What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners)

September 7, 2014

A reader asked: “Is there a general pattern to the service, or not?”

The Jewish service may seem aimless to a newcomer. We stand, we mumble, we sit, we sing, we repeat a prayer from earlier, we do something that looks suspiciously like the hokey-pokey, we read some more prayers, we sing, we’re done. It is no surprise that many newcomers are left wondering: “What was THAT?”

I supply links to more detailed material. Click on any word you don’t understand or want to learn about more deeply. If I haven’t supplied a link, let me know in the comments and I’ll fix that.

Warm Up with Blessings and Praise

In the beginning, the service leader takes us through a series of “warm-ups” designed to help us prepare to pray. They might include a greeting, songs or psalms, and some prayers. This is one of the parts of the service that will vary greatly from place to place.

You will know this section is over when we stand for the “Barechu” prayer. It signals that we’re ready to get down to serious business.

Prelude and Postlude: Blessings

The Shema is preceded by two blessings. These prayers lead us into the proper frame of mind for the Shema. The first blessing has to do with Creation, the natural world. The second has to do with Revelation, how we have received Torah. The Shema itself is a passage from Torah. Then we say a blessing of Redemption, and the passage “Mi Chamocha” remembering our deliverance from Egypt.

The Core of the Service: Shema & Amidah

The service addresses two specific sets of mitzvot (commandments.) The first set is to say the Shema twice daily.

The second set is a little more complex. We say the Amidah [Standing Prayer] in order to fulfill our duty to maintain the Temple sacrifices. Back when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we sacrificed animals according to the directions in the book of Leviticus. The book of Deuteronomy makes it clear that we are not to make sacrifices anywhere other than the Temple in Jerusalem. So once the Romans destroyed the Temple, we had a problem: how could we meet our obligation to maintain the sacrificial cult?

The Jewish people came up with an ingenious replacement for the sacrifices. Instead of sacrificing animals, we would make sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. If you read the first four chapters of Leviticus, you will see that every sacrifice was stacked upon the altar in a very specific way. Ever since the loss of the Temple Jews have kept the obligation to sacrifice by chanting the “stacked” prayers of the Amidah.

The final prayer in the Amidah is a prayer for shalom, for peace.

Sermon & Torah

At this point in the service, the “Torah service” (reading from the Torah) may be inserted. Traditionally Torah is read only in daylight on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays.

If there is to be a sermon it will also usually come at this point.

Cool Down with Aleinu and Kaddish

We finish the service with the “concluding prayers.” Aleinu [“It is upon us”] is a mission statement for the Jewish People. If that sounds like a tall order, it is, which is why there are many versions of this prayer. Kaddish is a prayer for transitions; you will have heard it previously at least once in the service, but the Mourner’s Kaddish is usually the last big prayer in the service. We say it to recognize the last big transition in life, the transition from life to death. We recall the names of people who have died recently and in the past when we say this prayer.

These last prayers get us ready to go back out into the world, reminded of our mission in life and that life itself is actually very short.

Closing Song

Just as we do not stop a Torah or Haftarah reading on a sad verse, we don’t finish the service with the Mourner’s Kaddish. One very popular song for the end of the service is Adon Olam. Another is Ein Keloheinu:

A few other notes:

  • The exact parts and order of the service will vary by time of day. Check this chart for details.
  • The Shabbat Amidah is different from the weekday Amidah. This article has details.
  • Services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur have the same elements, with considerable additions.
  • It takes time and practice to learn the service. This article may be some help for beginners.

Beginner’s Guide to the Siddur

September 7, 2014
Mishkan T'filah

Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur

A siddur (seh-DOOR or SID-der) is a Jewish prayer book. It is an anthology of prayers, readings, and poetry, some of which date to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The word siddur means “order.” It is just that: it gives the proper order for the service. The plural is siddurim.

There have been many different siddurim since medieval times because each siddur reflects the custom of a particular group of Jews. There are some major, well-known siddurim with wide distribution, such as Mishkan T’filah (Reform), Siddur Sim Shalom (Conservative), Kol HaNeshamah (Reconstructionist), Siddur HaShalem and Siddur Rinat Yisrael (Orthodox.)

