The worship service is paradoxically both central to the Jewish experience as well as relatively peripheral. What that means is that Jews identify with prayer but rarely attend services (the same is true of Israel, many Jews identify but few visit), especially when compared with members of other religions (who not only pray, but do come to Israel). Hence the pundits have formulated this phenomenon as "non-practicing orthodoxy." Their motto was once "I want the synagogue I don't attend to be orthodox." This motto, however, has been challenged for a long time by serious non-participation at services offered by all denominations of Judaism and is being explicitly challenged today in Israel today by an influx of secular intellectuals to Reform and Masorti (Conservative Synagogues) who for political reasons no longer feel that the synagogue they do not attend must be orthodox (I'll try to use lower case when describing a general tendency and upper case when a specific movement is meant.).

The reasons for such a paradoxical approach to synagogue services is, I believe, prompted by the sense that the service constitutes a cultural artifact that should not be tampered with, similar to classical symphonic, operatic, or artistic works. Similarly, though everybody my not have a yearly subscription or membership, when they do get dressed and go to a concert, the opera, or a museum, they want certain advanced expectations of what will happen to be fulfilled. This attitude towards worship, I would like to suggest is neither hypocritical nor pious but cultural.

In short, theology is not necessarily the main event at Jewish worship. I don't want to rule theology out entirely, and in my years in working with Jewish youth was always amazed at how strongly many were attracted to ideas of God. My purpose here is to offer an alternative level of discourse.

What most studies of worship, except perhaps for Samuel Heilman's fascinating book Synagogue Life, fail to discuss is that there is a very serious non-theological dimension to worship services. This is experienced at three distinct levels, so distinct they do not intersect and may even be contradictory:

  1. The service is a text which integrates passages from Bible, Mishnah, Piyyut, and the middle ages.
  2. This text has a performative quality, what J. L. Austin calls speech acts. In other words, there is a purpose, both personal and collective, to simply enunciate the words in the proper manner without even being aware of the historical textual levels. This is also seen in all the gesturing and moving that is not marked in the prayerbooks or explained in most studies.
  3. Finally, there is a social dimension to the services, also usually totally missed. This involves aspects from dressing up, or not, having ones own seat and friends near by to talk with, to hanging out before, during, and after the service.


I will look at all of these aspects. As in past lectures, I will refer to the text in Leviant's Masterpieces, but since his version of the service is especially mangled, I will also refer to a prayerbook, A Siddur. One of the most useful versions of the prayerbook is Hasiddur Hashalem, edited by Philip Birnbaum. The English translation which appears on the opposite page as the Hebrew text is clear and accurate, the notes place the prayers into their historical and literary context, providing ample citations from biblical and rabbinic texts. The text is also amazingly complete, including extensive piyyutim, full texts of holiday rituals that are often unavailable elsewhere, such as Tashlich (casting of sins on Rosh Hashanah), Kapparot (waving fowl around the head prior to Yom Kippur), Ushpizin (welcoming ancient guests in the Sukkah), all the stanzas of Maoz Tzur for Hannukah, The Scroll of the Hasmoneans, and all major life-cycle rituals. Birnbaum therefore provides a rich, informative resource without the usual apologetics and groundless explanations that are found in so many books about prayer and ritual.

Variety in Worship

Before beginning, I would like to elaborate on the fact that there is, of course, no one prayerbook accepted by all Jews. There are ethnic rites: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, which have local versions in most countries, Italian, Oriental, which can be broken down also on a country by country basis, and there are the four major denominations which have localized versions in Europe, America, Israel, and to some extent Australia and South Africa. There are also sectarian groups such as Samaritans, Karaites, and even former crypto-Jewish sects.

The key aspect of the four denominations, which gradually emerged from about 1810 to 1950, is liturgical change, which is often accompanied by varying degrees of religious and legal practice as well. But I think that it is safe to say that many whose behavior is identical make decisions of what synagogue to attend, or not to attend, based on liturgical style and other social factors such as car-pool routes.

