The Jewish Idea of Prayer
In the beginning, the Jews were a tribe, a band of nomads, probably shepherds. Had they remained merely shepherds, they would have eventually died out, one of many tiny "nations" to be found in the ancient Near East, forgotten by all but the archaeologists.
But the Jews became something more. They were the bearers of a radical new concept, ethical monotheism, and that concept became the basis for a new kind of religion, Judaism. The latter was a religion marked by a new relationship between people and Deity.
Some would say that it was the idea of ethical monotheism that allowed the Jewish people to survive long after more powerful empires had vanished. Perhaps.
Contemporary scholars suggest that -- at least at the start -- the Hebrews believed in their own god, acknowledging the existence of other people's gods, but they also believed that their god could beat up everyone else's gods. Scripture tends to confirm that view; in Exodus 12:12, Adonai tells Moses, "[A]gainst all the gods of Egypt I will exercise judgments."
Eventually that notion evolved into something quite different, indeed, different from any previous idea of a Supreme Being.
This much seems clear: the idea of a single, omnipotent, omniscient God is a Jewish invention, one that has changed the course of Western (and, therefore, world) history. Let's begin with that concept and the ways in which it marks the Jewish religion. The Jewish idea of the relationship between God and humanity is perhaps nowhere clearer than in Jewish prayer, so it is there that we turn.
In other early belief systems, the ones that we casually denote as "pagan," divine creatures predate the creation of the world and humanity; but these belief systems have creation myths that usually involve the creation of the gods themselves. The opening words of the Hebrew Bible -- Bereshit bara elohim.../In the beginning God created... -- offer a very different vision. God is a given, a Being who creates out of tohu v'bohu/the unformed and the void, chaos and nothingness, a Being who preexists Creation, who was, is, and always will be.
The traditional Jewish liturgy underlines that belief explicitly. Adon Olam, the poetic hymn that is part of the morning service and which observant Jews recite every night before sleep, opens with the words, Adon olam asher malakh beterem kol yitzer nivrah/Eternal Ruler who reigned before any creature had been created. A few lines later, God is described as ruling "after all is ended," an eternal verity.
At the heart of Jewish prayer is the idea that God listens to prayer, that prayer is part of a dialogue between man and Creator. This idea has its roots in the Hebrew Bible itself, implicit in the statement that man was created b'tzelem Elohim/in the image of God. Throughout the Bible, God engages in dialogue with the Forefathers and Foremothers, with the Prophets. The Forefathers and Foremothers of the Hebrew people beseech, praise, offer thanks to the Eternal. They even argue with God; Abraham negotiates over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, finally convincing God to spare the two cities if a mere ten righteous men can be found (Genesis 18).
The incredible variety of prayers in the Jewish liturgy suggests the multiplicitous nature of the relationship between God and humanity. In the course of a single service we may encounter God the Creator, the Redeemer, the Father, the Judge, Rock of Israel, Shield of Abraham, and many others. Each of these personifications of God implies a different relationship between the Deity and the person praying.
The Names of God
In his revision of Frazer's The Golden Bough, Theodor Gaster notes, "In primitive thought, the name of a person is not merely an appelation, but denotes what he is to the world outside of himself ? that is, his "outer" as distinguished from his inner being. Thus, the ?name of God' in the Bible is His outward manifestation in the world...." Not surprisingly, given the plethora of divine attributes, God has many Names in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish liturgy, and those Names are multiplied by the inexactitude of the translator's art.
The Holy One tells Moses, "I revealed Myself to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but My Name Adonai I did not make known to them (Exodus 6:3)." In the Bible and the Talmud, God has many more Names: El/The Strong One, El Shaddai/God Almighty, El Olom/God Everlasting, El Khai/The Living God, El Elyon/God Most High, Elohim/God, Adon/Lord, Adonai/Lord, Adonay Tzivaot/Lord of Hosts, Abir/The Strong, Kedosh Yisroel/Holy One of Israel, Melekh/The Ruler, Tzur Yisroel/Rock of Israel.
For non-Jews, the most familiar Name derived from the Hebrew Bible is probably Jehovah, a mistransliteration of the four-letter Name, Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay, the Tetragrammaton or, in Hebrew, the Shem Hameforash. This Name is actually never vocalized in Hebrew ? it is too sacred, too powerful. Reading the four-letter Name aloud, a Jew will say "Adonai." (As we will see in Chapter 7, the Jewish mystics believed that the Tetragrammaton had unusual significance attached to it.) The Tetragrammaton is frequently shortened to Yah (Yud-Hey), Yahu or Yeho (Yod-Heh-Vav), especially when used in combination within names or phrases, as in Yehoshua (Joshua, meaning "the Lord is my Salvation"), Eliyahu (Elijah, meaning "my God is the Lord"), and Halleluyah ("praise the Lord"). A traditionally observant Jew will not vocalize God's other Names outside the context of prayer. Thus, in an Orthodox prayer book or songbook, one will find Elokeinu for Eloheinu/Our God, Adoshem for Adonai or, most commonly, Hashem/The Name.
Progressive Jews have brought their own set of concerns and strictures to the naming of the Supreme Being. God has no gender in conventional human terms, but gendered God-talk has historically implied a valorization of God's masculine attributes. Reform, Reconstructionist, and some Conservative siddurim will avoid using gendered names for God, discarding Lord or King in favor of Adonai or Ruler.
Many traditionally observant Jews will not write the vernacular equivalent of the sacred names, preferring G-d or L-rd (although other no less traditional Jews deride this practice because these words are English and therefore not true names of God). This practiC.E., however, has different roots from the ban on uttering the Shem Hameforash, the proscribed sacred Name. Contrary to popular belief, this practice does not come from the commandment not to take God's Name in vain. In Jewish thought, that commandment refers solely to oath-taking, and is a prohibition against swearing by God's Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally translated as "in vain" literally means "for falsehood"). Incidentally, this is why observant Jews serving on juries or testifying in court will affirm rather than swear.
