Every morning, depending on the day of the week, I walk into the Tiffereth Shmuel synagogue at close to half after six and go to the row of chairs in front of the large table used for the tri-weekly reading of the Torah. The seats have a built in shtender(1) built into them and so I keep my tallis, tefillin, siddur, glasses, and a coffee mug there. In Judaism there is a concept called makom kavua, which is fundamentally the place in a location that one establishes for oneself to pray. Of the people that come every morning, nearly everyone has a makom kavua, and it is unknown for one person to go to the place of another and pray there.
At this point you may have already chuckled and shaken your head, wondering just how strange we really are. Don’t we believe that G-d is everywhere and will hear our prayer regardless of where we pray? Indeed this is the case, but I believe that makom kavua has more to do with establishing habits and keeping them going. Think about it from an exercise perspective — if you workout whenever you feel like it, you may end up doing one workout in a week or five. If you have an established time and place to do your workout, however, you know that you will do that many workouts during the week.
Problems sometime arise when someone is visiting and comes to the synagogue and, as is too often the case, sets up shop without first asking where they may ideally pray — a place not regularly used by anyone. The larger problem is when they come early, set themselves up, and nobody tells them that they are in your makom kavua — even when it is well known in the synagogue that it is your place. I have had some rather awkward yet short conversations when I see someone praying in my place. The least awkward is when I say to the person that I need to move their things because my tallis and tefillin are in the shtender where they are standing. People almost always relocate when I do this. If they do not, I ask them as nicely as I can to move over one or two spots.
Having explained all this, I must admit that I am in awe of people like my friend Dain, who davens just about anywhere in the shul depending on what time he gets there. I also have tremendous respect for my friend Mark who will insist on praying somewhere else if he comes in a little late and finds someone in his spot. He will say, “If I wanted to daven in my makom kevua, I should have come on time.” I have tried on occasion to do exactly this and though I managed just fine to get through the prayer, there is something particularly comfortable about being in the same place every day to say the morning prayers. It is a bit like my coffee cups at the synagogue and at the office — but that is another tale for another day.