The Reform movement, which as I have described in an earlier course, was the first movement to emerge from pre-modern traditional Judaism. The Reformers, lay and rabbinic, were responding to the Jewish Question, the issue of the suitability of the Jews to receive full rights in Europe, by making liturgical adjustments. Thus, they added a sense of decorum which included shortening the service, wearing of clerical robes, translating parts of the service, including choirs and even instrumental accompaniment, and adding a sermon in the vernacular. They removed aspects of the service that seemed unpatriotic and unscientific such as expressions of hope for removal to Palestine, reestablishment of the sacrificial cult, the coming of the messiah, and revival of the dead, and they added patriotic hymns and prayers (By the way, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Reform movement in Europe did little to change to role or even to eliminate the separate seating of women, a feature that continues in German Reform synagogues to this day).

The Orthodox movement emerged in Germany in 1819 as a reaction against what they felt were the excesses of the Reform movement. Nevertheless, they adopted many of the innovations and attitudes towards the liturgy from the Reform (By the way, in America many Orthodox synagogues for a period eliminated separate seating for men and women.).

What would later be the Conservative movement broke with the Reform movement during the 1840s over the willingness of the Reformers to dispense the desirability of praying in Hebrew and they instead asserted that Hebrew was the language of the Jewish people (By the way, attempts to integrate women into the service began only in the 1950s and recently have been opposed by a breakaway movement called the Union for Traditional Judaism, UTJ, also the initials of an-ultra-orthodox party in Israel, United Torah Judaism.).

The Reconstructionist movement, embodying the thought of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, emerged in the middle of the twentieth century out of the three other movements, mainly Conservative and Reform, as an attempt to reaffirm the national and traditional quality of the Jews, but to diminish aspects of the liturgy such as their chosenness (By the way, the Bat-Mitzvah of his daughter Judith in 1922 marked the first in the US, but not in Europe.).

The impact of the Holocaust on Jewish life also affected Jewish liturgy for several different reasons:

  1. At the most basic level the rise of the Nazis undermined, except for a small number of Jews, the driving assumption that by instituting liturgical and other reforms, the Jews could make themselves desirable to most Europeans. Thus as early as 1937 the Reform movement in its Columbus Platform undid many of its most radical reforms as embodied in its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform and turned towards accepting Zionism, positions which gradually were reflected in the liturgy, especially by the 1970s with the editing of the new Gates of Prayer. Reform Jews who were frustrated by these changes in policy towards Zionism and more traditional prayer often associated with the American Council for Judaism.
  2. Although the process had begun earlier with the great migrations at the turn of the century, the events of the Holocaust accelerated contacts between eastern and western European Jews. Because the Jews in eastern Europe had not experienced the denominational divisions, for those who survived, traditional Judaism there remained much more intact than in the west. Thus in eastern Europe Jews opted out of religion entirely rather than accepting any modifications, which was also the pattern among Jews of Mediterranean countries. The confluence of large numbers of members of these two communities in Israel did not produce fertile ground for the growth of the acceptance of the denominations, most of which had expressed little interest in Zionism or, until recently, in bringing their movements to Palestine/Israel.


A significant event in the development of modern Judaism was when on June 14, 1945, less than a month after the end of the war in Europe and the end of the Holocaust, a group of 200 orthodox rabbis gathered at the Hotel McAlpine in New York City to declare a ban of excommunication on Kaplan and to burn his new prayerbook recently published by the Reconstructionist Foundation. They claimed that he had changed the prayers and introduced secular and rational materials. These charges, however, put Kaplan not on the periphery of traditional Jewish prayer, but at the center.

The Service

On of the fundamental questions in researching Jewish liturgy is the question of origins of many of the prayers as well as the order of the liturgy. Although Jewish literature as well as many of the prayers originated in the Bible, the prayerbook only appeared as a cultural artifact in the ninth and tenth centuries with the appearance of the prayerbooks of Amram Gaon and Saadia Gaon in Babylonia, Nathan Habavli's description of the worship service at the installation of the Exilarch, as we saw in the last lecture, and extensive fragments of prayerbooks in the Cairo Geniza, raising all sorts of questions about its undocumented and undocumentable development. The questions of origins is a question that is of both academic as well as polemical interest. During the past century scholars have employed all sorts of methods to posit what the original core of the liturgy must have been. These attempts have been motivated either by the desire to show an early appearance of the service, with estimates of the dating ranging from the most traditional connection to the biblical patriarchs, to the Persian and Maccabean periods, and, at the other extreme, to the models of slow evolutionary development of prayers offered by Reform minded scholars who tried to justify their own innovations. (For a survey of these attempts, see Richard Sarason's "The Modern Study of Jewish Liturgy," in Approaches to Ancient Judaism, ed. W. S. Green).