Judaism does not prohibit writing the Name of God per se. But it does prohibit erasing or defacing a Name of God. Consequently, observant Jews avoid writing any Name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be defaced, obliterated, or destroyed accidentally or by one who does not know better. The commandment not to erase or deface the name of God is derived from Deuteronomy 12:3-4. In verse 3, the people are commanded that when they take over the promised land, they should destroy all things related to the idolatrous religions of that region, and should utterly destroy the names of the local deities. Immediately afterwards in verse 4, we are commanded not to do the same to our God. From this, the rabbis inferred that we are commanded not to destroy any holy thing, and not to erase or deface a Name of God. This prohibition applies only to Names that are written in some permanent form. Recent rabbinical decisions have held that typing on a computer is not a permanent form, thus it is not a violation to type God's Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God's Name in them. However, once you print the document out, it becomes "permanent."
In adddition, the prayers found in the siddur (prayerbook, derived from the Hebrew word seder, meaning "order") fall into several different genres, enriching the dialogue between God and each Jew. Prayers of blessing, supplication, thanksgiving and praise all may appear in the benedictions. In Hebrew liturgy, such a prayer, known as a b'rakhah/blessing or in plural form as b'rakhot, ends with the formula Barukh atah Adonai/Blessed are You, Adonai...begins with the same formula followed by words praising God appropriate to the occasion or need. For example, in the Amidah, the standing prayer that is at the center of the liturgy, we pray, Barukh atah Adonai mekhayei hakol/Blessed are You Lord, who gives life to all. This is the shortest version of the b'rakhah formula, a khatimah/seal (pl. khatimot) that closes off a section of prayer.
In b'rakhot that stand on their own, we add the words Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam/our God, Ruler of the Universe to the opening formula. For example, the following blessing occurs in the morning service:
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, she-asani b'tsalmo.
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made me in your image.
In b'rakhot said before fulfilling a specific mitzvah/obligation (see Chapter 4), the formula is expanded further. For example, the blessing for the lighting of Sabbath candles reads:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us by Your commandments and commands us to kindle the lights of the Sabbath.
In virtually all b'rakhot, there are two interesting paradoxes that reflect key elements in the relationship between God and Jew. First, there is a shift between the opening of the shorter form of the b'rakhah, which expresses an intimate personal relationship between God and the one who prays ("Blessed are You, Adonai, our God") and the second part, which bespeaks a cosmic relationship ("Ruler of the Universe").
Second, between the opening ("Blessed are You...") and the second part of the b'rakhah, the prayer shifts from the second person to the third person ("who sanctifies us...and commands us"). This change is not always apparent in the English translation of the blessings because many translators choose to smooth over this apparent "mistake" in grammar, but it is present in virtually all b'rakhot. Much has been written about this second shift, this peculiar change in person. Most commentators believe that, like the first change in tone in the formula, it reflects God's dual relationship between intimacy and distanC.E., affection and awe, moving from direct address, "You," to indirect address (implicitly, "the One who commands us").
Judaism has always placed great value on an individual's relationship with and reaction to God. The second-century sage Rabbi Yose says that when the Israelites were given the Law at Sinai, each of them heard a different voice of God, a splendid metaphor for the unique response of each Jew to the traditions of Judaism. Prayer, too, is an individual experience and, as we will see shortly, the state of mind that an individual brings to worship is of enormous importance in Jewish practice.
The relationship between God and man is not only a solitary relationship. Virtually all the b'rakhot are written in the first-person plural: "the one who commands us." Although it is possible for a Jew to pray alone, Judaism insists on the communal nature of worship, on prayer as an act most fittingly performed in a community. Certain key prayers may only be recited in the presence of a minyan/quorum of ten adult Jews. As Dr. Eugene Borowitz, a contemporary Reform theologian, writes:
Judaism does not think of man abstracted from his relation to mankind. It does appreciate the meaning of the individual in isolation, but holds him, the single one, in unremitting importanC.E., against a background of society and history. For the Jew, man is a social and historical creature. Hence his prayer should properly be a communal, comradely affair. Public worship is a universal human need and, also, a specifically Jewish requirement.
-- "The Individual and the Community in Jewish Prayer," Gates of Understanding (New York, 1977)
Praying in a community serves many functions. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a contemporary expert in liturgy, has said that communal worship represents mankind's attempt to impose meaning on a chaotic, arbitrary, and indecipherable universe. Certainly there is great comfort in being surrounded by like-minded worshippers during times of crisis.
Jewish prayer rituals are designed to reinforce that sense of community. Even if a Jew is unable to pray in Hebrew, she can still say "Amen" after hearing a b'rakhah. Rabbi Judah writes in a second-century midrash, a homiletic commentary, "He who answers Amen in this world is privileged to answer Amen in the World to Come." To answer "Amen" is to participate in prayer as part of klal Yisrael/the community of Israel.
For the individual Jew, communal worship provides the additional satisfaction of being tied into a historical continuity that began with a covenant between God and Abraham, and continues with the worldwide community of Jews. Sociologist William Helmreich, recalling his Orthodox upbringing in Brooklyn, writes:
Although I might be nothing more than a speck on the map of Jewish history, the shape and location of that map were clear in my mind. I belonged ? and every ceremony we performed, every prayer I said, strengthened that image. When I went to a friend's house for Shabbos [the Sabbath] and heard the same melodies, uttered the same benedictions and even ate the same foods, I felt a bond that tied me inseparably to my people.
-- Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator (New York, 1976)
There are more connections made when a Jew prays than even he may realize. Any time a Jew prays, he stands in a spiritual river made up of three tributaries of time.
First, an individual Jew brings a personal history to prayer. Does a certain musical setting of Adon Olam have a special meaning for her? Is he saying the Mourner's Kaddish for a recently deceased parent? How does she conceive the Creator?
Second, assuming one is praying in a synagogue, that synagogue has its own minhag, its own customary ways of doing things. For example, in an Ashkenazi congregation, it is customary for the entire congregation to stand when the Mourners' Kaddish is recited; in a Sephardic congregation, only the mourners will stand.
Or, to give another example that is closer to home for me, in all but Reform congregations, the hakafah, the procession around the congregation with the Torah scrolls that precedes the reading of the Torah, is standard practice. But in the Reform movement, custom varies. The first time I prayed at my current synagogue, I was utterly baffled by a Torah service that included a hakafah. What was I supposed to do when the Torah was carried past me? (You either kiss the Torah, or touch your prayerbook to it and kiss the prayerbook.) Seven years later, I can't imagine a Torah service without such a procession. Yet, when I visit another Reform synagogue, that may be precisely what I encounter. It all depends on the minhag of that congregation.
Finally, and most important, a Jew prays within an uninterrupted four-thousand-year history of Judaism, of a four-millennium-long covenant between God and the Jews, a history that includes some two thousand years of organized and ordered liturgy.
One unique feature of Jewish worship underlines the importance of that history: study of sacred texts is considered an integral part of the worship. The weekday morning service for example, includes several passages from the Talmud -- not a liturgical text at all, but a compilation of biblical commentary, legal rulings, folktales, and much more -- and from the Torah. There is a b'rakhah specifically for Torah study. (For that matter, the Sh'ma, the second most important prayer in the liturgy, comes from Deuteronomy and is considered recitation of a biblical text rather than prayer. See sidebar "The Sh'ma," p. 33.) The continual poring over familiar texts like Torah -- read in its entirety in annual cycles -- is meant to lead not only to knowledge, but also to respect and awe for God. One could picture Jewish worship as an ongoing search for spiritual enlightenment, with textual study as one of the key components of that search. The Jews have rightly been called "the People of the Book," for they are intoxicated by words, by text, by study.
The complex web of relationships between the individual Jew, the worship community, and the Jewish people, between past and present, is an essential part of the Jewish experience of communal prayer.
What is striking about Jewish communal prayer is not merely that it presumes an active dialogue between God and the individual. Christianity asserts similar relationships in individual prayer. What sets Judaism (and Islam) apart is that it believes in direct discourse with God without benefit of the intervention of clergy, even in a communal prayer setting. Because Judaism is not a religion based on sacraments like communion, which can only be administered by a priesthood, a Jew doesn't need a rabbi to speak to God, even in a formal religious service. Any ten adult Jews (in traditionally observant practiC.E., adult male Jews) can form a minyan, a quorum for prayer, and hold a service in a reasonably appropriate place. In fact, one doesn't even need a minyan to hold a service (although there are certain prayers that are communal in nature and are, therefore, omitted from a service at which fewer than ten are present).
Any Jew over the age of thirteen can lead a service can read from the Torah, can give a sermon. In a women's tefilah/prayer group, any girl over twelve can perform these tasks. In Reform, Reconstructionist, and many Conservative congregations, women are counted in a minyan and can perform any of the functions allotted in a worship service. The leader in a synagogue service is usually called the shaliakh tzibbur/messenger of the community; he (or she in many liberal congregations) functions as reader or cantor, leading worship by repeating aloud certain passages of the liturgy, leading hymns, and so on. The Shulkhan Arukh, the medieval digest of Jewish laws that is still the guide for Orthodox Jews, lists six qualities required of a shaliakh tzibbur: humility, acceptability to the congregation, knowledge of the rules of prayer and proper pronunciation of Hebrew, an agreeable voice, proper dress, and a beard. The last qualification is waived except for the High Holy Days.
Judaism wasn't always so democratic. When Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem, only the priests could perform certain rituals, receiving sacrifices and making them. When that Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and the Jewish people were sent into exile in Babylonia, their leaders had to devise new ways of worshipping God. The Temple was rebuilt after their return to Palestine, but with the second and final destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., it was no longer possible to bring sacrifices and offerings to God as prescribed in Jewish law. With no Temple, there was no place to perform those specific rites. Rituals freed of sacrifices and offerings no longer require a priestly caste. A worship centered on liturgy, on words, rather than on sacraments (as is the case in, say, Christianity), could be led by laymen. (There is one holdover from the days of the Temple in Jerusalem: the schedule of daily services used today -- shakharit/the morning service minkhah/the afternoon service ma'ariv/the evening service -- roughly corresponds to the schedule of sacrifices.)
Thus, the second great innovation of Judaism was, as one Christian theologian put it, the creation of a form of worship that did not involve spilling blood.
The Role of the Rabbi
For the vast majority of modern practicing Jews ever since (with the notable exception of certain Hasidic communities; see Chapter 7), Judaism is still resolutely nonhierarchical in worship. The distinction between lay leadership and the rabbinate is much narrower in practice and theory than in most Christian denominations.
About the only thing a rabbi can do in front of a congregation that can't be done by an ordinary Jew is sign a marriage license, and that power is not granted by a Jewish body but by the state. A layperson can conduct a a funeral or a kiddushin/sanctification ceremony for a wedding. (However, even the most progressive congregations will not permit a layperson to be responsible for performing a wedding; there are too many legal questions, issues like witnesses, the rings, etc., to take the risk.)
That being the case, what exactly does a rabbi do in terms of worship? To some extent, the answer to that question depends on the branch of Judaism to which the congregation belongs, the minhag of the congregation, and even its financial situation.
