Read an Excerpt
An Introduction to Jewish Worship
The Nature of Jewish Worship
There are Jews in every denomination who venerate worship traditions as if they had been passed down from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Most communities have congregants who insist that the service always be conducted exactly the same way and who come to synagogue vigilantly to watch that nothing be changed. In fact, the history of Jewish liturgy has been one of continual development and evolution, a balance between tradition and innovation. The very institutionalization of obligatory, communal prayer services as the official means to thank, praise, and petition God was developed by creative rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. The Temple had been the religious, economic, and political center of the Jewish state, and when it was destroyed, so was the institution of the daily and holiday sacrifices and offerings, together with the vocal and instrumental pageantry of the Levites, the Temple musicians. That direct path to God was cut off: no longer would the sweet smell of incense and animal smoke rise to the heavens from the Temple altar in Jerusalem. In a radical leap born of necessity, the rabbis stressed that prayer would be equal to the sacrifices that had been offered in the Temple. So closely were worship services modeled after the daily and holiday sacrifices that some of the services, such as Minchah (afternoon) and Musaf (additional service on Shabbat and holiday mornings) even took the sacrifices' names.
We do have examples of personal prayer that date back to the Bible, such as when Moses prayed for God to heal his sister Miriam when she was struck with leprosy (Num. 12:13). The Psalms also contained personal prayers of thanksgiving, praise, and petition that were eventually collected into one book. During the period of the Second Temple, these biblical passages and elaborately orchestrated psalms were recited in conjunction with the sacrifices. The Jewish commonwealth was divided into twenty-four districts, or Maamadot, which would send representatives to Jerusalem to participate in the Temple service. Those who stayed at home would join together to recite biblical passages. These Maamadot became one of the precursors of the modern synagogue, and the rites conducted there set the stage for the establishment of the decentralized prayer service. In the early rabbinic period the rabbis of the Mishnah (rabbinic legal code that forms the basis of the Talmud, second century C.E.) begin to codify these biblical passages, psalms, and prayers into a formal order, or seder, from the same Hebrew root as siddur, the name of the book that eventually contained them. Prayer became obligatory at that time, and Jewish men were expected to pray three times a day. While women are allowed, and often encouraged, to pray, they traditionally do not have as many liturgical obligations as men since such "time-bound" mitzvot (commandments, pl.) might conflict with their primary responsibilities to home and family.
Every traditional service is composed of a set liturgy that the congregation is required to recite. Certain popular prayers can be recited only in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten worshippers. The morning and evening worship service is structured around two central prayers: the Shema (Listen! [Israel]), the statement of God's unity; and the Amidah (standing prayer), a series of nineteen benedictions that thank, praise, and petition God. The Shema is a series of three biblical passages beginning with the central creedal statement, "Listen Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai alone." This last phrase is also translated "the Lord is one." The other paragraphs of the Shema stress the obligation to teach and model that unity in daily life and the reward or punishment for observing or transgressing the commandments. The Shema is preceded by two blessings; the first emphasizes God's creation of the world, and the second teaches that the Torah was revealed as a sign of God's love for Israel. The Shema is followed by a blessing stressing redemption. In the evening, a second blessing follows the Shema thanking God for peace and protection. The Amidah, or standing prayer, is so central that it is also referred to simply as Hatefillah, the prayer. Yet another name for this prayer is the Shemoneh Esrai (Eighteen), because it originally contained eighteen rather than nineteen benedictions. It begins by praising God for maintaining connection with the Jews through history, by acknowledging God's power, and by declaring God's holiness. This is followed by a series of petitionary requests, among them health, peace, protection, and ingathering of the dispersed Jewish exiles to Israel. On the Sabbath, the Amidah is shortened to seven benedictions, eliminating the prayers of petition. On Friday evening an abbreviated repetition of the Tefillah, Magen avot (Protector of the patriarchs), is added.
Services are introduced with a section of psalms. At the service's conclusion the Alenu (It is our obligation [to praise God]) recapitulates the main themes of the service. After the Alenu, mourners are given the honor of reciting the Kaddish (Sanctification); this prayer makes no mention of death but rather affirms God's majesty and holiness.
Services vary in length and complexity, according to the time of day (morning, afternoon, and evening) and whether it is a weekday, Sabbath, or holiday. A traditional weekday evening service might take only 20 minutes. A Friday evening service might last 45 minutes. However, a Sabbath morning service will usually run for two and a half hours, a High Holiday service for four hours.