Rather than be detained by these speculations or get bogged down in the detail of the service, I would like to present some of the major aspects of the service as a cultural phenomenon which can be experienced by the participants (For those wishing the technical details, see Jewish Liturgy and Its Development, by A. Z. Idelsohn, the scholarl of Jewish prayer and music whose best known contribution to Jewish culture is his song, "Hava Nagillah.")

Preliminary Prayers

Each Jewish worship service follows very set contours although there are different texts for each of the three daily services, each of the four shabbat services, and for each holiday service. The service begins with preliminary materials, anthologized from Bible, Talmud, Piyyut, and prayers. Often the most complex philosophical discussion is found in the most simple piyyutim, which often appear as hymns. For example Adon Olam, (Leviant 133; Birnbaum, 11-12) usually associated on very slender grounds with the eleventh century Spanish Hebrew poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, it only entered the prayerbook in the fifteenth century. Using a simple, but catchy, pattern of rhyme, this hymn summarizes basic but not always accepted aspects of medieval Jewish belief, such as creation ex nihilo, a vision of the end of time, belief in one God, who will save and protect. I have heard Adon Olam sung to such tunes as Turkey in the Straw, the Jeopardy Theme Song,. Scarborough Fair, and many others.

Similarly Yigdal (Leviant 135; Birnbaum, 11-12), attributed to the fourteenth century, takes Maimonides' thirteen articles of faith as he articulated them in his commentary on the Mishnah to Sanhedrin chapter ten, and sets them to a catchy tune. Despite the charm of this tune, many Jews never accepted Maimonides' principles of faith, finding them too narrow and dogmatic, some preferring instead to abide by the notion that there are 613 commandments. Thus Yigdal is not found in the prayerbooks of some Hasidic groups, Sephardic communities (paradoxical since Maimonides represents the embodiment of Sephardic Jewry), and once many Reform congregations.

Moving forward in the service, but backwards in terms of historical development, the service then contains some passages from the Mishnah and Talmud. Peah 1:1 (Shabbat 127a). This passage integrates commandments directed towards helping other people such as leaving the corners of the field for the poor, doing deeds of loving kindness, visiting the sick, dowering poor brides, attending to the dead, making peace, with commandments of a religious nature such as making a pilgrimage, studying Torah, devotion in prayer, and ultimately concludes that studying Torah is equal to all of them.

The next passage from Berakoth 60 b (Leviant 135; Birnbaum, 16), asserting the purity of the soul, constitutes a polemic against Christianity which believes in original sin. Leviant's translation shows an example of the embarrassed apologetics or denominational dogmatics that can slip into the study of Jewish worship. He concludes his translation of the passage blessing God for restoring life to mortal creatures. The Hebrew text as seen in Birnbaum's translation reads, "restorest the souls to the dead."

The First Section: The Shema and Its Blessings

The first major unit of the service is called the Shema and its blessings. The service begins with the Call to Worship, "Barekhu," (Leviant 142, Birnbaum, 71-72) Prior to the Shema itself are several passages dealing with nature, different for the morning and evening services (Leviant 142, 136; Birnbaum, 72-74). These prayers show a balance between universalism, the association of God with the forces of nature and all the peoples of the earth and particularism, God's special interest in the Jewish people. Indeed, the tension between these two themes keeps not only Jewish worship in a state of a unified dialectic between them, but I would dare say the entire Jewish people as they struggle with universal values and their own particular needs. Thus the text associates God with both the evening twilight, the cycles of time, the seasons, as well as love of the people Israel and the desire to return to their ancestral homeland.