For example, in a prosperous Conservative synagogue, the congregants may expect services to be led by a polished, highly trained cantor, who will daven (Yiddish "pray") the entire service except when there's a bar mitzvah and the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl will lead portions of the service. The rabbi may do little more during services than announce page numbers and deliver a sermon (although the latter is no small thing!). A less well-to-do congregation may hire a rabbi who can daven well.
In general, in a Reform synagogue the rabbi leads services. For reasons growing out of the evolution of the Reform movement, which had its roots in nineteenth-century Germany and which in its first century tried to emulate the style of neighboring Protestant churches, members of Reform congregations were until recently less likely to learn to lead services, deferring to the rabbinate and cantorate. The result was a Reform lay population that until the past twenty or so years was less educated in liturgy and worship. In recent years, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization of Reform synagogues in the United States, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the organization representing the Reform rabbinate, have moved to remedy that problem. In smaller congregations that lack a full-time rabbi, congregants are now leading services, trained by a rabbinic aide program.
But even with a more educated lay membership, Reform and Conservative rabbis are still an indispensable part of worship. They are still the most informed in matters of the laws of traditional liturgy, the most educated about what's going on in the Jewish world liturgically, the first to hear when a movement publishes a new prayerbook. And even in an Orthodox synagogue, a congregation in which the average layperson is well qualified to daven on his own, it still falls to the rabbi to decide thorny questions of practice.
"The rabbi is necessary as a teacher and as someone to rule on Jewish law, including liturgical questions, but is not needed to lead services," one prominent Reform rabbi told me. "You need someone in the room to make sure that what is done is being done right. There are so many minute details of Jewish law that there has to be someone there who is really learned."
In addition, there are issues of the aesthetics and cultural principles that have to be taken into account in planning worship. "The clergy are still the most educated in planning worship," the rabbi concluded. "Who knows the most about what you have to do to make worship ?work'?"
Regardless of what a rabbi knows or does during worship, he or she cannot intercede with God for the congregation. Ultimately every Jew is responsible for his own conversation with God. And what happens in that dialogue is a matter of great concern in Judaism.
Imagine yourself in conversation with someone you cannot see, someone you have never seen, yet who is omnipresent and omnipotent. Needless to say, left to your own devices, you would probably be rendered speechless, or reduced to a handful of mumbled, stammered commonplaces. The rabbis who began the process of setting the liturgy recognized this problem some two thousand years ago, and the establishment of a fixed order of prayers is the way in which they addressed it.
A Jew needn't invent his own prayers to God (although there is space within the liturgy to do so at points in the Amidah). She needn't feel that God's response to her worship will be based on how eloquent or poetic her words are. The words are the same at each of the day's services, the same on each Sabbath, on each festival. An observant Jew who prays every day, three times a day, will undoubtedly have memorized large portions of the liturgy. A knowledgeable Jew can walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world and know where she is in the service. But even an occasional synagogue-goer can pick up a siddur/prayerbook and follow the service in Hebrew or in translation.
The great medieval Jewish philosopher and legal scholar Maimonides said that the Torah requires that one pray only once a day. He defined prayer to include, at the least, praise, supplication, and thanks, in that order. Prior to the time of Ezra (fifth century B.C.E.), that is probably what people did. With the Exile after the destruction of the Temple, Hebrew ceased to be the only language spoken by the Jews; as its use became more unnatural for Jews in the Diaspora, it became necessary to establish fixed prayers.
But the rabbis understood that a fixed liturgy was only a starting point. A Jew who relies on a rote knowledge of the siddur to speed through his devotions, who prays without feeling -- by rote -- is not really praying. "Rabbi Eliezer says, ?When someone makes their prayer kevah/fixed, their prayer is not prayer' " (Mishnah Berakhot 4:4).
The rabbis of the first century C.E., the great sages of the era in which the liturgy began evolving towards its current form, called prayer "service of the heart," and they understood that the heart must be involved in prayer for prayer to reach to the gates of Heaven. "Prayer," they said, "needs kavanah."
What is kavanah? Literally translated it means "intention" or "direction." In practice it refers to the focus and directedness with which one should pray. Referring to the two most important prayers in the Jewish liturgy, Maimonides writes, "The first thing you must do is turn your thoughts away from everything else when you recite the Shema or Amidah.... When you are engaged in the performance of religious duties, have your mind concentrated entirely on what you are doing." (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.51). It is written that the pious Jews of old would wait for an hour before reciting the Amidah, hoping to develop the appropriate state of mind to speak with God. After all, as Rabbi Eliezer also said in the first century c.e., "When you pray, know before Whom you stand!" Maimonides would add that at the same time one should focus on the content of the words.
Kavanah is undoubtedly responsible for one of the most oft-remarked aspects of Jewish prayer, the swaying to and fro during prayer that one often sees in a synagogue, particularly in an Orthodox congregation. Called shucklin, a Yiddish word, this bowing or swaying often grows out of the intensity of feeling experienced by the one praying. The Zohar, a key work of Jewish mysticism, says that when a Jew "says one word of Torah, a lamp is kindled and he cannot keep still, but sways to and fro like the flame of a wick." Others attribute this movement to the words of Psalm 35, which says, "All my limbs shall declare, Adonai, who is like You?" It should be noted that swaying during prayer isn't obligatory; in fact there are rabbinical authorities who oppose it, but the general consensus is that if it is an aid to kavanah it is acceptable, if not, then not.
