Is there any significance in praying regularly in the same shul? What would be the criteria? And what about within the shul itself – is there anything special about davening in the same place? If so, how is this regulated in practice?
It is very important to try to daven in the same shul on a regular basis. Ideally, this would mean davening at the same shul for all prayers during the week, on Shabbat and the holidays. Some people have a very close connection to, and live nearby, well-established communities and can daven most of the prayers in the same shul. However, for most people nowadays, this is simply not practical.
Rather, nowadays, most people can only try to consistently daven at a specific shul for specific payers. For example, one might daven regularly at a shul near his house for the morning shacharit prayer, at a separate minyan for the afternoon mincha prayer during work, and then at a third shul for the evening ma’ariv prayer where he might have a daily Torah class. And this would apply to the weekday, but he might have yet another shul which he regularly attends for the Shabbat prayers.
In such a case, while he does not daven all his prayers regularly at the same shul, at least he is consistent regarding the various prayers throughout the day or week, by praying at the same time and place with the same people. This consistency is very dear in G‑d’s eyes. For one, it demonstrates one’s commitment to, and regard for, prayer. Secondly, it helps one to focus and concentrate on prayer since he is less likely to be diverted by various distractions when he’s in a familiar environment.
This emphasis on praying in a regular, fixed place is not only at a specific shul, but also at a particular place within the shul. This is not just a matter of order and decorum. Rather, as mentioned above, when one becomes accustomed to the particular matrix of light, sounds, sights, smells and other stimuli of a specific place within the shul, he will not be distracted by them and will thereby be liberated to pray more freely and fluidly. And since each person affects his environs in a unique, individual way, praying in a set place within the constellation of the other regular prayer-goers similarly limits distractions he might otherwise experience around unfamiliar people.
The Talmudic Sages taught (Berachot 6b), “One who fixes a set place for his prayer is deemed a disciple of Avraham Avinu. What’s more…it is said of him, ‘How pious, How humble’”. Why is such a person compared to Avraham? Because the Torah relates that Avraham prayed in a specific place: “And Avraham arose early in the morning to the place in which he had stood”. And surely “standing” refers to prayer, as in the verse, “And Pinchas stood in prayer”. This refers to when Avraham prayed to save the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorra.
In addition, such a person is referred to as being pious and humble since it requires much piety and humility to pray consistently at the same time and place each prayer. This is because a person’s life and daily schedule can be erratic and change from day to day. He is likely to want to adjust his prayers around his varying schedule. But this would be putting his personal interests before G‑d, where he selfishly puts his own endeavors before prayer. Thus, one who nevertheless gives precedence to prayer and organizes his day accordingly, is truly pious and humble before G‑d.
Because of the importance of praying in a regular shul and in a fixed place in the shul, one who is visiting for the first time should ask if there are set places, and if so, where he can sit. On the other hand, one who finds a visitor in his place should either say nothing and be glad over the opportunity for hospitality, or politely explain the situation and arrange for the person to sit in an unreserved place.
Under no circumstances should a person be rude and gruff about someone’s sitting in his place. Anyway, the close vicinity of one’s regular place is also considered “one’s place”, and he could pray nearby as a one-off solution. That being said, even if a person impolitely demands “his place”, the other should still make the place available for the person who regularly davens there. In either case, perhaps this is another way in which striving to pray in a fixed place requires calling upon the piety and humility of Avraham Avinu.