The Shema itself is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4 which in and of itself, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One," does not convey a liturgical setting. The Mishnah, the code of Jewish law promulgated in Palestine at the beginning of the third century of the common era, presents the Shema as a liturgical unit that must be recited on a daily basis. The basic verse of the Shema, often recited with hands covering the eyes based on a talmudic tradition (Berakhot 13b) and because of longstanding debates either standing or sitting depending on the local custom. This line is then followed by a verse from the Mishnah, "Blessed be His glorious kingdom forever and ever," (Tamid 1:5, cf. Psalms 72:19), which according to talmudic tradition is said in a lower voice (Pesahim 56a). The Shema is followed by three other biblical passages:

  1. Deuteronomy 6:5-9 about the obligation to love God and to teach his commandments.
  2. Deuteronomy 11:13-21, a classic statement of theodicy from the Torah: if you obey God you will be rewarded with natural bounty and if not you will be punished. This almost mathematical formula for reward and punishment which attempts to explain human suffering is radically revised in subsequent books of the Bible such as Job and Ecclesiastics which assert that there are aspects of God's ways that humans cannot fathom or explain. Nevertheless, the formula for reward and punishment that some find comforting and others find simplistic, especially in the light of major human tragedy, remains in the prayerbook.
  3. Numbers 15:37-41, the commandment to wear fringed garments. (Leviant omitted the last two of these paragraphs, as have Reform prayerbooks. The Reform movement developed an aversion to talitot and tephillin. Religious textbooks intended for sale in the Reform movement have references removed. I remember once telling a graduate of a Classical Reform Temple about these practices and she accused me of making it up. cf. Birnbaum, 76-80).


The Second Section: The Shemoneh Esreh/Amidah/Hatefillah

The next major section of the service is called either the Shemoneh Esreh, the eighteen benedictions, the Prayer, Hatefillah, or the Amidah, the Standing, or, as Leviant calls it and Reform services for many years displaced it, the Silent Devotion. This is the high point of the service and involves an intensive combination of biblical verses and rabbinic prayers with roots in the mishnaic tractate of Berakhot in addition to bowing, stepping, and rising on the toes. The text changes on Shabbat with the middle petitions being replaced, often attributed to the inappropriateness of petitioning for things on Shabbat, though other petitions remain in the Shabbat liturgy.

As a historical phenomenon, I would like to look at the twelfth blessing of the Amidah, the so called birkat ha-minim, the blessing against sectarians (Birnbaum, p. 88), "May the slanderers have no hope; may all wickedness perish instantly; may all they enemies be soon cut down . . ." There are several basic problems with this blessing:

  1. When did it enter the liturgy?
  2. What did it originally say?
  3. Against whom was it directed?

The basic reference to it is in the Gemara, that is the subsequent commentary on the Mishnah by the rabbis until about the fifth century (Berakhot 28b-29a). There, following the Mishnah's discussion of the Eighteen Benedictions, the Gemara notes that there are indeed nineteen and not eighteen blessings and that the blessing against the minim was introduced at Yavneh, the center of Jewish life at the time of the destruction of the Temple till the Bar Kokhba revolt, or from probably prior to 70 till around 132, and now famous for its pickles.. The Gemara goes on to explain that Samuel the Small composed the birkat ha-minim at the request of Rabban Gamaliel, the leader there after Yohanan ben Zakkai. The blessing is usually dated at around the year 90. According to the Gemara text this blessing was sort of a litmus test that if the reader had trouble with it he was suspected of being a sectarian and removed from his position as a threat to the community.


The question is whether the prayer once contained more specific references to Christians and because of the demands of censorship the text was changed. Such an assertion plays a regular role in Jewish-Christian relations, providing Christians an opportunity to demonstrate the fundamental anti-social and anti-Christian aspects of Judaism. Such assertions are buttressed by the fact that Solomon Schecter found in the Cairo Geniza, the massive medieval repository of worn out manuscripts, versions of the prayer which did invoke God's wrath against apostates (meshumadim) and Christians (Notzrim).

Some scholars have accepted this formulation, although late, as reflecting the original version. These assertions are supported by the fact that in early Christian literature there are references to the Jews cursing the Christians, Nazarenes/Nazoraeans, in synagogue (Justin Martyr writing in the second century in his Dialogue with Trypho), three times a day ( Epiphanius writing in 375 in Haereses) and Jerome writing in 410 in his commentary on Isaiah as well as in a letter to Augustine ), and expelling them (John). Many of the studies of this blessing are devoted to diminishing the likelihood that the blessing originally pertained to Christians either by asserting its creation prior to Christianity or the addition of the terms for Christians at a late stage (See R. Kimelman, "Birkat Ha-Minim and the Lack of Evidence for an Anti-Christian Jewish Prayer in Late Antiquity," in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition 2; S. Katz, "Issues in the Separation of Judaism and Christianity after 70 CE: A Reconsideration, Journal of Biblical Literature 103 (1984).).