Kavanah is also responsible for another aspect of Orthodox worship that many non-Orthodox Jews find disconcerting: everyone prays at his/her own paC.E., with little of the service repeated in unison. William Helmreich recalls an experience from his childhood in an Orthodox congregation: "To have said each prayer in unison would have inhibited the freedom of expression that enabled us to pray with fervor. Besides, certain words meant more to different people, and at different times, depending on their mood" (Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator [New York, 1976]).
Many of the enchanting tales of the Hasidic rabbis of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries illustrate the supreme importance of kavanah in worship. One of the best-known concerns the little boy who came with his father to the Yom Kippur service conducted by the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism and one of the great figures of eighteenth-century Judaism. The boy had with him a small flute. As the service drew to its dramatic close and shofar was blown to signal the end of this holiest of days, the little boy pulled out the flute and in his excitement he sounded a note of his own, a shrill piercing sound that brought everything to a halt. His father was mortified and infuriated, but the Baal Shem Tov calmed him, saying, "Until that moment there was some doubt if our prayers would ascend to heaven, but at the sound of that flute, the angels held open the gates and all the prayers entered."
The Blessings of Daily Life
Although communal prayer is one of the central tenets of Jewish religious practiC.E., it is no more important than home ritual. There is a wide range of ritual practices that are specifically earmarked for the home, rituals and prayers meant to be performed within the family circle. Home and family are paramount values in Judaism; perhaps that is to be expected from a people whose history has been one of almost constant exile. Along with community and God, family has been one of the mainstays that has enabled the Jewish people to survive, and a people that has been uprooted repeatedly knows the value of home.
Home worship practices range from the lighting of candles and reciting of kiddush (a prayer of sanctification over wine) to mark the Sabbath and the festivals, to the building and eating of meals in the sukkah, an open-ended decorated booth, during the holiday of Sukkot. We will discuss home worship in greater detail elsewhere, but its importance points to another significant aspect of Jewish prayer: its pervasiveness in the daily life of an observant Jew. When a Jew rises in the morning, he thanks God for preserving him through the night. Before a Jew goes to sleep, she prays to God to protect her slumber. A Jew says a b'rakhah before eating anything and grace after, a b'rakhah over washing his hands upon rising and another for washing hands before a meal, even a b'rakhah after using the toilet. There are blessings for different types of food, fragrances, and natural phenomena, for seeing great men sacred or secular. (See sidebar "An Assortment of Blessings" below.)
In short, there is almost no aspect of life for which an observant Jew does not thank and bless the Creator. As a midrash observes, almost every moment and action of a Jew's day is charged and regulated by some sort of commandment. In worship, the creation of sacred space and time are of paramount importance, but in Judaism even the everyday has a sacred aspect. The works of the Eternal are all around us, and traditional Jewish practice calls upon us to recognize their ubiquity and to respond appropriately.
An Assortment of Blessings
For the observant Jew, even the most ordinary aspects of life are invested with an aura of wonder, of sanctity. Judaism includes blessings for almost anything one can experience during the day (and the rabbis believed that a Jew should offer at least a hundred b'rakhot every day). Here is a selection of blessings for a wide range of occasions and phenomena.
Before eating bread:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam ha-motzi lekhem min ha'aretz/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth
Before eating products of wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam borei minei mizonot/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates many types of nourishment
Before drinking wine or grape juice:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam borei p'ree ha-gafen/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine
Before eating fruit grown on a tree:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam borei p'ree ha-eitz/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree
Before eating produce grown in the earth:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam borei p'ree ha-adamah/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the earth
Before eating or drinking any other foods:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam she-hakol ni-hiyeh b'dvaro/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, through Whose word everything came to be
Upon smelling fragrant shrubs, trees, or their flowers:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam borei atzei b'samim/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates fragrant trees
Upon seeing lightning:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam oseh ma'aseh b'reisheet/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes the work of Creation
Upon seeing the ocean:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam she'aseh et ha-yam ha-gadol/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who made the great sea
Upon seeing exceptionally beautiful people, trees, or fields:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam shekakhah lo ba-olamoh/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has such in His universe
Upon seeing exceptionally strange-looking people or animals:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam mishaneh hab'riyot/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes the creatures different
Upon hearing unusually good news that benefits not only oneself but others:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam ha-tov v'hametiv/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who is good and does good
Upon hearing unusually bad news:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam dayan ha-emet/Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, the true Judge
The Daily Services
There are at least three worship services each day, whether it is a weekday, Shabbat/Sabbath, or a festival day: shakharit/morning, minkhah/afternoon, and (On Shabbat and the Festivals, there is a fourth service usaf/additional, which immediately follows the morning service. On Yom Kippur, there is a fifth service ne'ilah, as we will see in Chapter 2.) The elements of each service regardless of time of day or day of the week or year, are fundamentally the same. By following a typical weekday in the life of a traditionally observant Jew, we can see how worship is structured and also understand how it has evolved in the other streams of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist.
Before the Morning Service
When a traditionally observant Jew rises in the morning, the first thing he says is:
Modeh ani l'fanekha, Melekh khai v'kayam, shekhezarta bi, nishmati b'khemlah -- rabah emunatekhah.
Thank you, O God, Living and Eternal Ruler, for having compassionately returned to within me my soul -- abundant is your faithfulness.
He then washes his hands in the prescribed ritual manner: with his right hand, he picks up a vessel of water, passes it to his left and pours water over the right. Then he switches hands and repeats the process. He does this three times for each hand, then recites:
Reisheet khokhmah yir'at Adonai, sekhel tov l'khol osekhem, tehilato omedet la'ad.
The beginning of wisdom is fear of God -- good understanding to all their practitioners; His praise endures forever.
Barukh sheim k'vod malkhuto l'olam va'ed.
Blessed be His Name forever.
This passage is taken from Psalm 111.