Some smaller communities produce their own siddurim. For instance, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco has published its prayer book, Siddur Sha’ar Zahav.

What prayer book is best for you? The one your community uses. While the basic order of service is the same in every siddur, small differences in wording, pagination, and arrangement can be extremely frustrating. Unless you want to have a copy for home study and prayer, there is no need to buy a prayer book: most synagogues provide them for worshippers. However, if you want to take it home or put marks in it, buy your own!

Liturgist and Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski once described the siddur as “the journal of the Jewish People.” Torah is God’s gift to Israel, but the siddur is in the words of our ancestors, our scholars, and our poets.


Growing into Shabbat

August 29, 2014
Shabbat on a card table.

Shabbat on a card table.

How does a person begin to keep Shabbat?

Maybe you’ve read a description of Shabbat observance, and found it overwhelming or just plain impossible. Or perhaps you had relatives who did observe Shabbat, and the way they went about it left you feeling that it was a burden, not a joy.

And now it’s Elul, and the High Holy Days are coming, and perhaps some of you are thinking that you’d LIKE to keep Shabbat, but… (you fill in the blank.)

So let me suggest another approach. If you want to keep Shabbat, pick ONE THING on this list that you aren’t already doing.

1. Light candles Friday night.

2. Set aside some part of Friday night or Saturday for a family meal.

3. Go to services at a nearby synagogue.

4. Set aside the 24 hours of Shabbat as a “no-nagging” time zone, or maybe just Friday night.

5. Read a commentary or d’var Torah on this week’s Torah portion. (You can find it here.)

6. Call or write to someone you love.

7. Do something you don’t usually give yourself time to do: take a walk in nature, for instance.

8. Have wine or juice with dinner Friday night, and say a blessing (English is fine.)

9. Turn off your cell phone and/or computer for part or all of the day.

10. Choose not to do any shopping from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Let whatever it is wait.

Now, try that ONE THING it out this Shabbat. Afterwards, ask yourself:

How did that feel? Do I want to do it again?

If so, do it again. If not, pick something else on the list and try it. Later, you can add something, when you are ready. Add no more than one thing at a time.

This is how a person grows into Shabbat.

 

 

 

 

 


Which Jewish Song has More Tunes than Any Other?

August 24, 2014

אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם

Adon Olam

If you attend synagogue services, sooner or later you will encounter Adon Olam, an ancient hymn. It has been part of the daily service since the 15th century.

The words are beautiful, and in Hebrew they are perfectly metrical. Because it is a beloved prayer that scans perfectly to 4/4 time, (iambic tetrameter, for poetry geeks) it can be sung to any melody in 4/4 time. Beautiful melodies have been written for it. Here’s an example:

If you search for keywords “Adon Olam Traditional” on YouTube.com, you’ll find many more. Here’s one of my favorites:

Because it’s so perfectly regular, you can also sing it to pop tunes. Here’s one making the rounds of the Internet lately:

I’ll spare you the one of two tweens singing it to a Justin Bieber tune. Suffice it to say, you can sing it to anything from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

For many Jews, myself included, the words can be a mantra in time of trouble. In essence, they affirm a faith in a God beyond all human understanding who is nevertheless present to my distress:

Adon olam, asher malach,
b’terem kol y’tzir nivra.
L’et na’asah v’cheftzo kol,
azai melech sh’mo nikra.

V’acharey kichlot hakol,
l’vado yimloch nora.
V’hu haya, v’hu hoveh,
v’hu yih’yeh b’tifara.

V’hu echad, v’eyn sheni
l’hamshil lo, l’hachbira.
B’li reishit, b’li tachlit,
v’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah.

V’hu Eli, v’chai go’ali,
v’tzur chevli b’et tzarah.
V’hu nisi umanos li,
m’nat kosi b’yom ekra.

B’yado afkid ruchi
b’et ishan v’a’irah.
V’im ruchi g’viyati,
Adonai li v’lo ira.

Translation: (note: Hebrew is a gendered language. In the interest of giving a fairly literal translation, I employed masculine pronouns. However, God is beyond all gender.)

The Eternal Ruler who reigned
before anything was created:
When all was made by His will
“Monarch” he was proclaimed to be.

