Jewish Liturgy

In the giving cedit where cedit is due department: much of the information in this page is derived from Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin's "To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service", an excellent Orthodox resource on the subject of Jewish prayer.

Observant Jews daven (pray) in formal worship services three times a day, every day: at evening (Ma'ariv), in the morning (Shacharit), and in the afternoon (Minchah). Daily prayers are collected in a book called a siddur, which derives from the Hebrew root meaning "order," because the siddur shows the order of prayers. It is the same root as the word seder, which refers to the Passover home service.

Central Prayers

Undoubtedly the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism is the Shema. This consists of Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21, and Num. 15:37-41. Note that the first paragraph commands us to speak of these matters "when you retire and when you arise." From ancient times, this commandment was fulfilled by reciting the Shema twice a day: morning and night.

The next major development in Jewish prayer occured during the Babylonian Exile, 6th century B.C.E. People were not able to sacrifice in the Temple at that time, so they used prayer as a substitute for sacrifice. "The offerings of our lips instead of bulls," as Hosea said. People got together to pray three times a day, corresponding to the three daily sacrifices. There was an additional prayer service on Shabbat and certain holidays, to correspond to the additional sacrifices of those days. Some suggest that this may already have been a common practice among the pious before the Exile.

After the Exile, these daily prayer services continued. In the 5th century B.C.E., the Men of the Great Assembly composed a basic prayer, covering just about everything you could want to pray about. This is the Shemoneh Esrei, which means "18" and refers to the 18 blessings originally contained within the prayer. It is also reffered to as the Amidah (standing, because we stand while we recite it), or Tefilah (prayer, as in The Prayer, because it is the essence of all Jewish prayer). This prayer is the cornerstone of every Jewish service.

The blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei can be broken down into 3 groups: three blessings praising G-d, thirteen making requests (forgiveness, edemption, health, prosperity, rain in its season, ingathering of exiles, etc.), and three expressing gratitude and taking leave. But wait! That's 19! And didn't I just say that this prayer is called 18?

One of the thirteen requests (the one against heretics) was added around the 2nd century C.E., in response to the growing threat of heresy (primarily Christianity), but at that time, the prayer was already commonly known as the Shemoneh Esrei, and the name stuck, even though there were now 19 blessings.

Another important part of certain prayer services is a reading from the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and the Prophets. The Torah has been divided into 54 sections, so that if each of these sections is read and studied for a week, we can cover the entire Torah in a year every year (our leap years are 54 weeks long; regular years are 50 or so, we double up shorter portions on a few weeks in regular years. At various times in our history, our oppressors did not permit us to have public readings of the Torah, so we read a roughly corresponding section from the Prophets (reffered to as a Haftarah). Today, we read both the Torah portion and the Haftarah portion. These are read on Mondays, Thursdays, Shabbat and some holidays. The Torah and haftarah readings are performed with great ceremony: the Torah is paraded around the room before it is brought to rest on the bimah (podium), and it is consideed an honor to have the opportunity to recite a blessing over the reading (this honor is called an aliyah). For more information, see Torah Readings.

That's the heart of the Jewish prayer service. There are a few other matters that should be mentioned, though. There is a long series of morning blessings at the beginning of the morning service. Some people recite these at home. They deal with a lot of concerns with getting up in the morning, and things we are obligated to do daily. There is a section called Pesukei d'Zimra (verses of song), which includes a lot of Psalms and hymns. I like to think of it as a warm-up, getting you in the mood for prayer in the morning.

There are also a few particularly significant prayers. The most important is the Kaddish, the only prayer in Aramaic to my knowledge, which praises G-d. Here's a small piece of it, in English:

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire family of Israel, swiftly and soon. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty...

There are several variations on it for different times in the service. One variation is set aside for mourners to recite, the congregation only providing the requied responses. Many people think of the Kaddish as a mourner's prayer, because the oldest son is obligated to recite it for a certain period after a parent's death, but in fact it is much broader than that. Someone once told me it separates each portion of the service, and a quick glance at any siddur (daily prayer book) shows that it is recited between each section, but I don't know if that is its purpose.

Another important prayer is Aleinu, which is recited at or near the end of every service. It also praises G-d. Here is a little of it in English, to give you an idea:

It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Molder of primeval creation, for He has not made us like the nations of the lands... Therefore, we put our hope in you, L-rd our G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor... On that day, the L-rd will be One and His Name will be One.

On certain holidays, we also recite Hallel, which consists of Psalms 113-118.

Many holidays have special additions to the liturgy. See Yom Kippur Liturgy for additions related to that holiday.