Historically, the siddur is a multilayered text. The oldest prayers are biblical sections, which over time have been supplemented with compositions by the rabbis of the talmudic (third to sixth century C.E.), geonic (sixth to eleventh century C.E.), and later periods. In fact, each generation added its own prayers and meditations to the service; the most popular ones stuck and were integrated into the siddur. Until the early Reform movement began to shorten the service in the mid-1800s, it was more common to add prayers to the service than to take them away. Over time, the siddur grew from a text that could have fit into a small pamphlet to the substantial volume it is today.
Jewish prayer is sacred text performed. Scholars have compared a congregation involved in traditional Jewish prayer to a jazz band (Heilman 1976:212; Hoffman 1997:3). At times the leader solos, at times the congregation sings a melody along with the leader, at times all the participants are "doing their own thing." While the whole congregation is an orchestra, praising and petitioning God, the prayer leader is both soloist and conductor. Traditional prayers are divided into individual units, and the leader chants the beginning lines (petichah, literally "opening") and ending lines (hatimah, literally "sealing") of certain prayers. In this way, the leader marks the place and sets the pace of the service. Such Jewish prayer often sounds like a cacophony of voices. Individuals proceed at varying speeds; rarely are two people chanting exactly the same words at the same time. Worshippers chant in a undertone, each choosing a comfortable key.
In traditional Jewish worship the leader and congregation do not "pray" or "read prayers"; they daven. In Yiddish, daven means simply "to pray." Yet davening (in Yiddish, davenen), has a much more involved, participatory implication. At least in Eastern European tradition, to daven is to sing, chant, move, and sway. One must bring an emotional intensity and involvement to the recitation of the prayers. To daven, one must have proper kavanah, the piety, devotion, concentration, and intention to consider the meaning of the prayers and say them as though one means them. The term "to daven" can mean both "to pray" and "to lead prayer." A worshipper might ask, "Where are you going to daven on Shabbos?" A cantor might say, "The congregation hired me to daven on Rosh Hashanah" (cf. Kon 1971:38, 39).
Certain prayers are chanted in a call-and-response pattern. The leader begins solo and the congregation responds together, answering or in some cases repeating the leader's words. In other places the leader chants certain words out loud to signal that the congregation should have arrived at a certain part of the service. Some congregations join together as the leader sings the opening or closing lines of a particular prayer. Yet the individual worshipper is not obligated to sing with the leader if he has completed the prayer himself. Sometimes the worshipper will just listen to the leader chant the last lines of the prayer, respond "Amen," and proceed to the next prayer. In fact, a worshipper who is unfamiliar with the Hebrew text can technically fulfill the religious obligation to pray by simply listening to the leader's prayer and responding "Amen."
While following the basic structure of the traditional liturgy, the style of worship in a Reform Temple is different. Early Reform Jews in Germany wished to re-create prayer as an aesthetic experience more in keeping with their modern, post-Enlightenment sensibilities. They instituted a number of radical changes to eliminate the noise, repetition and, to their perceptions, "disorderliness" of traditional davening. The service was accordingly shortened, and many prayers were read in unison either in the vernacular or Hebrew. In America it also became common to do responsive readings in English, with the rabbi reading one line of a psalm or creative prayer and the congregation answering by reading the next. Key sections of the liturgy are read in English, or depending on the particular synagogue, chanted in unison in Hebrew. In many settings the choir, together with the cantor or cantorial soloist, sings key sections of the liturgy in Hebrew or English. Because many liberal Jews are not able to read Hebrew, or at least to read well, the role of the professional becomes more important in communal worship.
In traditional terminology, the leader of prayer is called the shaliach tsibbur, the community's liturgical agent or representative of the congregation. One can position the musical/liturgical leadership in the synagogue on a continuum of professionalism. At one end is the skilled but unpaid congregational member who will accept the honor of serving as shaliach tsibbur and leading the congregation in prayer, either occasionally or regularly. At the other is the full-time, professional hazzan (cantor) who has completed a course of graduate study to become a cantor. The term baal tefillah (master of prayer) is also used as an honorific to signify a leader who is especially well versed in liturgical chant and the laws of correct liturgical practice. A shaliach tsibbur may or may not be a baal tefillah, depending on one's level of liturgical expertise. If a congregation needs additional help or cannot support a full-time cantor, it may hire a part-time cantor, either for the Sabbath or, more likely, for the High Holidays (Summit 1988). Some Reform temples employ cantorial soloists, musicians who possess a good voice but may have little or no facility in Hebrew or knowledge of Jewish liturgy. It is not unusual for such a musical soloist to be non-Jewish.
