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Simple Guide to Attending Jewish Ceremonies

Simple Guide to Attending Jewish Ceremonies

by Akasha Lonsdale
In today’s multicultural society we are increasingly likely to meet and become friends with people from different religious backgrounds, and to find ourselves attending an unfamiliar ceremony. When this happens, there can be few of us who know exactly what to expect, or are confident about how to behave. This chapter from Do I Kneel or Do I Bow? will tell


In today’s multicultural society we are increasingly likely to meet and become friends with people from different religious backgrounds, and to find ourselves attending an unfamiliar ceremony. When this happens, there can be few of us who know exactly what to expect, or are confident about how to behave. This chapter from Do I Kneel or Do I Bow? will tell you everything you need to understand and take part in a Jewish ceremony.

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The Simple Guide to Attending Jewish Ceremonies

By Akasha Lonsdale

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-648-1



Judaism is a monotheistic religion, believing in one Supreme Being – a merciful, just, all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful God who created and rules the world. It introduced a personal moral code and also the idea of free will, responsibility for choices made and individual accountability. The aim of Judaism is to sanctify life through education, prayer and observance of the ethical and ritual precepts of the Torah. By these acts Jews become partners with God in fulfilling His purpose.

Defined by their beliefs and actions, the Jewish people evolved from the biblical Canaanites and Israelites. In time Jewish communities grew up outside the land of Israel. The destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE had two major consequences: it reinforced this dispersal, known as the Diaspora (Greek, scattered seeds), so that the majority of Jews came to live outside historical Israel, and it gave rise to the system of law and custom still recognizable in modern Judaism. Jewish people, wherever they are, share the ceremonies, rituals, laws and commandments of their faith.

Jews do not believe that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah who would usher in an age of peace. This, it is believed, will only happen when the true Messiah from the house of David finally comes.


The Jewish holy book is the Tanakh, an acronym for three sets of ancient Hebrew texts – Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim. Known as the Written Law, these texts contain God's instructions for living a good and spiritual life. The Torah consists of the Five Books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai during their exodus from Egypt. It contains 613 mitzvot (commandments) whose purpose is the sanctification of creation – including the Ten Commandments, given to Moses on two stone tablets. Nevi'im (the Book of Prophets) contains direct prophecies from God, and Ketuvim ('Writings') records the wisdom of David and Solomon and includes the Books of Esther and Ruth.

Parallel to the Written Law was the Oral Law, the oral tradition passed down through the generations until after the destruction of the Temple, when it was compiled, edited and written down. This compilation is called the Mishnah, and the various questions, discussions and decisions that arose from it are contained within a long Aramaic commentary called the Talmud (Hebrew, study), also known by the Aramaic name Gemara. These relate to the Halakhah (Hebrew, way or path) – Jewish law determining ritual practice and ethical behaviour.


Like many religions, Judaism has different traditions, branches and sects. The main historical division is between Sephardim and Ashkenazim – Jews originating in medieval Spain and Germany respectively. Although the two groups differ in their culture, customs, pronunciation of Hebrew and liturgical practices, there are no doctrinal differences.

Today the main branches of Judaism in the West are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. The Orthodox believe that the written Torah and Oral Law are divinely given, without human influence, and live in strict accordance with this. The Conservatives accept the Halakhah, but look at it in a dynamic way – changes in practice are permitted if made in the spirit of the Halakhah. The Reform movement arose in nineteenth-century Germany with the aim of adapting Judaism to the modern world. Today its main centre is the USA. Emphasising the universality of Jewish values over Jewish particularism, it believes in 'progressive revelation' – each generation is granted different appreciations of the truth of the Torah.

Within each of these broad strands, however, there is a variety of approaches. Some more radical forms of Conservative, Reform and Progressive Judaism have introduced innovations such as ordaining women rabbis, promoting equality of gender and the autonomy of individuals to decide whether or not to subscribe to a particular belief or practice.

There is also Judaism's ancient mystical tradition, the Kabbalah, which was embraced in the early nineteenth century by the Orthodox Hasidic movement. This has been brought to public attention in modern times by the New Age movement and, more recently, by celebrities attracted by the belief in numerology, astrology and reincarnation.



