Jewish Worship

The earliest recorded forms of Jewish worship are to be found in the Bible — formal sacrifices recognising the thanksgiving due to God either for His bounty or simply His forbearance and spontaneous songs of praise such as those sung by Moses and Miriam on the shores of the Red Sea after the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army. Slightly less obviously, the rabbis point out that, for example, Isaac ‘meditated in the fields’ and from this deduce that the business of regular prayer is as old as the Jewish People itself. The first recorded forms of regular and prescribed worship of the conventional kind were the sacrifices and other rituals set down in the Torah. Jews have come a long way since it was easy for a relatively homogeneous community to focus its process of worship in one place and maintain a priestly class to do most of the work for them. As we shall see however part of the process is still focussed on the same place, if not in it, but the spreading out of the community has resulted in much more democratic and widespread responsibility for the worshipping life of the Jew.

It is possibly no truer of Judaism than of other religions that to look only at prayers, services and liturgy when discussing worship is to investigate perhaps the least interesting and certainly the least pervasive form of worship in the life of Jews. However, for the record, we’ll start with them. Jewish prayer, as a rule, is set. The formal services leave little room for extempore prayer except at those points when the set prayers are said silently and the individual is on his/her own.

The original forms of daily sacrifice — contrary to popular imagination, mostly meal, oil and incense, or if an animal, the majority was eaten — were discon- tinued with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 7OCE. Already though, the synagogue was a fully formed centre for learning, meeting and prayer and it took up the slack very effectively. The daily services, morning, afternoon and evening, reflect the daily sacrifices, and the festival and Shabbat additional sacrifice is mirrored by an additional service. In this way these very physical sacrifices were transmuted into the text of prayer.

Prominent in these services are the Shema, morning and evening, which proclaims the oneness of God, our responsibility to love God and observe His Torah; the Amida, a standing prayer consisting of a number of supplications and blessings on weekdays, and praises on Shabbat and festivals; and Aleynu, a prayer which proclaims our duty to serve God and dreams of the messianic age when all shall be well with the world.

These prayers, in Hebrew, are more or less unchanged from the time of the destruction of the Temple and spend considerably more time addressing the sayer than God. The most important of them is said facing towards Jerusalem, wherever one may be in the world and so, although Jews have been dispersed from their centre, they have never allowed Jerusalem to be less than central in their prayers. A central feature of Shabbat and festival services is the reading from the Torah. The festival readings are chosen for their relevance to the occasion while the Shabbat readings work through the whole Torah on an annual cycle.

The reader reads (or chants) from a Torah scroll — handwritten with quill in ink on parchment (all kosher materials) — while the congregation follows from printed books. It is not uncommon, if the reader makes a mistake, for the congregation to call out and correct them, since the Word is more important than the person — who would anyway prefer to get it right. The taking out of the scroll from the Ark, its parading through the congregation, the holding up of it open to show the whole congregation what is being read, and its procession back to the Ark after the reading provide the main point of ceremony - and even pomp - in most synagogue services.

In terms of reverencing things, the sacred objects are those that contain the Name of God. Scrolls of Torah, mezuzot, and t’fillin are particularly cared for not least because such care went into their making, but printed prayerbooks and the like are equally deserving of respect. It is said that one should fast for a day if one drops one’s t’fillin, for example, and if one’s prayerbook is dropped, it is customary to pick it up and kiss it. I remember as a boy being genuinely shocked at the way my school friends threw their hymnbooks into their desks after assembly. With the increasing squeeze on money for textbooks, it might be no bad thing to linger with a class over this particular aspect of Jewish reverence!

The atmosphere in a synagogue is a relatively relaxed and informal one. As one moves more and more across the spectrum of orthodoxy, the atmosphere becomes increasingly informal so that in a very orthodox synagogue people will be coming and going, children will be running about and the hubbub of conversation could sometimes well nigh drown the leader of the service. That individual need not be a rabbi but can be any member of the congregation with the knowledge and the voice to make a stab at the traditional chants and melodies.