The cantor, part-time or full-time, remains the most active and central liturgical leader in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues and plays an increasingly important role in Reform temples. While the rabbi enjoys a higher professional and economic status, only in Reform congregations does the rabbi have a more active role than the cantor in leading services. In an Orthodox synagogue, any adult male member of the congregation who regularly attends services and possesses the requisite liturgical skills is an acceptable leader. It is an honor to lead the congregation in prayer, and in traditional settings the gabbai (a lay leader in charge of assigning ritual tasks), is careful to distribute these honors fairly among congregants and guests.
It is assumed that the prayer leader is familiar with the Hebrew and Aramaic text of the liturgy and will chant the service in the correct nusach, the term for Ashkenazi traditional chant. (Nusach is discussed at length in chapter 3.) There is a special nusach for the High Holidays, for Shabbat morning, and for weekday afternoon services. Samuel Heilman defines nusach as a "combination of sprechgesang and aria which concludes, corrects and leads the prayers" (1976:288). Because of its relatively free nature, nusach allows the leader certain opportunities for improvisation (cf. Slobin 1989:256-79).
The choice of the music used in worship is greatly determined by local minhag (custom). This is especially true for the metrical hymns in the services, such as Lekhah dodi or Adon olam (Master of the universe), which the leader and congregation sing together. In every worship community there are certain points in the service where the leader canand is expected tomake musical choices. Certain tunes and melodies are also used for other sections of the liturgy. A congregation might know several different tunes that it accepts and uses for a particular prayer. It is the leader's prerogative to choose one of these tunes, within the bounds accepted by the congregation. The leader then controls the key, tempo, dynamics, and how long the congregation sings and repeats the tune.
The Kabbalat Shabbat Service
Kabbalat Shabbat was introduced as a liturgical innovation by the Jewish mystics during the mid-sixteenth century in the town of Safed in northern Israel. Enthralled with the mystical personification of the Sabbath as Israel's bride and inspired by the natural beauty of Safed, high in the mountains, these mystics dressed in fine clothing and, like bridegrooms going out to meet their brides, went out into the fields to receive the Sabbath. Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples expanded this ceremony and would recite hymns and songs they had composed for the service as well as selected psalms. Eventually, this ceremony moved from the mountains and fields into the synagogue, where it became the first segment of the Shabbat Maariv service.
In order to contextualize the meaning of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, we must understand the notion of spirituality which motivated the mystics in Safed to create it. According to the Kabbalists, human beings have a role to play in the continuing creation of the world, an obligation to function as God's "partner" in the tikkun (repairing) of the Universe. God and human beings work together to bring redemption to the world, as Max Arzt shows in this concise explanation of Jewish mystical philosophy, drawing from Scholem's major work on Jewish mysticism (1941:283-86). Arzt writes:
The Kabbalists taught that every man is in a state of exile because he has shrunk in spiritual stature to become immersed in a morass of moral corruption and pollution. The people of Israel is in Galut (exile), and it can achieve its Tikkun (redemption) by returning to God from whom it became alienated when it ignored His commandments. To speed the end of the Galut, the Jew needs to find his Tikkun through a life of prayer, piety, and good deeds. By fulfilling the commandments of the Torah, the individual Jew can wend his way back to the original splendor which was his when he had D'vekut, continuous adhesion to God. He needs to lift his life out of the Klippot (shells) that cause confusion and disorder and that disturb the harmony of Creation. By this Tikkun, the individual Jew not only reclaims his alienated self but also liberates the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) from its state of exile, thus accelerating the arrival of the Messianic era of Israel's restoration to the Holy Land (1979:20, 21).
The mystics of Safed did more than develop esoteric philosophy delineating the relationship between God and Israel. They believed that human deeds had an effect upon the upper worlds and so they labored to create communities in which the values of love, honesty, piety, and charity permeated human relationships. Indeed, there is a genre of Jewish ethical literature from the period known as Hanhagot (Guidelines for Behavior) which presented practical directives on how to conduct oneself in daily life, control one's anger, and give and accept criticism. While the Kabbalist Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) attained prominence for his commentary on the Zohar and systematic synthesis of mystical literature up to his time, his practical directives concerning personal life and interpersonal interactions had a tremendous effect upon his students and disciples.