And when everything is no more
He still all alone shall reign.
He was, He is,
and He shall be in glory.

And He is one, and there’s no other,
to compare or join Him.
Without beginning, without end
and to Him belongs dominion and power.

He is my God, my living Ransomer.
my solid Rock in time of trouble,
and He is my miracle and my refuge,
who answers on the day I call.

To Him I commit my spirit,
in the time of sleep and at waking,
And as with my spirit, so my body:
God is with me, I shall not fear.

Do you have a favorite tune for Adon Olam? What’s your favorite Jewish song?


Reading List: Basic Judaism

August 14, 2014

Jewish Shelves

Looking for some basic reading about Judaism? Here are some of the best bets around:

Settings of Silver, an Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M Wylen – This is the book I use for my Intro courses. I chose it because the information is solid, it includes a brief history, and it has a good index.

Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Tradition, Belief, and Practice by Wayne Dosick – Another good basic text, used by many rabbis.

Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg – Published in 1947, this is still a classic work. It’s small but powerful.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzer – This book has a Q&A format and it’s extremely basic. If you are looking for just some basic facts without details, it might be the right book for you.

These are not holiday or “how-to” books – I’ll post a list of those soon.

Do you have a favorite basic Judaism text?

 


Resource for Conversion to Judaism

August 9, 2014
Dawn Kepler & Linda Burnett

Dawn Kepler & Linda Burnett of BecomingJewish.net

Are you interested in conversion to Judaism? Did you recently become a member of the tribe?

BecomingJewish.net offers support and information for anyone seeking conversion or recently become Jewish. It has additional resources for users living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

They have solid information about the process of becoming a Jew and about conversion outside the U.S. They also have first-person accounts by Jews by Choice about their own experiences.

Their directory of rabbis is a resource for anyone “shul shopping” [looking for a synagogue] because it includes stories by people who have converted with each Bay Area rabbi, and who have gotten to know their rabbi well. If you want to get a taste of what the rabbi at Beth Somewhere is like, this is a great way to do it.

Full disclosure: The site is staffed by my dear friend Dawn Kepler (who mentored me through conversion) and my spouse, Linda Burnett. But seriously, even if I didn’t love the people running it, this is a great resource!


What is the Blood Libel?

August 4, 2014

An old, terrible lie has resurfaced. 

The video above is part of an interview with Osama Hamdan, head of international relations for Hamas. on the Lebanese Al-Quds TV channel on July 28, 2014.  In it he makes the assertion that Jews have a custom of killing non-Jewish children and using their blood to make Passover matzah. 

The belief that Jews kill people, usually children, and use their blood in rituals or to make matzah is called the Blood Libel. It is a lie. It is a particularly baffling lie in that Jewish dietary law forbids the eating of any blood: blood is drained from animals before butchering, and meat is salted to remove any stray drops of blood. 

The Blood Libel has been around a long time. Apion, a Greek who hated Jews wrote about it in the first century CE.  It then pops up periodically, but the first major European case was in 1144, in Norwich, England. In the Middle Ages, these accusations followed a pattern: a body was found, or a child disappeared, and the Jews were accused of the crime. Elaborate fantasies about the supposed rituals were imagined and written down by the accusers, which then became fodder for the next case. For more detail about it, there is an excellent but heartbreaking article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

The Blood Libel has continued in the modern era. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic document that was distributed by the Russian secret police in 1905. It is a catalogue of all the ancient lies about the Jews, repackaged for the 20th century. Henry Ford distributed it in the United States. It included the Blood Libel as well as other medieval stories about Jews poisoning wells, spreading plague, and so on. It was used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust. And now, in the 21st century, it continues to circulate on the internet, and it has surfaced in Islamist talking points.

The important thing to know about the Blood Libel is that it is a lie without any kernel of truth. Observant Jews do not eat blood of any kind, ever. All Jews categorically reject human sacrifice. And despite what Mr. Hamdan says, the Blood Libel is not in any of our books. It is only in the books fabricated by sick minds to poison the world against Jews.

I really hate this topic. I hate teaching it and writing about it, but tragic experience has taught us that these lies are extremely dangerous. May the day come, and speedily, when all such horrors are finally behind us.


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