III. Worship and Practices
For the religious Jew, the entirety of life is a continuous act of divine worship. “I keep the Lord always before me” (Psalms 16:8), a verse inscribed on the front wall of many see synagogues, aptly characterizes Judaic piety.
A. Prayers and Services
Traditionally, Jews pray three times a day: in the morning (shaharith), afternoon (minhah), and evening (maarib). The times of prayer are deemed to correspond to the times when sacrifices were offered in the Jerusalem Temple. In this and other ways, rabbinic Judaism metaphorically carries forward the structure of the destroyed Temple cult. A company of ten men forms a congregation, or quorum (minyan), for prayer.
The single required component of all Jewish worship services is a series of benedictions called the Tefillah (“prayer”); it is also known as the Amidah, or “standing” prayer, because it is recited standing, and the Shemoneh Esreh, because it originally contained 18 benedictions. On weekdays it is now composed of 19 benedictions, including 13 petitions for welfare and messianic restoration. On see Sabbaths and festivals, these petitions are replaced by occasional prayers. A second major rubric is the recitation of the Shema in the morning and evening. All services conclude with two messianic prayers, the first called Alenu, the second an Aramaic doxology called the Kaddish. As a sign of devotion to God, the observant adult male Jew during weekday morning prayers wears both a fringed prayer shawl (tallith; the fringes are called zizith) and phylacteries(prayer boxes, called tefillin). Both customs are derived from the scriptural passages that are recited as the Shema, as is a third, the placing of a mezuzah (prayer box) on the doorpost of one’s house, a further reminder that God is everywhere. As a gesture of respect to God, the head is covered during prayer, either with a hat or a skullcap (kippah;Yiddish yarmulke). Pious Jews wear a head covering at all times, recognizing God’s constant presence.
The study of Torah, the revealed will of God, also is considered an act of worship in rabbinic Judaism. Passages from Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud are recited during daily morning services. On Monday and Thursday mornings, a handwritten parchment scroll of the Torah (that is, the Pentateuch) is removed from the ark at the front of the synagogue and read, with cantillation, before the congregation. The major liturgical Torah readings take place on Sabbath and festival mornings. In the course of a year, the entire Torah will be read on Sabbaths. The annual cycle begins again every autumn at a celebration called Simhath Torah (“rejoicing in the Torah”), which falls at the end of the Sukkot festival. Torah readings for the festivals deal with the themes and observances of the day. Thematically appropriate readings from the Prophets (Haftarah, meaning “conclusion”) accompany the Torah readings on Sabbaths and festivals. The public reading of Scripture thus constitutes a significant part of synagogue worship. In fact, this appears originally to have been the primary function of the synagogue as an institution.
In addition to the daily prayers, Jews recite numerous benedictions throughout the day before performing commandments and before enjoying the bounties of nature. For the Jew, the earth belongs to God. Humans are simply tenant farmers or gardeners. The owner, therefore, must be acknowledged before the tenant may partake of the fruits.
D. Dietary Laws
Jewish dietary laws relate to the Temple cult. One’s table at home is deemed analogous to the table of the Lord. Certain animals, considered unclean, are not to be eaten (see Deuteronomy 14:3-21). Into this category fall pigs as well as fish without fins or scales. Edible animals—those that have split hooves and chew their cuds—must be properly slaughtered (kasher, or “fit”) and the blood fully drained before the meat can be eaten. Meat and milk products are not to be eaten together. See Kosher.
E. The Sabbath
The Jewish liturgical calendar carries forward the divisions of time prescribed in the Torah and observed in the Temple cult. Every seventh day is the Sabbath, when no work is performed. By this abstention, the Jew returns the world to its owner, that is, God, acknowledging that humans extract its produce only on sufferance. The Sabbath is spent in prayer, study, rest, and family feasting (see Kiddush). An additional (musaf) service is recited in the synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals, corresponding to the additional sacrifice that is offered in the Temple on these days.
The Jewish year includes five major festivals and two minor ones. Three of the major festivals originally were agricultural and are tied to the seasons in the land of Israel. Pesach (Passover), the spring festival, marks the beginning of the barley harvest, and Shabuoth (Weeks or Pentecost) marks its conclusion 50 days later. Sukkot (Tabernacles) celebrates the autumn harvest and is preceded by a 10-day period of communal purification. From an early date, these festivals came to be associated with formative events in Israel’s historical memory. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt. Shabuoth is identified as the time of the giving of the Torah on Sinai. It is marked by the solemn reading of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue. Sukkot is still observed primarily as a harvest festival, but the harvest booths in which Jews eat during the festival’s seven days also are identified with the booths in which the Israelites dwelt on their journey to the Promised Land. The ten-day penitential period before Sukkot is inaugurated by Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. According to tradition, the world is judged each New Year and the decree sealed on the Day of Atonement. A ram’s horn (shofar) is blown on the New Year to call the people to repentance. The Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish year, is spent in fasting, prayer, and confession. Its liturgy begins with the plaintive chanting of the Kol Nidre formula and includes a remembrance of the day’s rites (avodah) in the Temple.
The two minor festivals, Hanukkah and Purim, are later in origin than the five Pentateuchally prescribed festivals. Hanukkah (Dedication) commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian king Antiochus IV in 165 BC and the ensuing rededication of the Second Temple. Purim (Lots) celebrates the tale of Persian Jewry’s deliverance by see Esther and Mordecai. It occurs a month before Passover and is marked by the festive reading in the synagogue of the Scroll of Esther (megillah). Four fast days, commemorating events in the siege and destruction of the two Temples in 586 BC and AD 70, complete the liturgical year. The most important of these is Tishah b’Ab, or the Ninth of Ab, observed as the day on which both Temples were destroyed.
G. Special Occasions
Significant events in the life cycle of the Jew also are observed in the community. At the age of eight days, a male child is publicly initiated into the covenant of Abraham through circumcision (berith milah). Boys reach legal maturity at the age of 13, when they assume responsibility for observing all the commandments (bar mitzvah) and are called for the first time to read from the Torah in synagogue. Girls reach maturity at 12 years of age and, in modern Liberal synagogues, also read from the Torah (bat mitzvah). In the 19th century, the modernizing Reform movement instituted the practice of confirmation for both young men and women of secondary school age. The ceremony is held on Shabuoth and signifies acceptance of the faith revealed at Sinai. The next turning point in a Jew’s life is marriage (kiddushin, “sanctification”). Even at the hour of greatest personal joy, Jews recall the sorrows of their people. The seven wedding benedictions include petitionary prayers for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return of the Jewish people to Zion. Also, at the Jewish funeral the hope for resurrection of the deceased is included in a prayer for the redemption of the Jewish people as a whole. The pious Jewish male is buried in his tallith.