The Jewish house of prayer is the synagogue (in Hebrew, Beit Knesset, House of Assembly). Even in the days of the Temple the synagogue was a place of prayer and Torah study and a community meeting house. Today it may also be referred to as a shul (Yiddish, school) or Temple (by the Reform, mainly in the USA).

According to tradition, the Divine Presence can be found wherever there is a minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish adults – see below). There is no blueprint for synagogue architecture and the shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly, reflecting local styles. They may or may not have artwork, and range from simple, unadorned prayer rooms to elaborately decorated buildings in every architectural style.


Situated at the eastern, or Jerusalem-facing, wall is the ark, called aron ha-kodesh (the holy ark) by Ashkenazim and hekhal (palace) by Sephardim. This cupboard houses the handwritten parchment scrolls of the Law, the Sefer Torah. Its doors are covered by a richly decorated curtain, the parokhet. Above it hangs a lamp, the ner tamid (eternal light), which is a reminder of the presence of God. In front of the ark is a low platform, from which the sermon is preached and the priestly blessing is recited. The bimah (Ashkenazi) or tebah (Sephardi) is a raised, enclosed dais reached by steps, from which the Sefer Torah is read and prayers are led. In many Orthodox synagogues it is in the centre, and in many Reform synagogues at the end in front of the ark.

In Orthodox synagogues men and women sit separately. There may be a screen or a women's gallery on the upper floor overlooking the bimah and the ark. In Reform they sit together.

The key people involved will be the rabbi (an ordained expert in Jewish law and spiritual leader) and the chazan (cantor), trained in the tradition of singing/chanting sacred text. In the Orthodox tradition, there will also be the gabbaim (singular, gabbai), two or more respected lay officials whose job during the service is to stand either side of the Torah when it is read, and who call honoured guests to the bimah for that purpose. They ensure that mistakes are not made in the reading of the Torah, or are corrected. Children are generally welcome, and bigger synagogues may have a crèche.

Two books are used regularly: the siddur, the daily prayer book, and the chumash, a printed version of the Torah, which is likely to have an English translation of the Hebrew on the facing page. Special prayer books called machzorim (singular, machzor) are used on the High Holy Days and festivals. The books, in Hebrew, are written and therefore read from right to left. Note: as books containing God's name, they should not be disrespected by being placed on the floor at any time.


There are three main daily services: Shacharit in the morning, Minchah in the afternoon, and Ma'ariv in the evening, after sunset. In the Orthodox and Conservative traditions there is also an additional service, Musaf, which follows the morning service. A pious Jew will aim to attend each. For a complete service to take place, there must be a minyan (men only in the Orthodox tradition), with 'adult' defined as anyone over the age of thirteen plus a day. In Orthodox Judaism public prayer is always conducted in Hebrew; in Reform synagogues much of the service may be in English or the language of the land.

Men cover their heads during prayer, and visitors will be asked to put on a small skull-cap called a kippah (or, in Yiddish, yarmulke) when entering the synagogue. Married Orthodox women wear a hat when attending a synagogue service. Unmarried or widowed women do not cover their heads.

At a weekday early-morning service you might also see men wearing tefillin, two small cube-shaped leather boxes attached to leather straps that contain the 'Sh'ma Yisrael' declaration ('Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one ...', Deut. 6: 4–9) and other passages from the Torah, written by a scribe. One box is worn on the forehead, between the eyes, and the other is placed on the upper section of the left arm, adjacent to the heart. In rabbinic teaching they represent the balance between head and heart.

There are special services for festivals and holy days, at which specific prayers are said, and one of the most important of these is the Saturday morning Shabbat (Sabbath) service, which takes place from around 9.00 to 11.30 a.m.




The feasts and fasts of the Jewish religious year follow a twelve-month lunar calendar, where each month begins with the new moon. This means that their dates vary in relation to the Western calendar. Because the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, an extra lunar month is added every two to three years in order to prevent the festivals slipping out of their seasons. The religious festival year begins in spring with the month of Nisan (March–April), which marks the time of the Passover.

Within the Jewish calendar the holidays fall on fixed dates, with the exception of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). Somewhat confusingly, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in the month of Tishrei, the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. It is the civil new year, and the point at which the year number advances, and most Jews today consider Tishrei the beginning of the year. Specific dates and times of festivals can be found in Jewish newspapers, the synagogue and on various Jewish internet sites. The spellings of some months may vary.