Instead, I would argue that in light of regular evidence for the continued presence of Christians at Jewish worship during these early centuries, while the birkat ha-minim did not serve to separate Jews and Christians it may even be further proof of continued social, cultural, and religious interactions between Jews and Christians the likes of which prompted further legislation to separate the two peoples.

The Alenu

The final section of the service, after the reading of the weekly Torah and Prophetic passages, divided over either over a one year cycle or a three year cycle, involves the Alenu prayer (Leviant 140; Birnbaum, 135-138). A study of the Alenu, a prayer with both universalistic and particularistic themes, provides an opportunity to see how Jewish history has influenced a Jewish prayer and how prayer has influenced history.

The Alenu is usually attributed to Rav, a third century Babylonian rabbi. There are references to the Alenu in the Talmud of the Land of Israel (Rosh Hashanah 1:3 57a, Avodah Zarah 1:2 39c). The Alenu began as a piyyut, with short lines of 4 words each, rhythm, and parallel structures, before the malkhuyot, the kingship readings, in the Amidah of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf, the late morning service dedicated to the theme of sacrifice. It was then added also to the Yom Hakippurim Musaf Amidah. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim Ashkenazim kneel and prostrate themselves during this prayer. By the twelfth century it was also used to conclude the daily morning service, then the other two daily services. It is first seen in this capacity in Mahzor Vitry, a French prayerbook edited sometime between the 12th to the 14th centuries.

In 1171 in Blois, France, according to the sixteenth century Hebrew chronicle Emek Habakha of Joseph Cohen, a Jewish trader was watering his horse by a river. One of the Christians who happened by thought he saw a child's body fall out of his goods and into the rapidly flowing river. No body was ever found, nor was one ever missing. A trial was held, including an examination by ordeal, which the witnesses passed, by not drowning. As a result, after escaping the flames several times and even dragging a Christian into the flames with them, thirty-four Jews were burned alive chanting the Alenu.

Of particular concern to Christians has been the line "She-hem mishtahavim lahevel varik umitpalellim el el lo yoshia," "They bow down to vanity and emptiness and the pray to a god who will not save." This line, which appears after the line that ends with the word "multitude," "hamonam," is not found in either Leviant or Birnbaum, but is found in not only manuscripts but many prayerbooks that are used today.

Christians, with good reason, have felt that the Alenu prayer was said against them, a sense that the incident at Blois would not undermine nor the fact that some Jews also spit in the synagogue when they said this line. "Rik" means both "emptiness" and "spit." In Yiddish the expression, "Er kumt tsum oysshpayen," "He arrives at spitting time," means to be very late for services since the Alenu is at the end. Christians further tried to prove their suspicions about the Alenu by showing that the expression "varik" added up in Gematria, a system by which numerical values are assigned to each Hebrew letter, to 316, the same as "Yeshu," the Hebrew for Jesus; that "hevel varik" added up to the same as "Yeshu umohammed." By 1370, perhaps with the appearance of Alenu in the Mahzor Vitry, Christians began to protest against the Jews saying such a prayer. Sometimes they even tried to force Jews to abstain from saying the offensive line. For example, in 1702 the Prussian government began an investigation of the prayer which, concluding on August 28, 1703, banned the offending line as well as spitting. This ban was repeated in 1716 and 1750.

Jews offered a range of responses to such charges. They often eliminated the line and hence it is not found in many Ashkenazi prayerbooks. Some Jews changed the line to read, "She-hayu mishtahavim laelilim umitpallelim el ale lo yoshia," "They used to bow down to idols and pray to a god who does not save." This way they changed the meaning from the present, against Christians, to the past, against pagans. Jews also argued that many of the phrases were from the Bible (Daniel 2:37; Jeremiah 10:6-16; Isaiah 30:7; 45:20, 23; 51:13; Deuteronomy. 4:39.) and that this prayer was written by Joshua or the Men of the Great Assembly, showing that it was written before Christianity so could not be against Christians. In a similar vein, Moses Mendelssohn, a rabbi and the foremost Jewish thinker in Europe, tried to argue that because the Alenu contained no references to the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, it must have been written before the destruction and hence had no connection with Christianity. Menasseh Ben Israel, a Dutch rabbi, writing in his Vindiciae Judaerorum in 1656, devoted a whole chapter to a defense of the Alenu, including praise of it by the Sultan of Turkey. In Sephardic communities, often in Muslim countries, where Christians were usually not in power, the full prayer is still said. In my own congregation in Jerusalem I noticed an interesting compromise had been worked out concerning this line, perhaps unwittingly since nobody can recall any discussion about it. The offending line appears in the prayerbook, Rinat Yisrael, reflecting a historical reality and some contemporary Jewish practices, but it is not recited, reflecting local custom based on either sensitivity or habit. In his commentary on the prayerbook, Joseph Hertz, once the Chief Rabbi of Britain and one of the greatest apologists for Judaism ever, whose biblical and prayerbook commentaries are mainly valuable as a repositories of apologetics, crowed that this prayer is "sublime," "noble," and "ancient" and "universalist" which "voices Israel's undying hope for the day when all idolatry shall have disappeared" and "the essential character" of Judaism (208-209).