Outline of Services

There are a few other things, but that's a pretty good idea of what's involved. Here is an outline of the order of the daily services:

  1. Evening Service (Ma'ariv)
    1. Shema and it's blessings and related passages
    2. Shemoneh Esrei
    3. Aleinu
  2. Morning Service (Shacharit)
    1. Morning Blessings
    2. Pesukei d'Zimra
    3. Shema and it's blessings and related passages
    4. Shemoneh Esrei
    5. Hallel, if appropriate
    6. Torah reading (Mondays, Thursdays, Shabbat and holidays)
    7. Aleinu, Ashrei (Psalm 145), and other closing prayers, Psalms and hymns (not on Shabbat and holidays; recited at the end of Musaf instead on those days)
  3. Additional Service (Musaf) (Shabbat and holidays only; recited immediately after Shacharit)
    1. Shemoneh Esrei
    2. Aleinu and other closing prayers, Psalms and hymns
  4. Afternoon Service (Minchah)
    1. Ashrei (Psalm 145)
    2. Shemoneh Esrei
    3. Aleinu

This is based on the Ashkenazic service, but the Sephardic service has a very similar structure. They use different music, and have a few variations in choice of psalms, hymns, and prayers. See Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews for more information.

Variations from Movement to Movement

The above is from the Orthodox prayer book. The Reform service, although much shorter, follows the same basic structure and contains shorter versions of the same prayers with a few significant changes in content (for example, in one blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei, instead of praising G-d who "gives life to the dead," they praise G-d who "gives life to all" because they don't believe in resurrection). The Conservative version is very similar to the Orthodox version, and contains only minor variations in the content of the prayers (similar to the Reform example). See Movements of Judaism for more on the theological distinction between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

There are a few significant differences in the way that services are conducted in different movements:

  1. In Orthodox, women and men are seated separately; in Reform and Conservative, all sit together. See The Role of Women in the Synagogue.
  2. In Orthodox and usually Conservative, everything is in Hebrew. In Reform, most is done in English, though they are increasingly using Hebrew.
  3. In Orthodox, the person leading the service has his back to the congregation, and prays facing the same direction as the congregation; in Conservative and Reform, the person leading the service faces the congregation.
  4. Conservative and Reform are rather rigidly structued: everybody shows up at the same time, leaves at the same time, and does the same thing at the same time; Orthodox is somewhat more free-form: people show up when they show up, catch up to everybody else at their own pace, often do things differently than everybody else. This is terrifying if you don't know what you're doing, but once you've got a handle on the service, I find it much more comfortable and inspirational than trying to stay in unison.

Navigating the Siddur

If you've never been to a Jewish religious service, following along can be quite a challenge! Even if you are experienced, it's possible to get lost at times. In fact, a friend of mine tells me she once heard a song called "The I-Don't-Know-What-Page-We're-On-In-The-Siddur Blues"! Here are a few hints to help you stay with the group.

The biggest trick is being aware of the structure of the siddur itself. The siddurs most commonly used in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues include within a single volume all of the prayers for all four prayer services (Shacharit, Musaf, Minchah and Ma'ariv). Make sure you know which service you are attending. Normally, services are held at two times of the day: morning (Shacharit and Musaf) and early evening (Minchah and Ma'ariv). The morning services are generally at the beginning of the siddur, while the afternoon and evening services are normally in the middle.

Most siddurs include weekdays, Shabbat and most festivals in a single volume. (Exception: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have such extensive additions that they have their own separate siddur called a machzor). To save space, the sections are not laid out exactly in the order they are recited, so you may need to skip around the book a bit for certain sections. Usually, the prayer leader will tell you when you are skipping around, but sometimes they will not. Watch for notes in the siddur that will tell you to skip to different sections depending on whether it is: 1) Shabbat; 2) a Festival (i.e., non-working day); 3) Chol Ha-Moed (intermediate days of festivals); 4) Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a Jewish month); or 5) a weekday. Most of the major skips will occur at the breaks in sections described above under Outline of Services above. For example, a Shabbat morning service on Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) in my siddur would begin with a generic Morning Blessings, then would skip 200 pages forward for a Shabbat/Festival P'sukei D'Zimra, Shema and Shemoneh Esrei., then forward 200 pages to pick up Hallel (which is recited on Rosh Chodesh), then back to where I came from for the Torah reading, followed by the Musaf Shemoneh Esrei and the closing blessings.

Another skip that is confusing for most newcomers is the Shemoneh Esrei (also called the Amidah). At the beginning of the Shemoneh Esrei, the congregants stand. They read through the entire prayer silently, skipping the Kedushah blessing and the Priestly Blessing. This is a very long prayer -- 10-20 pages in my siddur. The process may take as much as five minutes, and the end is not always clearly marked. Watch for Oseh Shalom (May He who makes peace in his heights make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say Amen). The Shemoneh Esrei ends with the paragraph after that one. The leader of the service then begins repeating the entire Shemoneh Esrei aloud, and you must flip back to the beginning to read along with it. (Note: the Shemoneh Esrei is not repeated at Ma'ariv).

What to Say and What to Do

Another source of confusion for newcomers is what to say and what to do. When do I say "Amen"? When do I stand or bow? Here are a few of the more common things to watch for. There are a lot of these, and not all of them are easy to spot the first time.

Saying "Amen"

As a general rule, you say "amen" whenever someone else says a blessing. It's sort of the Hebrew equivalent of saying "ditto": when you say "amen," it's as if you said the blessing yourself. Whenever you hear someone say "Barukh atah...", get ready to say "amen." The "amen" may be at the end of the current sentence, or at the end of the current paragraph.