A traditionally observant male Jew will now put on a tallit katan, a four-cornered undershirt with a set of tzitzit/fringes at each of its corners, reciting the following blessing for the wearing of tzitzit (see sidebar "Tallit and Tzitzit" below):
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al mitzvat tzitzit.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us and commanded us concerning the tzitzit.
If one is saying the morning blessings at home, it is now time to put on the tallit/prayer shawl and, for Orthodox men and those other men and women who do so, to don the tefillin/phylacteries, reciting the appropriate blessings and Torah passages regarding the wearing of each ritual object, as prescribed in the siddur (See sidebar "Tefillin," p. 25.) If one begins the day with the morning service at synagogue, these rituals are performed there.
Tallit and Tzitzit
The final paragraph of the Sh'ma is a passage from Numbers 15:38 instructing the Israelites to wear fringes on any four-cornered garment as a reminder of Adonai's commandments. Male Orthodox Jews, even small boys, will wear an undershirt (tallit katan/small tallit) with four corners and fringes (tzitzit) from the moment he awakens until he undresses at night. Most Jewish men (and many Jewish women in Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and even some Modern Orthodox congregations) will wear a prayer shawl, a tallit gadol/large tallit, at morning services, musaf, all day on Yom Kippur (even into the evening), and for minkhah at Tisha b'Av, in recognition of this mitzvah. (The shaliakh tzibur will wear a tallit regardless of time or marital status.)
The tzitzit are tied in a specific way: four threads doubled over, making eight threads; one thread, longer than the others, wound around them and double-knotted, usually with the double knot followed by seven, eight, eleven and finally thirteen windings, leading to a total of five double knots, numbers that have a kabbalistic significance. The tzitzit must be inspected regularly to make sure they are still kosher/legal with no tears or the kind of wear that creates more than eight threads. If there is damage, they must be replaced.
Usually a tallit gadol will have an embroidered neckpiece to indicate where the collar is. The neckpiece is called the atarah/crown and is there, in part, to strengthen the fabric at the point at which it will bear the most strain. To put on a tallit, one holds it spread out in both hands with the neckpiece at the top, then recites the blessing:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu l'hitatef b'tzitzit.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit.
If you have borrowed another congregant's tallit for only a few minutes, it is not necessary to recite the blessing; however, if you are wearing a tallit that belongs to the synagogue and will have it on for an extended period of time -- say the length of the morning service -- you should recite the blessing. Many worshippers like to cover their heads with the tallit while reciting the blessing, fulfilling the commandment by "wrapping" themselves and taking a moment for quiet meditation on the significance of this commandment. The tallit should be draped over the shoulders, hanging down the front of the body so that the tzitzit lie at the four corners or directions around the person.
Like the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem who wore turbans to mark their awareness of the presence of the Almighty, a Jew who wears a tallit adds a sense of formality and solemnity to prayer. At the same time, wearing a tallit helps one to feel sanctified in the service of God. Putting the tallit over one's head during the Amidah allows a worshipper to experience both the public and private nature of Jewish prayer simultaneously.
In traditionally observant congregations, it is the minhag for many to press the fringes to the eyes and to kiss them three times during the recitation of the last section of the Sh'ma, when saying the word tzitzit. When the Torah comes past your seat during the hakafah, you may extend your tzitzit to touch it, then kiss them. When called to the Torah to read the blessings, it is customary in most congregations for you to touch the tzitzit to the place in the scroll where the reader will begin, and then to kiss them, and to repeat this gesture when the reader finishes.
"You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be a symbol before your eyes...." So we are told in the Sh'ma. For the rabbis of the Talmudic period, this was an injunction from God to wear tefillin, small wooden boxes containing parchment scrolls on which the words of four paragraphs from the Torah (Exodus 13:1-10, 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 13-21) are written. The boxes have wider bases and an opening through which leather straps are passed. The Hebrew letter shin is written on the boxes; the head strap is tied with a knot in the shape of the letter daled, the arm strap with a knot in the shape of the letter yud. These three letters spell Shaddai, one of the names of God. Tefillin can be purchased at most Judaica shops.
Tefillin are worn for the daily morning service in Orthodox and most Conservative synagogues. However, they are not worn on Shabbat or Festivals because keeping the Sabbath and the Festivals is already a sign of God's covenant, so a further reminder is deemed unnecessary. (They are also not worn on the first day of mourning or by a groom on his wedding day.)
The donning of tefillin is a somewhat complicated affair; it is recommended that the first couple of times you put them on, get the help of an experienced davener. After putting on your tallit, but while still standing, place the tefillin on the muscle of the left forearm so that it is facing your heart and recite the blessing, which concludes "v'tzivanu l'haniakh tefillin/commanded us to put on tefillin." Tighten the strap and wind it seven times counterclockwise around the forearm below the elbow. (This is the Ashkenazi custom; in Hasidic and Sephardic minhag, you face the knot on the arm away from you and wind clockwise.) Making sure that the black side of the strap is outside, now wind the remainder around the palm of the hand. Now take the head tefillin(also called the shel rosh) from the bag, unwind the straps, remove the case, and place it upon your head. Before you adjust the straps, recite the blessing (which concludes "v'tzivanu al mitzvat tefillin/commanded us regarding the mitzvah of tefillin") and the statement Barukh shem k'vod malkhuto l'olam va'ed/Blessed is the name of God's glorious sovereignty forever. Adjust the shel rosh so that it is above the forehead, lying above your hairline and centered between the eyes. The knot should be resting at the base of your skull, the straps over each shoulder down the front of your chest. Now unwrap the strap on your hand from your palm, wind it three times around your middle finger. The remainder of the strap is wrapped around the ring finger and then around the palm. While doing this, one recites a passage from Hosea, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justiC.E., in kindness and mercy; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know Adonai."
