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.


Smooth Davener

June 22, 2014

I’m very, very tired after a wonderful weekend of wedding festivities. Still I had a thought today that I wanted to share on this blog.

We prayed all weekend, from Friday night services, to Saturday morning services, to Havdalah Saturday evening. We used the Reconstructionist prayer book for services. Three of the officiating rabbis were Reform rabbis and one was Conservative. I am not sure where the cantor went to school, but her voice was from heaven.

The out-of-town guests were of all backgrounds, and from all over the world: most were Jewish, but not all. Some were American secular, some Reform, some from Conservative and Orthodox homes. A few were clearly very traditional, walking to synagogue, and dressing for modesty, heads covered. The Israelis were all secular, but of course, Hebrew was no bar for them, but some of the prayers were in English, too.

Most of us hadn’t met except by hearing about each other from the couple. The lovely thing about having Shabbat together and davening our way through it was that the individuals who came together had, by the time of the chuppah, become a kahal. We had played Jewish Geography, played peekaboo with the cantor’s adorable baby, and shared our “how I met David & Yuval” stories. The Israelis tried out their English, the Americans tried out their Hebrew. But more than that, we and the regular congregation had prayed our way through Shabbat.

I doubt there was anyone in any of the services who found them 100% familiar, because the siddur (Prayer Book) was somewhat unfamiliar to the rabbis and the rabbis were completely unfamiliar to the congregation. We all do things differently. I knew the prayers, but some of the tunes were new to me, and everyone else was unfamiliar with some aspect of the services. But we stumbled together, we let the people who were leading carry us, and we became a congregation. By the time we got to the wedding itself, we were One.

I know that Jewish communal prayer is a challenge for some of my readers. And yes, there are things one has to learn, but the fantasy of being a “smooth davener” can actually get in the way of your real life prayer experience.  None of us so-called experts are all that expert except in our familiar minyanim, our home congregational praying-groups. Put us with a diverse new bunch of Jews and it gets messy fast. That’s OK, if we can resist the urge to squabble about the “right way” to do things and simply let it go and pray together.

The biggest barrier for me in that situation is my ego. If I need to look “expert” then I’m going to be uncomfortable. I learned all my Hebrew as an adult, and when some words are new, I stumble. I don’t know every tune that was ever invented, either. Back when I clung to the fantasy that someday I’d be a smooth davener, services could be miserable. I was unsure of the pages, unsure of the tunes, unsure of the words, and absolutely sure that I looked like a fool.

This weekend, there were moments when I was unsure of the page, unsure of the tune, stumbling over the words, and it was all OK. After twenty years of davening as a Jew and eight as a rabbi, I know that that’s going to happen with an unfamiliar siddur and a minyan that’s new to me.  When those moments came, I shut my eyes, relaxed my body, and felt the prayers around me lift me, like a fresh breeze under my wings. And it was all good.


How Will I Ever Feel At Home in Services?

November 12, 2013
Grand Lake Theater of Dreams

When I drive past the Grand Lake Theater, I am flooded with memories.(Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Last night I attended a memorial service in Fremont, CA. It’s just down the freeway from my home, but I have only been there a couple of times, and I was completely dependent on my GPS getting in and out. I passed lots of places that meant absolutely nothing to me.  Eventually I arrived at my destination, attended a beautiful service, and then did the whole thing again going home.

It’s different when I drive around Oakland. I lived in Oakland for almost 20 years, and now I live in the town next door. When I drive anywhere in Oakland, every street corner has a memory. I used to drive down Grand Ave, by the Lake, to take the kids to school. When I drive down Piedmont Ave, I am reminded of lunches with my old study partner. When I drive up Redwood Road, I remember the scary time I was trying to take the kids home and the road turned into a river of muddy water around us.  And so on.

Attending religious services is like driving in a town. If I attend a Unitarian service, I have no idea what’s going on. I’ve only been to one service and I was lost the whole time. I could tell that the people around me were “into” it, but I didn’t know what was going on, and there were no memories connected with any of it. It was like driving around Fremont, clinging to the GPS.

But in the familiar Jewish service, I meet memories at every corner: that prayer comforted me when my friend died, this prayer was taught me by a beloved teacher. One prayer annoys me, and another prayer always thrills me. I remember when new things were added (sort of like remembering what was on Lakeside Dr. before the Trader Joe’s went in) and I feel at home.

There is only one way to get that kind of homey familiarity with a town or with a service: you have to live there for a while. Maybe not 27 years (I lived in Jerusalem only for a year, and it is full of memories) but you have to show up, and get lost, and get found, and stumble around. That messy stage of finding one’s way is an integral part of the process.

So the next time you are in a service and you feel like, gee, when am I ever going to feel at home with this? – consider the possibility that maybe you need to go more often, or more regularly. It’s only by logging the miles that the place will really become home. The good news is that as that if you put in the time, it’s inevitable.  That mysterious service will be well and truly yours.


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