Image: A Torah is lifted during the Shabbat service at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal (Canada). Photo by Geneviève Afriat via Wikimedia.
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?”
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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.
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.
For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:
Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.
Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.
What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.
What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.
Kissing the Torah: Idolatry? The procession with the Torah involves people kissing and touching the Torah scroll as it passes. If you are curious about that practice, this article explores it.
What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur? An article about the books we use in the service.