Removing the tefillin is simply a reversal of putting them on. Unwind the arm strap from your fingers, rewind it about the palm. Remove the shel rosh and wrap it up neatly, then unwrap the strap around your palm and forearm and slip it off. Wrap up the tefillin neatly and put both away in their bag. It is customary to kiss the tefillin when taking them out of the bag and putting them away.
Jewish men are not required to don tefillin until they have become bar mitzvah. Being allowed to do so at the age of thirteen constitutes a significant rite of passage. William Helmreich recalls, "More than anything else tefillin was the mitzvah that made me feel the significance of my newly acquired status. It was the most tangible evidence that I was now a man."
In the Middle Ages, there was a spirited dispute over the order in which the parchments were to be placed in the tefillin, with the great medieval sage Rashi and his grandson, Rabbenu Tam, in strong disagreement. As a result, some Hasidic Jews would wear two sets of tefillin, one of Rashi's and another of Rabbenu Tam's, in order to be certain of complying with the commandments.
The wearing of tefillin, say the sages, is one commandment that even God observes. Where Jews wear tefillin upon whose parchment is written the Sh'ma, however, Adonai wears tefillin containing the verse from I Chronicles, "And who is like unto Your people Israel, a nation one in the earth."
Shakharit/The Morning Service
The first prayer one utters upon entering a synagogue for a morning service whether it is a weekday, Sabbath, or festival, is Mah Tovu, a series of five verses taken from the Bible (Numbers 24:5; Psalms 5:8, 26:8, 95:6, and 69:14). The prayer takes its name from its first verse, Mah tovu ohalekha Ya'akov mishkenotekha Yisrael/How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel, and its subject is the feeling of joy and reverence with which one encounters the synagogue. This prayer is generally followed by the blessing for the study of Torah, as Torah study is an integral part of the morning service (and the blessing covers any other Torah study that one may undertake during the remainder of the day).
The Basic Structure of the Service
The daily morning service includes all the key elements of the liturgy, so it makes a good outline.
Birkat Hashakhar/Morning Blessings
P'sukei D'zimrah/Songs of Praise
The Sh'ma and Its Blessings
Call to Prayer (the Barkehu)
The Sh'ma (3 paragraphs)
Blessings of Praise
Blessings of Petition (omitted on Shabbat but replaced by a blessing for the Sabbath)
Blessings of Thanksgiving
Seder K'riat ha-Torah/Service for the Reading of the Torah (Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat)
Covering the Head
In ancient Near Eastern cultures it was considered a sign of respect to keep one's head covered. With its roots in that part of the world, Judaism adhered to that custom. In Mesopotamia, for example, men of high caste wore some sort of head covering in public at all times; in the period of First Temple until its destruction in 586 B.C.E., priests and other officials of the Temple wore turbans or mitres, probably in imitation of the local custom.
In the Talmud, there were a variety of opinions expressed but, finally, the day was carried by those who believed it impertinent to allow the Shekhinah, the female manifestation of God, to see their bare heads below Her.
The debate over men's head covering would continue for several more centuries, but in the Middle Ages the choice was gradually taken away from the Jews. In much of Europe, Christian authorities demanded that Jews wear special hats or hoods that, along with yellow badges that prefigure the Nazi-imposed star of the Holocaust period, identified them as non-Christian.
Since that time, customs regarding head covering have evolved to reflect the history of various Jewish communities. HenC.E., some Hasidic Jews of Eastern Europe (and their successors in the United States, Western Europe, and Israel) favored the fur-covered round hat called a shtreimel. Today, many American Orthodox Jewish men wear black fedoras. The Jews of Central Asia wore turbans, but now are most identified with the brightly colored cylindrical Bukharan skullcaps.
The most familiar manifestation of the custom of covering the head, however, is the flat, round skullcap known in Hebrew as a kippah (plural, kippot) or in Yiddish as a yarmulkah, the head covering of choice for the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews. Even here, the minhag has evolved in different directions: Orthodox men will wear a kippah throughout their waking hours; Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews may do the same, but are equally likely to wear it only in synagogue, at meals, or while studying sacred texts; some Reform synagogues actually went so far as to proscribe the wearing of headgear on their premises, but in recent years many Reform congregations have begun offering kippot to worshippers (both men and women), and students at Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical seminary, usually are seen wearing kippot.
Unlike the tefillin and tallit, the kippah has no intrinsic sanctity, perhaps because wearing it is not prescribed in Torah; consequently, there is no blessing for donning a skullcap (nor is there an extensive literature on the kippah comparable to the many books on other Jewish ritual objects). It should also be noted that some Jews, especially those raised in the Hasidic tradition, will cover their heads with the tallit during certain important prayers such as the Amidah.
Throughout the debate on men's head covering, all the sages were in agreement on one thing: married women must cover their hair. Even in Biblical times, it was considered a brazen violation of the rules of modesty for a married woman to allow anyone but her husband to see her hair. For the Orthodox, this regulation remains in place. Contemporary women's head coverings run the gamut from scarves and snoods to fashionable hats. Hasidic women will, even today, have their heads shaved just prior to the wedding ceremony and will wear a scarf to cover their heads. One other option available to Orthodox women is the sheitel (Yiddish), a wig. In all Orthodox, many Conservative, and even some Reform synagogues, women are asked to cover their heads during worship and "chapel caps," small, flat lace equivalents of the kippah, are provided for that purpose.
In our contemporary world, a world of men and women traveling through outer space., of fiber-optic cable thinner than a human hair, of DNA testing and the ubiquitous computer, we have perhaps become so jaded that we don't notice the miraculous nature of the everyday. But the morning service is designed to bring the seemingly ordinary to our attention forcefully. At this point in the shakharit service we begin the fifteen blessings called the nisim b'khol yom, a series of prayers that thank God for such simple miracles as the ability to distinguish day from night, the strength to rise from our beds, for clothing, freedom, the earth on which we walk, and am Yisrael/the people Israel.
