What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur?

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:

  1. You can listen for page number announcements.
  2. You can quietly ask a neighbor for help.
  3. You can close the book and let the language of the service wash over you.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

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

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.

ChairsBooksBethElSometimes books are stored in racks in the pews or under the chairs. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

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Can Science Illuminate Torah?

Image: Planet earth cradled in leaves. Art by geralt/pixabay.

With the coming of Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, Jews could go to university and study the sciences, and it is small surprise that some of what they learned there seemed to be in conflict with the stories in Torah. Over time, we came to understand that science offered one kind of understanding about the world: the answers to the questions “what?” and “how?” Religion offered a different kind of understanding, an exploration of meaning.

The Reform Movement altered the liturgy to eliminate some of the things that the early Reformers saw as superstition. One of the most striking changes in the siddur, the prayer book, was the elimination of a section of the Shema, a section from this week’s Torah portion:

13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

16 Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17 Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. – Deuteronomy 11:13-17

The thinking at the time was that the weather is predictable by scientific means. Therefore it did not seem true to say that God would to use the weather to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Thus this part of the Shema was dropped from the Reform prayer book.

History moves on, and over time we’ve learned more science.  Nowadays most scientists agree that human actions have affected the earth’s ecology in ways that threaten human survival. Lo and behold, many of the actions in question might be forbidden by the mitzvah of bal tashchit (ball tahsh-KHEET.)

Bal tashchit means “do not destroy” and it comes from Deuteronomy:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls. – Deuteronomy 20:19-20

Over the centuries the sages expanded the original prohibition against destroying fruit trees in wartime to include the tearing of garments and waste of any kind. This expansion is neatly summed up by the Alter Rebbe in the 18th century:

Just as one must be careful with his body so as not to destroy it or ruin it or harm it, so too one needs to be careful with his property so as not to destroy or ruin or harm it. Anyone who smashes utensils or tears clothing or breaks down a building or clogs a well or destroys food or drinks, or spoils them or throws out money – and likewise one who ruins any other thing which his fit for human beings to make use of – he transgresses against a Torah prohibition, as it is stated, “Do not destroy its trees” – Shulchan Aruch haRav, by Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe.

The behaviors that science tells us are at the root of climate change are behaviors forbidden by bal tashkeit: the waste of the environment, especially trees, the “lungs of the earth.” Carbon dioxide and other waste from industrial processes poison our air, our water, and our food chain. While politicians argue about who’s to blame and who should pay for change, the clock is ticking. The melting of the ice cap means that the atoll islands of the Pacific such as Kiribati and the Maldives face inundation and the relocation of entire populations. Business Insider published a group of videos asking the question, “What would Earth look like if all the ice melted?”

So while science and liberal Judaism agree that there is no “old man in the sky” doling out rewards and punishments for sin via the weather, Deuteronomy 11 has taken on new significance. A new reading of the passage might run something like:

“If you faithfully observe the commandments, you will prosper in a world in which weather is predictable and stable. But if you disobey the commandments and lay waste to the planet, don’t be surprised when the earth and its systems turn upon you. They will rain destruction on your cities. You will choke on unclean air, and you will suffer from hunger and thirst that cannot be satisfied.”

Whatever our theology, whether God is a Being who orchestrates all of this or a Unity underlying all Creation, it doesn’t really matter. If we do not learn the lessons of bal tashchit, we’re going to be very sorry indeed.

What is a Machzor?

Image: Calligraphy from the Worms Machzor, 13th century. Public domain.

The Machzor is the book of services and prayers for the Jewish High Holy Days, covering the services from Erev Rosh Hashanah [Rosh Hashanah evening] to the close of Yom Kippur. It is different from the Siddur [Prayer Book] used during regular weekday and Shabbat services in synagogue.

The word machzor is from a root meaning “return.” These are special services that return annually.

