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Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide: Synagogue Services

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Synagogue services belong at the end of a guide to Jewish spirituality. Formal prayer in congregation is important--it roots individuals and families in their community and allows people to connect with each other around birth, death and coming of age, and the holidays that come every week, month and season. But synagogue services are not the easiest avenue to spiritual fulfillment in Judaism. They're probably the hardest.

A great challenge to feeling spiritual in synagogue is the tension between having a set prayer service and the spontaneous inner feelings of the individual worshipper. Jewish people have held on to the old liturgy as a means of maintaining cultural integrity over a long history and in geographically disparate communities. The practice of praying in Hebrew rather than in the vernacular made it possible for Jews to travel to foreign communities and pray together, with only minor variations in the order of the service or the customs around it. For people who worship daily, the rhythm of the prayers creates a meditative state, like the chanting of a mantra in other traditions.

Nevertheless, Jews have long recognized the need to invest the set prayer service with individual meaning. The prayers are kavua, are set, and the worshipper must bring his or her own kavanna, intention, to them. This is such a well-known feature of Jewish life that many rabbis and other Jewish leaders will talk about the tension between keva and kavannah.

Hebrew Language

The first problem for many interfaith families is that the set liturgy is in Hebrew, with a few prayers of the traditional liturgy in the related Semitic language of Aramaic. In some synagogues, the congregation chooses to read many of the prayers in translation, while in other congregations more or all of the prayers are in the original language. There has been a trend in the Reform movement toward re-incorporating more Hebrew. As Hebrew has become a vital every day language for Jews in Israel and around the world, the biblical and medieval Hebrew of prayer has become more intelligible.

For anyone who didn't grow up praying in Hebrew, the foreign language can feel challenging, though some who are new to it also find it beautiful. For people who were raised Christian, it might be exciting to say, in Hebrew, some of the psalms Christians say in church. The few prayers in Aramaic, like the Kaddish, are in the same language that the historical Jesus probably used in daily life. The use of Hebrew language has advantages and disadvantages. It brings a feeling of authenticity to the service, but it may also be alienating if everyone is singing along and you are having trouble following.

There are several ways to cope with Hebrew. The most elegant but also most time-consuming solution is to learn the language. A more usual choice is to read the prayers in translation while others read in Hebrew. A third way is to get the Hebrew prayers transliterated in English letters, and learn to sing along. Many Jews and non-Jews alike go to services and don't know Hebrew, so there's no reason to feel bad or isolated about it. Even some who grew up with Hebrew school learned only enough to decode the letters, and struggle with what they mean. Most of us English-speakers are on the same page--so to speak--praying in a different language than we use for everyday life.

Ways of Adding Meaning to the Set Service

A lot of the current set text of the siddur is liturgical poems or piyyutim that various communities introduced as occasional pieces over the centuries and gradual integrated into the set service. Poems like "L'Cha Dodi" (Go, Beloved) and "Yedid Nefesh" (Dear Soul) are examples of these. The High Holiday liturgy is full of alphabetic acrostic poems that were added to make things more exciting. The Reform movement, starting in the 19th century, began to add similar poems in vernacular language. Your current prayer book may have many examples of these additional poems, either in Hebrew or in English.

Another way people have added meaning to the set prayers is by writing melodies that invest certain lines of the text with additional meaning. The tunes at your synagogue may speak to you. It's fun to get to know the prayers (or to get to know them again) by listening to recordings of them in settings from different countries--super formal and Western and classical, or funky acapella Hasidic, or tunes from African or Mediterranean communities. If you don't find the tunes beautiful or enhancing, and you are musical, participating in bringing new tunes may help you to find spiritual fulfillment in the services.

Some find that they get more out of Hebrew prayer when they understand it better. Knowing the history of prayers, how old they are, who said them first, touches me and speaks to me. I liked reading Ismar Elbogen's Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, and I frequently hit the footnotes and back pages of the various siddurim. I love a good Biblical Hebrew dictionary and I enjoy seeing alternative versions of Hebrew prayers--and I know I'm not the only one writing for this website who is a liturgy geek. You don't have to start with a high level of Jewish education to enjoy studying the traditional prayers.

You may be different. Many people don't like to know what the prayers say. They find comfort in the fact that they're saying what their grandparents said. They don't want to know what it all means. That is fine! It's a connection. I don't think it will work as well for partners who are not Jewish and people new to Judaism, but it might. It might be a way to connect with the Jewish people. Connecting without intellectual understanding is a valid way to get something out of the set prayers. You may feel the most emotional response this way.

Some Jewish congregations make small changes to the Hebrew liturgy so that it better reflects their current beliefs. It's become standard in many communities in North America to recite the names of the Mothers of Israel as well as the Fathers in the Avot prayer. The Reform movement has always omitted prayers for the restoration of Temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. Most congregations, including Orthodox ones, add a prayer for the State of Israel, one that couldn't have existed before the state itself. This is another way to approach the issue of set prayer.

There is also an esoteric tradition of meditation on the prayers from kabbalah that some today have reclaimed as a method of engaging spiritual with set liturgy. Late 20th-century Orthodox scholar Aryeh Kaplan's book, Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide provides a brief introduction for a popular audience to some Jewish meditation techniques. Organizations like Nishmat Hayyim, the Jewish mediation collaborative provide in-person retreats and classes with people who are reclaiming Jewish meditation or integrating meditation from other traditions with Judaism. Nishmat Hayyim offers a page of links to texts on Jewish meditation.

The siddur--traditional prayerbook--is not completely static, and we are not the same each time we come to pray from it. The book constitutes a record of other people's spiritual experience, from the period of the Torah until today, and you may find their words resonate with you. It is OK if it doesn't speak to you right now, since Jewish spirituality isn't only about prayer experiences. Sometimes it's enough to be there to support other people in their happy and sad times and to be part of the community.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "intention," referring to having the proper mindset necessary for carrying out rituals or the commandments. Plural form of "siddur," Hebrew for "prayer book." Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. Hebrew for "intention," referring to having the proper mindset necessary for carrying out rituals or the commandments. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
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