It is common for Jews to rock or sway as they say prayers and even during silent prayer the words may well be said aloud! This means that there is hardly ever a sense of stillness in a synagogue service and silence or peace is also hard to come by. The origin of such movement and noise is in the idea that saying prayers should not just be a cerebral thing but should involve the whole self. The result is that there is a curious privacy in the midst of it, because there seems to be no pressure or selfconsciousness because everyone else is so obviously involved in their own thing. It is not uncharacteristic of Jews to make even their communal activities contexts for individualism!

If worship is the recognition, praise and celebration of God in our lives, then for Jews a much more important forum for worship, however, is the home. Anyone who has considered the technical care that goes into preparing a kosher meal — ultimately only because it is an act of obedience — will see what a significant act of worship any ordinary meal must be. When one must not only vet the ingredients but also avoid the mixing of milk and meat, select the utensils and crockery accordingly, and so on, the business of recognising God in life becomes a very domestic and inescapable thing.

If that is true for any ordinary meal, how much more true is it of a festival or Shabbat meal. Interestingly, one of the requirements for Shabbat is the eating of three meals — two with their accompanying Kiddush over a cup of wine — the lengthy sung Grace After Meals and the table songs that intersperse the courses, and even the uninitiated observer would realise that they were present at the very heart of a vibrant tradition that is reaching beyond the merely physical and gastronomic.

It is no coincidence that many of the most famous and lasting features of Jewish family life are the significant meals. The Purim seuda (feast), the meal that starts and breaks the fast on Yom Kippur, the Friday evening meal and, of course, the famous Passover Seder are all examples of these memorable but regular meals of significance. All Jewish celebratory meals are social gatherings at which one of the main purposes is to have something to eat! The overtly religious parts are interspersed so that the whole process becomes an act of worship and eating is an act of acceptance of the bounty of God.

The Pesach Seder is a happy, family event. The extensive liturgy uses songs, symbolic foods, discus- sions, tongue-twisters, games and questions to deliver its message of the never-ending reality of the Exodus from Egypt. At the heart of the evening is a meal, perhaps the simplest and most natural demonstration that the Jews are a free people, but it is also an opportunity for family to pick up old news, for cousins to play together, for the generations to gather, for the little ones to stay up late and so on. The very fact of doing all this is a celebration of the continued existence of this family, which is basically what Pesach is about.

Meals and food are also significant at rites of passage. The wedding feast includes the seven blessings for the bride and groom said over a celebratory pair of goblets of wine, the contents of which are mixed before both of the partners drink. One of the essential requirements of a Brit Mila (a circumcision) is a ‘seuda mitzva’, a meal to celebrate fulfilling a commandment, and one of the first things that mourners do on returning from a funeral is to eat some prescribed foods which will focus their minds on mortality and God’s creation.

But it is not only the home and the synagogue which are foci for worship for the Jew. Firstly, of course, the daily services can be said anywhere at the appropriate time. Even when one is out on a picnic the laws of kashrut apply. The separation of milk and meat foods and the customary time allowed to lapse between eating one and the other means that if you have sausages for lunch at one o’clock, you would have to decline the offer of a piece of chocolate at three o’clock, drink only lemon tea or black coffee at your half past three break or wait till four o’clock by which time the three hours will have elapsed. It only needs a little reflection to realise that we hardly ever go three hours during our waking life without eating or drinking something and so we have to be constantly aware of the requirements of kashrut.

Another of the most pervasive traditions of Jewish worship is that of saying blessings. These are formula statements that always start with the words “You are blessed, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who . . .“ There are blessings for eating fruit, vegetables, cake, bread, fish, etc., for smelling flowers, for seeing the sea, a rainbow, mountains, arriving safely, hearing good news, hearing bad news, washing your hands, meeting someone important, getting up in the morning, lighting Shabbat candles, putting on the tallit, t’filin, fixing a mezuza — you name it, there is probably a blessing to praise God for it!

The rabbis in the Talmud recommended that one should try to say a hundred blessings a day. This appears like a very tall order indeed until you realise the subtlety of detail that they wished you to rejoice in and celebrate. Not for them a mere blanket blessing for a meal as a whole but rejoice in the vegetables, the soup, the cup of tea, notice each little detail. It is an intriguing challenge to count a hundred blessings in an ordinary day, not just the red letter ones. The spiritual discipline required to say something positive about every experience, even the bad ones, is considerable but produces its own reward.