Cordovero's student Isaac Luria, known as the Ari (Lion) (1534-1572), developed into the most influential Kabbalist of Safed in the sixteenth century. Fine notes that: "At the heart of [his] mythology stands the radically Gnostic notion that sparks of divine light have, in the process of God's self-disclosure or emanation, accidentally and disastrously become embedded in all material things. According to Luria, these sparks of light yearn to be liberated from their imprisoned state and return to their source within the Godhead, thus restoring the original divine unity. The human task in the face of this catastrophic situation is to bring about such liberation through proper devotional means" (1984a:62). This tikkun was to be brought about by all of one's actionshow one treats fellow human beings, eats, studies, celebrates rituals, prays, and sings. Functionally, the rituals and practices developed by Luria and his school were understood to hasten Israel's redemption and the coming of the Messiah. Luria describes the Friday evening ritual as follows:
This is the order of Kabbalat Shabbat: Go out in an open field and recite: "Come and let us go into the field of holy apple trees" in order to welcome the Sabbath Queen.... Stand in one place in the field; it is preferable if you are able to do so on a high spot, one which is clean as far as one can see in front of him, and for a distance of four cubits behind him. Turn your face towards the West where the sun sets, and at the very moment that it sets close your eyes and place your left hand upon your chest and your right hand upon your left. Direct your concentrationwhile in a state of awe and trembling as one who stands in the presence of the Kingso as to receive the special holiness of the Sabbath. Begin by reciting the Psalm: "Give to the Lord, O Heavenly beings" [Ps. 29], sing it entirely in a sweet voice. Following this, recite three times: "Come, O Bride, Come O Bride, O Sabbath Queen." Next, recite: "A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day" [Ps. 92] in its entirety, followed by "The Lord is King; He is robed in majesty" until "for all time" [Ps. 93]. Then open your eyes and return home. Enter and wrap yourself in a fringed prayer shawl.... Circle the tableprepared with the Sabbath loaveswalking around it several times until you have repeated everything which you had recited while in the field. (Fine 1984a:74, 75)
Except for the recitation of psalms, most of Luria's personal customs and practices were not followed by subsequent generations. However, in his directions we see the rubrics of the Kabbalat Shabbat service in their nascent state as they were to develop and take hold among Jewish communities throughout the world.
In time, Kabbalat Shabbat was standardized to consist of six psalms, corresponding to the six days of the week, and the hymn Lekhah dodi. The service opens with the Sabbath psalm, Psalm 29, followed by Psalms 95-99. Following Lekhah dodi, Psalms 92 and 93 are recited. Shabbat is referred to in rabbinic literature as a "taste of the world to come," and thematically these psalms stress messianic redemption, salvation, and the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. In many traditional congregations, the hymn Ana bekhoah (Please, with the strength of your strong, right hand) is said before Lekhah dodi, and chapter 2 of Mishnah Shabbat, Bameh madlikin (With what do you light [the Sabbath candles]) is intoned after the hymn, before the beginning of the Maariv service.
The Kabbalists' innovations to expand the celebration of Shabbat were influenced by the directive in the Talmud "to add from the weekday to the holy day" (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 81b). In accord with this sentiment, they started the service before the start of the Sabbath, an hour and a quarter before the appearance of the stars. The leader begins the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers standing on the bimah (raised platform, stage) and, in many traditional synagogues, moves to the shaliach tsibbur's regular place at the reader's stand only at the Barekhu (Bless [the Lord who is blessed!], the call to prayer) the formal beginning of the Maariv service. This change of location indicates that Kabbalat Shabbat is an innovation, not included in the original order of prayers. During the singing of Lekhah dodi, it is customary to turn around when the last stanza is recited (Boi veshalom ... [Come, in peace ...]) to face the entrance of the synagogue and bow. In this way the worshipper symbolically welcomes the "Sabbath bride." The custom of bowing to the door is also a commemoration of the custom of walking outdoors to greet the Sabbath (Elbogen [1913, 1972] 1993:92). After Kabbalat Shabbat, the service continues with the Sabbath Maariv service, which is based on the weekday evening service, as described above.