papo (Bulgaria and Bucharest, 1786-1827) quoted from Ateret Zekeinim without citing his source and with a slight addition in his Hesed La’alafim (Salonika 1841; Jerusalem, 1963, p. 143, to Orah Hayyim 95, subparagraph 2): “And he should not stretch out his legs, and he should not put one leg on the other, but he should sit with fear and respect”.
  5. Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (ca. 1833-1909) was the most important halakhic authority in Iraq in the 19th He quoted this halakhah without an exact source (Ben Ish Hai, first year, Yitro, end of paragraph 9, ed. Jerusalem, 1985, p. 135), but it is clear from the final phrase that he is quoting from Rabbi Eliezer Papo and not from Ateret Zekeinim: “And he should not stretch out his legs, and he should not put one leg on the other, but should sit with fear and respect, as is mentioned by the Aharonim [=later rabbis] of blessed memory”.
  6. The ruling of Ateret Zekeinim was cited in brief by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen (Poland 1838-1933) in his Mishnah Berurah to Orah Hayyim 95, subparagraph 2, which was first published in 1894: “And he should not stretch out his legs, and he should not put one leg on the other [at”z]”.
  7. Finally, the ruling of the Ateret Zekeinim was quoted by Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer (Baghdad and Jerusalem, 1870-1939) in Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 94, subparagraph 32: “And he should not stretch out his legs, and he should not put one leg on the other…”, and then he refers to Ateret Zekeinim and to four of the other sources cited here.

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.

David Golinkin

Jerusalem

6 Elul 5778


Notes

  1. I was first asked about this custom by a number of rabbinical students 25 years ago and I wrote them a responsum in Hebrew on 24 Tevet 5753 (1993). A few months ago, my student Eitan Krol took an interest in this topic and wrote a responsum with the help of sources which I provided. I thank him for his interest which led to my returning to this topic.
  2. His books are cited below. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s knowledge is encyclopedic as usual; he is the only one who found the statement by Rabbeinu Peretz. However, his treatment of this topic is ahistorical; he did not see or emphasize that there is exactly one source for this custom, which made its way into many books in many countries, as we shall see below.
  3. In the Talmudic period, the Sages used to wear tefillin all day long. See, for example, Shabbat 49a re. Elisha Ba’al Kenafayim; Ketubot 104a re. the death of Rabbi Judah the Prince; and Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:3, fol. 4c that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Eliezer used to wear tefillin all day in the summer and winter.
  4. In Yalkut Yosef, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef thought that this source is connected to our topic, but in She’erit Yosef he wrote that it was correctly pointed out to him that it is not.
  5. In France in the Middle Ages they stopped covering the head during the shivah and also prayed with uncovered heads because at that time in France they thought that covering the head was a disgrace – see Yitzhak Zimmer, Olam K’minhago Noheig, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 193-195 and p. 208, figure 2; and p. 24.
  6. For a similar example of a custom which jumped from Germany in the 13th century to Jews of Islamic lands in modern times, see what I wrote about the custom of reenacting the Exodus at the Seder – David Golinkin, Insight Israel, second series, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 80-83.

5 thoughts on “Why do Jews from Islamic lands object to sitting with crossed legs in a synagogue? Volume 12, Number 6, August 2018

  1. When I was a boy, I used to go to a Yemenite synagogue with my grandfather, Shlomo Haiby, in Yad Eliyahu, in Tel Aviv. Once, sitting next to him, I crossed my legs. He gave me a scolding, and said” Zeh lo kavod b’veit haknesset” – this is not an honorable posture in the synagogue.
    His father, (Mori Musa) Moshe Haiby, was the chief rabbi of the Yemenites in Tel Aviv -Yafo in the early decades of the 20th century. Perhaps my grandfather learned it from him.
    At any rate, this custom of not crossing the legs in synagogue was apparently the custom of Yemenites as well.

    In my own, suburban American synagogue, I have continued this custom, encouraging worshippers, especially those who sit on the elevated bima facing the congregation , to not cross their legs. I explain (reasonably, I think) that crossing legs, especially “ankle on knee”, is how we watch TV in our living rooms, far more casual a posture than would be appropriate in Beit Knesset. Also, when sitting “ankle on knee,” the bottom of one’s shoes, are visible, often not an attractive sight, especially when the entire kahal is looking at the people on the bimah. I have encouraged people to sit with legs closed, feet side-by-side, when sitting on the bimah, and hopefully, they don’t have to sit too long.

  2. I attending sephardic synagogues normatively. I have observed very much the same concern in Islamic settings. witness the offense of aiming the sole of ones dirty, street-trodding feet at another, I do not believe the basis is in rabbinic opinion however subtle and marginal, I suspect as a Muslim-country-originating Jewish *practice* it relates to the well-known discourteous act in Islamic and generally Arabic settings. I’ve seen the absence of leg-crossing (in terms of ankle on the knee, such that the sole is aimed at others) in Arabic-language Christian settings as well.

    A google search for “soles shoes muslim” or “Islamic” or “arab” will indicate this norm.

  3. I lived in Morocco for many years and noted this custom. The explanation I was given is that the minhag was influenced by the Islamic custom of not showing your sole to another, which is compared to giving someone the finger in our culture. I attended a rabbinic conference in Kiev many years ago where the then Rishon leTzion was in attendance. Some official from YU was there sitting opposite the Rishon leTzion in Shul. I reminded him to uncross his legs which he respectfully did.
    Btw, I think the Sephardic custom of opening the hands at פותח את ידיך in Ashrei is also based on the submissive hand gesture in Islamic prayer.

  4. I have been advised by a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital that to sit with one’s knees crossed anywhere is not good for the blood pressure. However, I am not implying that this is the reason behind the “prohibition” to cross one’s legs in synagogue

  5. Growing up in an Ashkenazic synagogue, it was always explained as not making a cross (tzelem). Also, parenthetically, it was seen as acting like a “laytz”
    disrespectfully in the presence of the “king of kings.”

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