The Dance of Jewish Prayer

Are you intimidated or confused by the various motions Jews make during prayer?  People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door, some people fiddle with their prayer shawls.  There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too.  What on earth?

Prayer in Jewish tradition is a whole-body experience. It engages all the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and yes, even the kinesthetic sense. One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance.  Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.

First of all, don’t panic. As long as you are reasonably respectful, no one is going to humiliate you or toss you out on your ear. Many of these gestures are individual devotional practices, and only a few of them are “required.”

A few general principles:

1.  MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?

2.  EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY:  Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.

  • If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
  • If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
  • In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
  • Show respect to the Torah Scroll:  Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it.  Stand when the Ark is open.

3.  RESPECT THE BODY:  It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.

4.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK:  If you are curious about a gesture or practice, it is acceptable, after the service, to ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask anyone, or ask a service leader. It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn.  As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!

5.  ESCHEW OSTENTATION:  Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else. Also, don’t get so carried away with your gestures that you crash into others around you.

Is there any gesture or movement in services that you have found particularly meaningful or particularly troublesome? I look forward to your comments!

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

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.

Synagogue Hebrew 102

For the first in this series, take a look at Jewish Greetings 101.

Kiddush cup for marriage, Breslau
Kiddush cup for marriage, Breslau (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

First of all, there is no need to stress: no one is going to try to tell you that the building is on fire in Hebrew, unless you are in Israel. In an American synagogue, anything someone says to you in Hebrew is almost certainly (1) friendly and (2) not mission-critical. So take a deep breath, shake the tension from your shoulders, and try on a few new phrases of Synagogue Hebrew.

These are phrases you might hear in connection with a service:

CHOOmash – a book containing the Five Books of Moses.

sid-DOOR or SIDdur – prayer book

YARTZ-eit – the anniversary of a death (or on the first year, anniverary of a burial.)

KADdish or KADdish yaTOM – Mourner’s Kaddish, prayer said by those in mourning or on a Yartzeit.

KIDdush or KIDdish – the blessing made on Shabbat or holidays over wine, a kind of toast to the day. It may also refer to refreshments after the Saturday morning service.

Oneg or Oneg shaBAT – refreshments after the service, usually on Friday night.

YAsher KOach (with a gutteral ch, as in “Bach”) means, “Good job!” (Literally, “may you have strength”)  If someone says it to you, you can smile, you can say the traditional reply baRUKH ti-hi-YEH (to a man) or bruCHAH teh-HEE (to a woman.) Either way, the reply means “May you be blessed.”  You can also say that in English, or simply say toe-DAH (Thank you.)

yaSHAR koCHECH means “Good job” as said to a woman. However, in many places you will hear “Yashar koach” said to people of both genders.

BEEmah is the elevated area in the synagogue where the Torah is read, and where the service leader may stand. Depending on the architecture, it might be in the front of the room, or the middle of it.

HAGbah is the lifting up of the Torah scroll after reading. Someone may call for a SHTARker (Yiddish for strong person) to lift it, although that is a little undignified – they should have found him or her before the service began.

aleeYAH or aLEEyah means literally “to go up.” It has two main uses: (1) “An aliyah” is a Torah reading, or the honor of saying the blessings for a Torah reading. (2) “Make aliyah” means “move to Israel.”

Are there phrases you’ve heard and wondered about? You can look them up at the Jewish English Lexicon, or leave me a comment below.