Two of these fifteen blessings, however, have engendered considerable controversy both among Jews and non-Jews. In Orthodox prayerbooks, the second of the blessings reads:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam shelo asani goy.
Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, for not making me a Gentile.
For men the fourth blessing thanks God for not making them women; for women the text thanks God for "having made me according to His will." In the ArtScroll Siddur, one of the most comprehensive of Orthodox siddurim, the commentators explain that "The Torah assigns missions to respective groups of people....All such missions carry extra responsibilities and call for the performance of mitzvos associated with them. We thank God, therefore, for the challenge of improving His universe in accordance with His will." Men, consequently, thank God for not having made them women so that they are obligated to carry out all commandments that have a designated time for performanC.E., mitzvot from which women are excused by traditional Jewish law (on the assumption that their traditional household duties may make it difficult for them to perform them in a timely fashion).
However, the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements reject this argument; indeed, all three ordain women as rabbis and cantors and do extensive interfaith work with non-Jewish clergy and laypeople. Their prayerbooks have significantly altered these two b'rakhot. In the Conservative-endorsed Siddur Sim Shalom, for example, these blessings have been replaced by ones that thank God "for making me a Jew" and "for making me in God's image."
In Orthodox (and in some Conservative) synagogues, the next section of the morning service is a series of Talmudic and Biblical readings, including the story of the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah. This is followed by a lengthy series of readings on the sacrificial offerings that were made in the Temple in Jerusalem during the time it was standing. The great Torah sages of the Diaspora considered the study of these passages to serve as a substitute for the making of the offerings themselves, impossible since the destruction of the Temple.
In the Talmud we are advised, "A person should always praise God first and make his requests afterwards." Thus, the morning service proper begins with a selection of Bible verses and Psalm 30, which introduce the next section of the siddur, the P'sukei d'zimrah/Songs of Praise (which is known as the z'mirot/songs in Sephardic prayerbooks). These are drawn from the Psalms and from I Chronicles 16:8 - 36. Beginning with the blessing that precedes this series, Barukh She'amar/Blessed is He who spoke, it is forbidden to interrupt your prayer with conversation until the conclusion of the Amidah. (In an Orthodox congregation, with everyone praying at his own paC.E., you may find yourself still davening P'sukei d'zimrah while the reader has moved on to other prayers. If so, it is permissible to respond "amen" where appropriate, and to respond to the Barekhu and Kaddish as indicated in the prayer book.)
Opening the songs of praise with Barukh She'amar is an apt choice; this prayer is a call to praise directed primarily to the role of God as Creator and Initiator. The Yishtabakh blessing, which is the last of the P'sukei d'zimrah, concludes this section of the service by proclaiming that the Eternal One shall always be praised. Yishtabakh is introduced by another series of biblical verses and Exodus 16, the "Song at the Sea," and followed by a half-Kaddish, that is, a Kaddish from which the final three verses are omitted, which serves here as a punctuation device, dividing one section of the liturgy from the next. (See sidebar "Kaddish" below.)
Kaddish is a prayer that should be familiar to even nonobservant Jews. Because it is the prayer for mourners in one of its several forms, it is one prayer that almost everyone has heard at some point in their lives. More than that, it occurs several times in some version during the course of most worship services.
The prayer is a hymn of praise to Adonai, calling for the establishment of God's sovereignty. Written in Aramaic, it really exists in four variants: the Khatsi Kaddish/half-Kaddish; the whole Kaddish; Kaddish de-Rabanan/Kaddish for the Teachers; and the Mourner's Kaddish.
The half-Kaddish contains the first two verses of the prayer, and is used to separate sections of the service. The whole Kaddish is recited by the hazan/cantor immediately following the repetition of the Amidah. Kaddish for the Teachers adds an entire verse to the whole Kaddish, a prayer "for Israel, our teachers and their disciples, and for all who study Torah." It is recited at the end of study sessions and in Orthodox and many Conservative congregations after passages of the worship service that are drawn from the rabbinic literature.
The recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish allows the bereaved to lead the community in praising God. Everyone responds with the lines Y'hei sh'mei rabah m'vorakh le'olam va'ed/May God's The prayer was written in Aramaic because that was the common language of the Jewish world when it was composed, and it is imperative that any Jew be able to say it. Being able to restore one's faith in God after the experience of losing a loved one is an essential part of the grieving process for a person of faith; saying Kaddish is a moving part of that process. At the same time, it is a way of honoring the deceased by praising Adonai in their name.
When saying the whole Kaddish and the Mourner's Kaddish, it is customary on reciting the final lines (Oseh shalom bim'romav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol Yisrael/May the One who causes peace to reign in Heaven let peace descend on us and on all Israel) to take three steps backward before uttering the words, bowing first to the left on oseh shalom, then to the right on hu ya'aseh aleinu, and finally forward on aleinu v'al kol Yisrael. This choreography is designed to replicate the etiquette of taking leave of a sovereign.
Copyright © 2000 by George Robinson
A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals
A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals
A landmark reference, here is an indispensable one-volume guide to the religious traditions, everyday practices, philosophical beliefs, and historical foundations of Judaism -- everything you need to know about being Jewish. In Essential Judaism, George Robinson has created the accessible compendium that he sought when he rediscovered his Jewish roots as an adult. Robinson illuminates the Jewish life cycle at every stage, and lays out many fascinating aspects of Judaism -- the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, the evolution of Hasidism, and much more -- while keeping a firm focus on the different paths to living a good Jewish life in today's world.