Image: Service books are stored by the door in most synagogues. These books are at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.
If you attend services for the first time on a Saturday morning, odds are that an usher will hand you two big books, and maybe a service sheet of some sort to go with them. If you are like many of us at our first service, this will be both terribly exciting and totally intimidating. What’s with these huge books which appear to be filled with (oh dear) Hebrew?
One of the books is a siddur (si-DURE or SID-der.) It’s the book with the service in it, and you will need to listen for page numbers, because no matter which edition of which service book it is, it will not be intuitive. If you are attending an Orthodox synagogue, and the book has no English in it, go back to the usher and ask for one with translations. Most Conservative, Reform, and other synagogues will offer a siddur with translations. If there is no usher, ask for help – most synagogue bookshelves have all sorts of books and you will have trouble finding what you need without a guide.
Do not use the siddur to beat yourself up. The service is a bit mysterious if this is your first time. If you are on the right page, mazal tov! If you are not sure which is the right page, you have some choices as the service progresses:
- You can listen for page number announcements.
- You can quietly ask a neighbor for help.
- You can close the book and let the language of the service wash over you.
- You can read wherever you like in the book. No one will mind, although some kind soul may try to help you get to the right page.
You are free to say responses, or to be quiet. Either is perfectly fine on a first trip to synagogue.
The other big book is a chumash (khu-MAHSH or KHUM-mush.) It has the readings for the portion of the service with the Torah and Haftarah readings. You’ll know when you get to that part because they will get out the Torah scroll, march around with it (hakafah), and then announce pages. The chumash is a little easier to use. Begin on the announced page and read the translation as the person up front chants first the Torah portion and then the Haftarah (reading from the prophets.) It is actually against the rules for us to read from the Torah without a translation into the vernacular; the chumash is usually the way that we cover that requirement. Alternatively, there may be an oral translation.
How do you tell which is which? Look around you. Most people will set the chumash down until the Torah portion of the service. First they will use the siddur.
After the Torah service, everyone will go back to using the siddur for the final portions of the service.
Some other things to know:
- Do not put either book on the floor or sit on them. Jews treasure our holy books, and we treat them with great respect. If you are confused as what to do with the book, look at the people around you for clues.
- Siddurim vary from synagogue to synagogue. Don’t bother to bring your own; you want to use the one that they use in this particular synagogue.
- Chumashim are not just “Bibles.” They have specific readings, labeled week by week. Some of them also contain brief commentaries, either by a contemporary editor or by the medieval commentator Rashi.
- There are “apps” for both siddurim and chumashim, but in many synagogues you should not try to use them on Shabbat. Two reasons: first, electronics are not OK for Shabbat and second, someone will think you are bored and checking your email. (Yes, the rabbi can see you and does notice.) IF it is a Reform synagogue, IF it is the custom at that synagogue, you may see people using electronics but don’t assume until you see the regulars doing it.
- Most people will carry the siddurim and chumashim back to the rack by the entrance when the service has ended. If you see an elderly person or someone juggling small children, it is nice to offer to put their book away for them.
- I should not have to say this, but I will: do not write in these holy books. Do not tear a page out. Do not dog-ear pages. Do not do anything to them but handle them reverently and enjoy using them.
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.
Still have questions? I love questions. Please ask me questions in the comments, and I will enjoy writing articles in reply.
Sometimes books are stored in racks in the pews or under the chairs. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.