One politically incorrect crack that has made the rounds that really cannot be translated well involves the administration of an imaginary "Alenu spanking" to one's incorrigible children based on the last words of the prayer, "mitahat ayn od." ("and on the earth beneath there is none else," rendered literally as from his bottom there is nothing left.)

Prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel

One of the newest and still most controversial prayers in the prayerbook is the Prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel (Leviant 145; Birnbaum, 789-790), a controversy that shows that Jews do not need non-Jews in order to squabble about matters of prayer and certainly not politics. Indeed, free from major external harassment, Jews even find more opportunities to turn against each other. As recently as today's paper (Ha-aretz, April 20, 1999), an article discussed the fact that many of the religious parties, including Shas, the Sephardic religious party, lead by the recently convicted Rabbi Aryeh Deri and his spiritual mentor, the former Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, include no prayer for the State of Israel, although they do have a prayer for the soldiers of the Israeli Army. One of the reasons given for eschewing this prayer, a serious matter in most Israeli synagogues, like flying a flag on Independence Day, is that they claim that the prayer, . although attributed to the chief rabbis of the State at the time, Isaac Hertzog and Ben Zion Uziel, was actually written by the Israeli Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature S. Y. Agnon, moderately religious by most accounts, but not a recognized rabbinic authority. Although the account of Agnon having been commissioned to write the Prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel by the rabbis has been circulated widely, recent research has now produced evidence, including the original draft, that the prayer was written by Rabbi Uziel and touched up by Agnon, his friend.

Meanwhile, showing how one prayer can continue to reflect the many cultural trends among the Jews. Some diaspora prayerbooks, such as the Conservative Sim Shalom, presumably feeling that the prayer goes too far in asking for an ingathering of all the exiles, have excised major portions of the prayer which express such a hope. Other Jews, nationalist settlers on the West Bank, feel that the prayer does not go far enough in expressing their aspirations so they have added a request that God "strengthen the hands of the settlers in Gaza, Judah, Shomron, and the Golan and all reaches of our holy land." Not satisfied with the current government, they have also added the request that God cancel all bad advice given to the leaders of the nation (also examples of petitionary prayers offered on the Sabbath.)

The Non-Textual Aspects of the Service

In analyzing non-textual and often non-theological aspects of services, it must be kept in mind that throughout history Jewish communities tried to coerce synagogue attendance by means of fines and other sanctions. There has been a long history of not allowing other activities in the community when services are being held, which has caused more activities to be held at services. In the middle ages this included stores being open on weekdays and in the modern period even Reform Sabbath guides articulate this principle.

In discussing these aspects of the service, I offer a warning. I remember once making comments like these in a Jewish studies class at an American college and infuriated some of the students. Not that these students were avid synagogue goers or that I had not carried on in a light manner about biblical or rabbinic texts, but the students felt the worship is something serious, not to be taken lightly. These comments reflect two important opposing aspects of recent events in the development of Jewish culture. On the one hand, as an arena of Jewish culture, the service has become the center of many jokes that are funny precisely because people can identify with the behavior depicted in them. On the other hand, especially under the influence of Christian culture, especially in colonial New England where I taught, Jewish popular culture can take on a very serious side which does not allow for joking, especially in matters of worship.