There are three 'pilgrimage' or harvest festivals in the Jewish year, known as Shalosh Regalim ('three feet'), when in biblical times pilgrimages were made on foot to the Temple in Jerusalem. These are Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Festival of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles). The High Holy Days are Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Other than Shabbat (the Sabbath) these are considered the most important dates in the calendar. All Jewish holidays begin at sundown on the previous secular day.


The first day of each lunar month is welcomed with additional prayers and blessings both at home and in the synagogue.



Observed only by firstborn males if their birth was not by Caesarean section, this fast usually falls on the day before Passover, on 14 Nisan. It commemorates the firstborn Israelite boys miraculously spared the final plague in Egypt, who would otherwise have been slain. In Progressive Judaism the fast might also be observed by firstborn girls. It begins at dawn and is generally broken with a meal the following day, after the morning service.



The festival of freedom lasts eight days in the Diaspora (15–23 Nisan) and seven days in Israel (15–22 Nisan). It celebrates the protection and guidance of God, which enabled Moses to lead the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom and points ahead to the final salvation of mankind. It was also the time of the barley harvest and the end of the rainy season. In many synagogues the Song of Songs is read on the Sabbath. For the mystics of the Kabbalah, Pesach symbolized the marriage of the male and female aspects of God.

The festival commences on the eve of 15 Nisan with the ritual family Seder (order) meal, at which the extended family gathers to recite the Haggadah – the text that recounts the events surrounding the exodus from Egypt, a story that has been told down the generations. The Seder reading includes four traditional questions posed by the children at the start of the ceremony, specific prayers, songs of praise and Psalms. No bread, flour or any other products containing leaven (yeast) may be eaten during Pesach, and bread is replaced by matzah (plural, matzot), a hard, flat cracker made of plain flour and water, the unleavened 'bread of affliction' eaten by the Israelites in Egypt.



In the days of the Temple a sheaf or omer, of new barley was offered up on the second day of Pesach (16 Nisan). For the next seven weeks each day was counted until the festival of Shavuot on the fiftieth day. Symbolically, this is a period of spiritual preparation for Shavuot, the occasion when Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is considered a period of semi-mourning and in more Orthodox traditions there are a number of restrictions relating to marriage and rejoicing during this time.



The thirty-third day of Counting the Omer, 18 Iyar, is a festive break in the middle of the sombre Omer period. Restrictions are lifted for a day and celebrations break out! Weddings are allowed, music is enjoyed, and in Israel the devout make pilgrimages to the tomb of the second-century mystic Simon Bar Yochai at Meron in the Galilee. Bonfires may be lit to symbolise the light of the Torah, and schoolchildren may re-enact the historical revolt against the Romans with toy bows and arrows.



Falling fifty days after Pesach, on 6 Sivan, Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is a single-day festival in Israel, and two days in the Diaspora. Originally the festival of the wheat harvest, today it celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. During the service the congregation stands for a reading of the Ten Commandments. Some communities decorate their synagogues with plants and branches, as tradition has it that Mount Sinai was green and fragrant when the Torah was received. It is customary to eat dairy foods, such as cheesecake and blintzes (thin pancakes) with cheese and other fillings on Shavuot.



An important fast day, occurring on 17 Tammuz, this marks the beginning of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and starts a three-week period of mourning for Orthodox and traditionalist Jews, during which time no weddings or other parties are allowed. It culminates on Tisha B'av.


Excerpted from The Simple Guide to Attending Jewish Ceremonies by Akasha Lonsdale. Copyright © 2011 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

AKASHA LONSDALE is an Interfaith Minister. Her two-year seminary training in London included instruction in the major religions and sacred traditions of the world, and her vocation brings her into frequent contact with people of every faith and none.

She has practiced as a psychotherapist, both privately and within Britain’s National Health Service. Her corporate background was in senior human resource management. She is an effective and experienced executive coach, trainer, seminar speaker, and EAP counsellor, specializing in Emotional Intelligence and Stress Management. She has written for a variety of publications, and her book How to Do Life–Powerful Pointers for Powerful Living became one of the most popular self-help titles in the United Kingdom.

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