Keep in mind that you only say "amen" when someone else says a blessing. After all, it would be silly to say "ditto" after something you yourself said!

There are a few other places where "amen" is said. If the leader says "v'imru amen" (let's say "amen"), you join in on the word "amen," so watch for the word "v'imru." This comes up several times in the Kaddish prayer. There is also an additional "amen" within Kaddish: right at the beginning, after "sh'mei rabbah."

Other Responses to Prayer

On many occasions, when a person says, "Barukh atah Adoshem," others who hear him interject "Barukh Hu u'Varukh Shemo." This is generally recited very quickly, and often sounds like "Barukh Shemo" (and some people say it that way). However, you do not do this all the time, and I'm not sure how to explain the pattern of when you do and when you don't.

There are several congregational responses in the Kaddish prayer. We noted above the many "Amens" within Kaddish. In addition, after the first "v'imru amen," the congregation recites, "y'hei sh'mei rabbah m'varakh, l'alam u'l'almei almaya" (May His great Name be be blessed forever and ever). Also, after "sh'mei d'kudeshah" in the next paragraph, the congregation joins the reader in saying "b'rikh hu" (Blessed is He). All of this is usually clearly marked in the siddur. I have provided a text of the Mourner's Kaddish, where you can see this all laid out.

Whenever someone says "Borkhu et Adoshem ha-m'vorakh" (Bless the L-rd, the Blessed One) the congretation responds "Barukh ha-m'vorakh l'olam va-ed" (Blessed is the L-rd, the Blessed One, forever and ever). There are two times when this happens: in the transition from P'sukei d'Zimra to the blessings over the Shema, and as each person blesses the Torah reading.

During the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei, when the leader recites the three-part priestly blessing (May the L-rd bless you and safeguard you... May the L-rd illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you... May the L-rd turn His countenance to you and establish peace for you...), the congregation replies kayn y'hee ratzon (so be it) after each of the three blessings.

Standing

You should stand at the following times:

  • When the Ark is open.
  • When the Torah is being carried around the room.
  • During the Shemoneh Esrei, from the beginning of the silent portion until after the Kedushah during the reader's repetition (Kedushah is the part that includes the "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh" (Holy, Holy, Holy) blessing).
  • During the Aleinu prayer, near the end of any service.

There are a few other prayers that require standing, but these are the most notable.

In addition, in Orthodox synagogues, it is customary for everyone to stand when Kaddish is recited, except for the Mourner's Kaddish, where only the mourners stand. The prayer is usually rather clearly marked as Kaddish, and begins "Yitgadal v'yitkadash Sh'mei Rabbah" (May his great name grow exhalted and sanctified). However, I have noticed in some non-Orthodox synagogues that the congregants do not stand during regular Kaddishes, or sometimes stand during Mourner's Kaddishes.

Bowing

Judaism has a special procedure for bowing during prayer: first you bend the knees, then you bend forward while straightening the knees, then you stand up. See the animation at right.

Bowing is done several times during the service:

  • During the Aleinu prayer, when we say "v'anakhnu korim u'mishtachavim u'modim" (which quite literally means, "so we bend knee and bow and give thanks").
  • Four times during the Shemoneh Esrei (at "Blessed art Thou, L-rd" in the beginning of the first blessing; at "Blessed art Thou, L-rd" at the end of the first blessing; at "We gratefully thank You" at the beginning of the Modim blessing and at "Blessed art Thou, L-rd" at the end of the Modim blessing). There is also a special bow during the Oseh Shalom blessing: at "He who makes peace in his heights," bow to the left; at "may he make peace," bow to the right; at "upon us and upon all Israel" bow forward.
  • After P'sukei d'Zimra but before the Shema's blessings, the leader recites the Borchu blessing, during which he bows. The congregation responds with "Barukh Adoshem hamevorakh l'olam va-ed" and bows.
  • During Torah readings, when a person recites a blessing over the Torah, this same Borchu and it's congregational response are recited, with the same bowing. Often, the bow here is less obvious: seated congregants just sort of lean forward out of their chairs.

Kissing the Torah

In any service where there is a Torah reading, there is ordinarily a Torah procession. A congregant holds the Torah while it is carried around the synagogue. As the Torah passes congregants, they touch the cover with their hand (or sometimes with a prayer book, or with their tallit) and then kiss their hand (or whatever they touched it with). In Orthodox synagogues, where the Torah procession often does not encompass the women's section, women generally reach out in the direction of the Torah, then kiss their hands.

After a Torah reading, the Torah is held up in the air with its words facing the congregation. It is traditional to reach out toward the Torah, usually with the pinky finger, while reciting the congregational response (v'zot ha-Torah...), then kiss the finger.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Of course, the best place to read about a Jewish service is in a siddur! The one I use is The Artscroll Siddur (Siddur Kol Yaakov), which is also available in Paperback. It is uncompromisingly Orthodox, but contains detailed commentary and instructions for those who are less familiar with the service.

In researching this page, I relied extensively on Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin's To Pray as a Jew, and I recommend the book highly. I have also heard good things about the Synagogue Survival Kit by Jordan Lee Wagner, although I have not had a chance to review it myself.

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