The nature of the Jewish year involves another less tangible form of worship. The Jewish day starts at sunset. The Jewish month starts with a new moon. The festivals are often associated with agricultural events and some are explicitly and exclusively associated with the world of nature — for example, the New Year for trees. It is often forgotten that the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are all harvest festivals, marking a fact not commonly realised outside the countryside that there are many harvests in a year for different kinds of produce. Thus Judaism forces us to remember the natural order of the world.

The impact of this is considerable and increasing. As we move towards an increasingly urban and technological society, people could well be forgiven for forgetting that our presence in this world is a relatively precarious one and, whoever the retailer of our material comforts, the ultimate wholesaler is God. Children in our big cities are often not aware of the agricultural source of our food and both children and adults forget in central heating that people can die of cold or that sunset comes at different times during the year. Some are never prompted to look up at the sky and few now can remember when the season for apples or cucumber is. We cut down trees with cavalier indifference and set no time aside for replanting, and so on. Not so in the Jewish scheme of things. Necessarily, one watches the sun and the moon, notes the seasons. In the Sukka we discover how we cope without proper shelter and heating, on Yom Kippur we learn how to cope without food, on Tu B’Shevat we plant trees and we are always seeking out seasonal fruit to say the blessing on first fruit of the season.

As a child I was always asking how things grew so that I would know which blessing to say on the food in question — is it the blessing for things that grow in the ground or on trees? I still often glance up if I’m in a strange place to see which way the sun is shining— east tells you where Jerusalem is and, therefore, which direction to pray towards — when on holiday without a local Jewish calendar I watch on Thursday evening to see when the sun sets — that way I’ll know what time Shabbat will start the following evening, the prohibition on travelling on Shabbat means that I, a car owner, still have to notice the weather for at least one in seven days, the announcement of a new month in synagogue makes me glance into the sky and notice the new moon each month, the laws of kashrut make me notice when food has been treated so that it is not as pure or natural as it seems — notice the gelatine in most yoghourts now only because the pots are too weak to stand up for themselves! — and so on.

It is, of course, true that for the truly spiritual person all this comes naturally, but few of us can claim to be such exalted beings. For most of us, the ordinary things of life preoccupy us and it is difficult to find time for the cosmic. This formula approach at least helps the ordinary person not to forget the extraordinary.

For the teachers reading this article, the features of worship described above give many opportunities for experimentation in the classroom and access to the tradition without the often unproductive activity of ploughing through someone else’s intimate words coldly in order to find out what they really mean.

A model Seder is an always successful session. The children have an opportunity to join in, preferably with the preparations as well, it is constructed as an educational experience and, provided it is kept jolly, it is accessible to children in schools from about age nine through to sixth form (not to mention teachers and parents). A good abridged English version, with instructions, recipes and songs, designed to take about an hour, is available from the Board of Deputies.

Tu B’Shevat in January or February gives a marvellous opportunity to focus on trees. The custom of trying to eat fifteen different kinds of fruit from trees (preferably from Israel) gives many cross-curricular opportunities. (The reason for fifteen is that the festival falls on the fifteenth of the month, Shevat.) Discovering what grows on trees, what grows in Israel and trying to do the same about other countries in the world is both fascinating and enjoyable. The JNF (Jewish National Fund) provide attractive material on the agriculture of Israel.

The challenge to say one hundred blessings a day appeals particularly to that age-group that loves lists — the middle school child. It is a very effective way of slowing down their perception and experience of the world and encouraging their appreciation of it. Finding one hundred things to be grateful for (even if one does not want to be theistic about it) is a very constructive exercise for a child — and it has its different benefits whether the child’s life is deprived or affluent.

Without doubt there is good co-operation to be had with the CDT department in the building of a Sukka that will stand up for the duration of Sukkot in the sometimes inclement and blowy weather of October.

There is obviously work to be done with the Home Economics department as with the Science Department. Try working out ways in which a hospital in Israel (which obviously is required to break the laws of the Shabbat to save life) can introduce systems to keep those infringements to the minimum. There is History, Geography, Art, Music, indeed pretty well the whole National Curriculum here before one even starts on Religious Education!

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