At any rate, one of the phenomena that highlights the performative quality of worship is when all of a sudden in the middle of a prayer people start standing up (we're not talking about decorous services, but will shortly). The reason of course is that coming up soon is a prayer that requires standing and nobody wants to be the last one up and indeed there seems to be a contest among many to see who can be the first one to stand.

Page Numbers

Associated with this are the tensions over calling out page numbers. In some places, especially egalitarian minyanim (traditional, modern, non-affiliated, lay-lead), calling out page numbers can be a taboo. Part of this is due to the same sort of hearty liturgical macho that demonstrates the ability to stand without being told. Part of this is connected with the dynamics of not making guests feel welcome at Jewish worship services, and not being able to find the place certainly helps.


And speaking of not making guests feel comfortable or welcome, which is an important way of producing group solidarity, one of the most famous is when a guest, schule-hopping, as visiting a strange synagogue is sometimes called, will enter a sparsely filled auditorium with tens, maybe hundreds of empty seats, only to be informed that they have sat in somebody's seat. Part of feeling comfortable is not only have a regular seat with regular fellows near by, but making others feel uncomfortable.

Welcoming or not welcoming guests is also an important part of each service. When I lived in New England, there was a mandatory five year probationary period during which newcomers would not be acknowledged at synagogue. In other more mobile parts of the country one can expect a greeting and even an offer to participate in the service on arriving for the first time, so that knowing the Torah Blessings is a major social grace. Being able to chant Torah and Haftarah portions makes one an instant celebrity.

In terms of greetings there is also the dicey problem of what to say. The rule of thumb is say what is said to you. If somebody says "Good Shabbes," say "Good Shabbes" back, don't say "Shabbat Shalom," and vicaversa.

Rabbinic Leadership

All these rules change slightly at Reform Temples and some Conservative ones as well which tend to be much more professionally organized, usually under the executive leadership of the rabbi and a large responsive staff. The rabbi usually controls each aspect of the service. The rabbi can exhibit great formality, aided by a well trained voice, a microphone (often missing at more traditional services), and a clerical robe with flowing sleeves with which to signal sitting or standing and the attendant flopping noise of hundreds of spring-loaded seats that sounds like cows standing in line on a kibbutz. The rabbi can also control the service with studied informality where the entire proceedings are an extension of the rabbi talking the congregation through the service like a disk jockey conducting a program.

The Sermon/Devar Torah/Discussion

On of the major arenas for sorting out services is in the part where a weekly lecture is delivered, usually after the Torah is read. In Reform and Conservative Services as well as many Orthodox synagogues which imitate them, this is usually billed as a Sermon, a formal presentation by the rabbi based on a combination of the biblical portion, current events, and major issues of concern to the rabbi who is speaking from his or her pulpit. (Once when unable to understand a particular rabbi I was informed that the entire sermon was keyed to personal family events.) Indeed in some congregations nobody else is allowed to speak from the rabbi's Pulpit.

One grade lower in formality and usually slightly more traditional in style is the Devar Torah, an exegetical exercise where the speaker shows mastery of traditional texts and touches on contemporary issues. These are more often than not given by the rabbi but can be given by others as well. The exceptions are usually elitist groups that function either as part of the congregation, designated with epithets such as The Library Service, The Upstairs (or The Downstairs) Service, The 11:00 service, The Havurah, etc, usually meeting on Saturday morning but sometimes for Havdalah or Sunday morning services.. Such groups are usually constituted by regulars with intellectual or social interests which do not include being part of weekly Bar and Bat Mitzvah Services and the desire to be closer or father away from the rabbi, depending on whether the rabbi attends or does not attend this group. Often in the same congregation the rabbi who will give a Sermon at the main service will give a Devar Torah for this appreciative group, many of whom can match or better such performances.

Finally, there is the Discussion or Talk, often presented by a member of the congregation, especially at unaffiliated, egalitarian minyanim or havurot (prayer group or fellowship), many of whose members may themselves be rabbis, but not functioning as such professionally. While such a title for the talk sounds low-keyed, these constitute highly competitive events where a circle of members vie with each other for the best jokes, most obscure literary references, and convincing overall theme. Another aspect of these talks, and always a risky one unless one knows fully the rules of engagement, is that some speakers encourage or otherwise receive questions and comments at the end of their talks or even in the middle, something that rarely happens with a Sermon, but sometimes with a Devar Torah.

