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.


#BlogElul – Bless Your Heart!

August 28, 2014

heart“Bless your heart!”

The urban dictionary and my not-Southern friends tell me that these words are the way Southerners tell a person that he or she is a fool without actually saying so.

This grieves me.

I grew up using this phrase to express genuine sympathy. There may be parts of the Southeast US where people use it sarcastically, but I guess I’m from a different part of the South. Or maybe I’m such a fool that I didn’t realize it was sarcasm.

It springs to my lips when a friend tells me that they have cancer, or that their dog died. I know I can’t do or say anything that will fix things. All I can do is express my solidarity with their situation, and those are the words with which I learned to do it. The phrase springs directly from my own heart to theirs: “Bless your heart!”

In good times, a blessing is a celebration of the good. In bad times, it is a fervent wish for better times. In Jewish tradition, it is a pause in the flood of experience to stop, to pay attention, to be present.

I think the world would be a better place if we blessed each other more often.

So know that if I say to you, “Bless your heart!” I’m not being sarcastic. I’m just the kind of fool that loves blessings.


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?


Praying the Sh’ma

August 7, 2014

The Shema in a Siddur (Prayer Book)

The Shema in a Siddur (Prayer Book)

 

Sh’ma Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!

Listen, Israel! The Eternal* is our God, the Eternal is One!

This week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan, contains the Sh’ma, the Jewish statement of faith. The Sh’ma is the first prayer a Jewish child learns and often the last prayer on the lips of a dying Jew.

A teacher once gave me an exercise that I still find useful:

1. Find a quiet place to sit.

2. Say the first word of the Sh’ma: “Sh’ma.” Say it aloud, and listen to it.

3. Think about what that word means. Let your mind flow to other possibilities than the usual “Hear.” Or let your mind linger on the sound of the word. It’s up to you. (You can do this either in Hebrew or in English. Do what is comfortable for you.) Let your mind play with it until it is ready for something new.

4. Take a moment to be completely silent. Then take the next word, “Yisrael.” Say it aloud. Listen to it. Think about what all the various things the word means to you. Let your mind linger on it for a while.

When you are ready, proceed through the rest of the Sh’ma, one word at a time.

Sh’ma. Yisrael. Adonai. Eloheinu. Adonai. Echad.

Listen. Israel. Name of God. Our God. Name of God. One.

Now here’s my question: What does the Sh’ma mean to you? 

*The actual word in Hebrew is the Name of God, which Jews do not pronounce. You may fill in with “Adonai,” “HaShem,” “The Eternal,” “Lord” or whatever works for you. Or you may simply be silent.

 

 

 


There’s an App for Blessings!

July 20, 2014

blessingsA reader asked about blessings: how can one learn them, learn which is for which, and so on?

The easiest way to learn that I know is an “app” from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (yes, I’m a member.) It’s called “Daily Blessings.” It includes the traditional blessings, plus some innovative ones that the Reform rabbis found useful.

It sorts them by menus, so that you can use the app to figure out which blessing is appropriate. It gives you the Hebrew, the English, and a transliteration of the Hebrew, so that you can say the blessing in either language. If you want to hear the Hebrew, you can play the blessing, voiced by an Israeli rabbi. It’s available through both GooglePlay (Android), iTunes, and NookApps.

At $1.99, it’s a deal.

Go and learn!

 


A Blessing for Tomatoes

July 11, 2014
From my garden

In my garden

Observant Jews make a blessing before we eat, not just before meals, but before we eat a bite of anything. It is a way of acknowledging that the world is not ours, that we did not create the food, and that we notice the blessings around us.

My garden is a little late this year, but I finally have tomatoes reddening on the vine. Before I eat one, I’ll say the blessing for food that grows from the earth:

 

Ba-ruch A-ta, Adonai El-o-hei-nu, Me-lech ha-olam, bo-rey pe-ri ha-adamah.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the earth.

 

If you are eating the tomatoes with a full meal, then you can skip the tomato blessing and “cover” the entire meal with the blessing for bread (assuming you have bread at the meal):

Ba-ruch A-ta, Adonai El-o-hei-nu, Me-lech ha-olam, ha-motzi le-chem min ha-aretz.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the land.

 

I’ll cover more food blessings in future posts. For now, if it grows in the ground, “borey peri ha-adamah.”

And if it is bread, “ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.”

And yes, if the Hebrew is daunting, prayers in English absolutely do count!

 


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