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Outline of Services | Variations from Movement to Movement

See also Prayers and Blessings

Jewish Liturgy

Level:  Intermediate

Observant Jews 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.

Undoubtedly our oldest fixed daily prayer is the Shema.  This consists of Deuteronomy 6,4-9, Deuteronomy 11,13-21, and Numbers 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 occurred 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 two daily sacrifices morning and afternoon and the burning of what was left over of the sacrifices at night.  There was an additional prayer service on Sabbaths 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 referred to as the Amidah (standing, because we stand while we recite it), or Tefillah (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 God, thirteen making requests (forgiveness, redemption, health, prosperity, rain in its season, ingathering of exiles, etc.), and three expressing gratitude and taking leave.  But wait!  That is 19!  And did we not 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 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 (this works nicely in 13-month leap years, but in 12-month regular years we double up shorter portions on a few weeks).  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 (referred to as a Haftarah).  Today, we read both the Torah portion and the Haftarah portion.  The Torah is read on Mondays, Thursdays, Sabbaths, and some "holidays" (including fasts).  The Haftarah is read on Sabbaths 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 considered an honor to have the opportunity to recite a blessing and do the reading (this honor is called an aliyah).  For more information, see Weekly Torah Readings.

That is 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'Zemira (verses of song), which includes a lot of Psalms and hymns.  Some 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 in the popular mind is the Kaddish, the only major prayer in Aramaic, which praises God.  Here is 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 required responses.  Many people think of the Kaddish as a mourner's prayer, because the oldest son customarily recites it for a certain period after a parent's death, but in fact it is much broader than that.  It seems that originally it separated each portion of the service, and a quick glance at any prayer book or our outline below shows that it is recited between each section; in recent generations, it has become to be used as a mourner's prayer, even outside the context of formal prayer services or Torah study.

Another popular prayer is Aleinu, which most people recite at or near the end of every service, though it is required only within Musaf on Rosh Hashanah.  It also praises God.  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, Adonai our God, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor . . .  On that day, Adonai 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 this is a pretty good idea of what is involved.  Here is an outline of the order of the daily services:

  1. Evening Service (Ma'ariv)
    1. Shema and its blessings
    2. Kaddish
    3. Silent Amidah (standing prayer)
    4. Kaddish
  2. Morning Service (Shacharit)
    1. Kaddish
    2. Shema and its blessings
    3. Amidah
    4. Kaddish
    5. Hallel, if appropriate
    6. Torah reading (Mondays, Thursdays, Sabbaths, and holidays) followed by Kaddish
    7. Ashrei (Psalm 145), and other closing prayers, Psalms, and hymns (not on Sabbaths and holidays; recited at the end of Musaf instead on those days) followed by Kaddish
  3. Additional Service (Musaf) (Sabbaths and holidays only; recited immediately after Shacharit)
    1. Amidah
    2. Kaddish
    3. closing prayers, Psalms, and hymns
    4. Kaddish
  4. Afternoon Service (Minchah)
    1. Ashrei (Psalm 145)
    2. Kaddish
    3. Amidah
    4. Kaddish

Variations from Movement to Movement

The above is according to Orthodox practice.  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 God who "gives life to the dead", they praise God who "gives life to all" because they do not 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 the local language, 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 structured:  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 difficult if you do not know what you are doing, but once you have got a handle on the service, you may find it much more comfortable and inspirational than trying to stay in unison.
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