There are many different machzorim in print, and many others that have been compiled by congregations for their own use. In any machzor, there are certain things you can expect to find, although not necessarily all of them are in every machzor:

  1. THE BASIC SERVICE – The core prayers of the service will remain. To learn more about those, read What Goes on in a Jewish Service?
  2. PIYYUTIM – (pee-you-TEEM) – Special poetic prayers written just for the holy day. These include the Unetaneh Tokef, about which I have written more in The Hardest Prayer in the Book and Life is Unfair. Now What? Another famous prayer is Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King.]
  3. ROYALTY, MEMORY, & SHOFAR – This is a small service embedded in the Rosh HaShanah daytime service, including Biblical verses and poetry, and the blowing of the shofar.
  4. VIDUI – The vidui is a confession of sins.
  5. KOL NIDRE – This legal formula (no, it isn’t a prayer!) opens Yom Kippur service. It is so dominant in the minds of many Jews that many refer to the entire evening service with the shorthand “Kol Nidre.” For more about this text and its many meanings, read What Does Kol Nidre Mean? 
  6. AVODAH – “work” – A Yom Kippur service that recalls the purification of the sanctuary in Temple Times.
  7. MARTYROLOGY – Also known as Eleh Ezkarah “These I remember” it is a recitation of names and stories of Jewish martyrs.
  8. JONAH – On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Jonah, which is usually included in machzorim for that purpose.
  9. NEILAH – The closing service of Yom Kippur, which takes place as the sun is setting.

You don’t need to acquire a machzor; it is supplied by the congregation. However, one way to prepare for the High Holy Days is to read and study a machzor.

May you have an insightful and fruitful High Holy Day season!

Help: the Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

Image: A Reform prayer book. Photo by Linda Burnett.

A reader asked:

Please, PLEASE post about whether us disabled people who can follow along more easily via electronic devices than by hoisting heavy (for some of us) books is OK. Since reading your posts on this subject, I’ve been feeling like I have been a nasty, red carbuncle in the congregation when I’ve shown up to worship alongside my loved one who has an upcoming bat mitzvah, and I’ve actually held back from going at all. I don’t want to be a blot on my loved one’s special day when that day comes!

Congratulations on the upcoming bat mitzvah service!

There’s no problem with using a tablet or smartphone app on a weekday. It would be rude to check email or follow the stock market in services, but of course it is fine to use a prayer book app or a  Tanakh/Chumash app.

Shabbat is different. For a “Shomer shabbes” Jew, using such a thing in synagogue on Shabbat would be deeply offensive. Your options break down by movement:

Reform: There are several good apps available for a Chumash (Torah portions and readings from the prophets.) If anyone questions your use of the tablet, just explain that it’s due to a disability and that should be the end of it. (As for the siddur, I’ve been informed that there’s a problem with the app, but I’m going to research that and update asap.) There is also a small, lightweight “Traveler’s Edition” of Mishkan Tefilah available.

Some congregations project the pages of the siddur and other service materials on the front wall or a screen. If the synagogue offers that sort of arrangement, you’re in luck!

Conservative and Modern Orthodox: They are unlikely to be open to the use of electronics on Shabbat, but if you call ahead and speak with the rabbi, it may well be that they have alternative accommodations to offer. One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, reminded me that there are pocket-sized siddurim (prayer books) easily available, and perhaps getting your own lightweight copy is an answer. Certainly you can ask to use one at the synagogue, if you don’t own one.

Renewal and Reconstructionist: Call ahead and ask; the answer will differ from place to place.

When I made the original post (More Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests) I was thinking of the people who come to a bar mitzvah and pull out the phone out of habit and begin checking email. That’s very offensive, and would be so on any day of the week. Using a tablet to follow the service is in the same category with using an electric wheelchair, and is OK on a weekday anywhere, and on Shabbat in some synagogues but not others.

In synagogues where using a tablet or smartphone isn’t an option on Shabbat, and there’s no lightweight option available, I’d arrange to sit next to an able bodied person who is willing to share, to hold their book where you can see it. You will then have the added bonus of a knowledgeable page turner, which can be quite helpful. Since one cannot know who is able by looking at them,  I’d phone ahead (WELL ahead)  to the synagogue and ask if they might be able to find a volunteer.

Another option: if you are not familiar with the service, you may find the prayer book more frustration than help, anyway. Give yourself the option of simply sitting and listening. If someone presses a prayer book on you, just say, “No, thank you.” There are many ways to be in a Jewish service – for more about that, see New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners.

I hope that you are able to find arrangements that work for you, so that you can enjoy the occasion.

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

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?”

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.

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.

Beginner’s Guide to the Siddur

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

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.