As services leave the more formal real of the professionalized model of the Reform, but found among all movements, more of the leading of the service, the chanting of the Torah and Haftarah, delivering of announcements, and preparing food, is done by members of the group.


A feature of most services is some form of kissing, usually associated with the Torah, kissing it as it is marched by or before one blesses it. This is done through another medium such as touching a prayerbook or a hand to the Torah then kissing it. Some people also kiss prayerbooks after picking them up if they have fallen to the floor. In Israel kissing mezuzot, ritual containers with biblical verses on the doorposts of most rooms, has become a major form of popular spirituality, including many who are not at all religious.

Head Coverings and Prayer Shawls

Other non-textual aspects of Jewish worship included a carefully coded system of head-coverings and other ritual appurtenances such as prayer shawls (tallit/tallis). You can tell much about a person by the head-covering (kippah/yarmulka). A crocheted kippa held on with a hair clip means some connection with Israel and more and more, especially in Israel, means an identification with right-winged nationalist politics, especially if it is worn in a cocky manner to the side. If, however, you can see that it has been folded and kept in a pocket, kippah mekuppelet, then you have to move the wearer over to the left both politically and religiously. A Bukharian kippah (woven like a rug in bright colors), worn by a man, may mean some level of fringe-group affiliation , when worn by a women, however, it indicates a commitment to both feminism and tradition, especially if accompanied by a tallit. These kippot are good for young children because they stay on the head and the ones with the dark background don't show dirt. A synagogue issued kippah, black cloth, or one for an event in a garish color, with white lining and gold stamping of the name of the celebrants, displays a studied a nonchalance about these matters. Other variants not likely in diasporan synagogues include the small black felt kippah which has been identified as a sign of nominal identity on the part of once ultra-orthodox boys and broad knit white skull fitting kippot with pom-poms are a sign of the opposite, newly religious with strong commitments, though perhaps not permanent housing.


One of the paradoxes of Jewish worship as I have suggested throughout is that there is not a definite correlation between denomination and style. In fact there is a spectrum of styles that runs from informal- traditional-participatory to formal- professional-non-participatory and both extremes and everything in the middle can be found at all kinds of synagogues. The corollary of this phenomenon is that there is not a clear correlation between denominational affiliation and religious life-style. I have had Orthodox rabbis tell me that none of their congregants is Orthodox and I have been to Reform and Conservative services where I have found high levels of personal observance. (In fact current wits have defined a modern Orthodox Jew as one who takes his tallis and tephilin on a date-these ritual appurtenances are only used at the weekday morning service, implying that he may not be home from his date before it is time for worship.) Thus, much of what happens at a service is a matter of cultural taste rather than religious preference or even orientation.

I would like to close with a recent discovery which I have seen both described the literature (I forget where) and witnessed in person. That is the well developed phenomenon in Israel on the High Holidays of people coming to the synagogue but not going in. The first year I lived in Israel I missed this because the Prime Minister was then living temporarily in the neighborhood and made an appearance at the local official synagogue so that I took many of the people who normally would have been on the steps of the synagogue as part of the curious crowd examining the local pol, including my own son who shook his hand. The second year here, however, the PM and his entourage had left our neighborhood for his refurbished and highly fortified official residence and the crowds were still on the steps, riding bicycles (an important secular activity on Yom Kippur despite or perhaps because of the almost absolute avoidance of driving by all Jews on that day), hanging out, talking. I also noticed that, once I had got to know the community, also I could see that at our unofficial, barely known synagogue, a similar phenomenon was taking place. In other words, for many Jews going to synagogue does not even necessarily entail going inside. Many of the social and performative functions can be done on the steps outside-and even for these there is a hierarchical gradation-most people are around for Kol Nidre. On the other hand, the liturgical texts can be read and studied as literary texts without involvement in any sort of community. What makes going to services such an interesting cultural phenomenon therefore is that both aspects are going on at the same time.

For further reading on parallels between Jewish and Christian liturgy, see E. Werner, The Sacred Bridge I and II. I. Elbogen's classic work on Jewish Prayer has recently been translated into English and updated by R. Scheindlin; J. Heinemann's Literature of the Synagogue has also been translated and he has contributed several articles to the Encyclopedia Judaica on prayer. L. Hoffman has published several studies of Jewish liturgy.





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30 Aug 2005 / 25 Av 5765 0