The prayer service is built around the Shema and Shemoneh Esrei prayers
Torah reading is also an important part of many services
Knowing the organization of the prayer book will help you find your place
There are a number of traditional responses in prayer services
In the giving credit where credit is due department: much of the information in
this page is derived from Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin's
as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service", an
excellent Orthodox resource on the subject of
Observant Jews daven (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 the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism is the Shema. This
consists of Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21, and Num. 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
three daily sacrifices. There was an additional prayer service on
Shabbat 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 Tefilah (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 G-d, 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's 19! And didn't I 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 (including Christianity, which was a Jewish sect at the time), 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. Many non-Jews, upon
hearing that there is a blessing like this, assume it is much more offensive
than it actually is. Here is what it says:
For slanderers, may there be no hope; and may all wickedness quickly be
destroyed, and may all your enemies be cut off swiftly. The intentional
[sinners], swiftly may they be uprooted, broken, cast down and subdued, swiftly
and in our days. Blessed are you, L-RD, breaker of enemies and subduer of
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 54 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 (our leap years are 54 weeks long; regular years are 50 or so,
we double up shorter portions on a few weeks in regular years). 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. These are read at morning services on
Shabbat and some
holidays. In addition, at Monday and Thursday
morning services, we read part of the upcoming Shabbat's Torah portion (about
10 to 15 verses; the first aliyah of the week's portion).
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). It
is considered an honor to have the opportunity to recite a blessing over the
reading (this honor is called an aliyah). For more information, see
That's the heart of the Jewish prayer service. There are, however, many
additional prayers leading up to these things and following these things. 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 P'sukei d'Zimra (verses of
song), which includes a lot of Psalms and hymns. I like to think of it as a
warm-up, getting you in the mood for prayer in the morning. Some people don't
show up for services until after that "warm-up."
There are also a few particularly significant prayers. The most important is
the Kaddish, one of the few prayers in Aramaic,
which praises G-d. Here's a small piece of it, in
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
Kaddish as a mourner's prayer, because the oldest son is obligated to recite it
for a certain period after a parent's death, but in fact it is much broader
than that. I've been told that it separates each portion of the service, and a
quick glance at any siddur (daily prayer book)
shows that it is recited between each section, but I don't know if that is its
Another important prayer is Aleinu, which is recited at or near the end of
every service. It also praises G-d. 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 ... Therefore, we put our hope in you,
L-rd our G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty
splendor... On that day, the L-rd 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
Outline of Services
There are a few other things, but that's a pretty good idea of what's involved.
Here is an outline of the order of the daily services:
- Evening Service (Ma'ariv)
- Shema and it's blessings and related passages
- Shemoneh Esrei
- Morning Service (Shacharit)
- Morning Blessings
- P'sukei d'Zimra
- Shema and it's blessings and related passages
- Shemoneh Esrei
- Hallel, if appropriate
- Torah reading (Mondays, Thursdays, Shabbat and holidays)
- Aleinu, Ashrei (Psalm 145), and other closing prayers, Psalms and hymns
(not on Shabbat and holidays; recited at the end of Musaf instead on those
- Additional Service (Musaf) (Shabbat and holidays only; recited immediately
- Shemoneh Esrei
- Aleinu and other closing prayers, Psalms and hymns
- Afternoon Service (Minchah)
- Ashrei (Psalm 145)
- Shemoneh Esrei
This is based on the Ashkenazic service, but the Sephardic service has a very
similar structure. They use different music, and have a few variations in
choice of psalms, hymns, and prayers. See Ashkenazic and
Sephardic Jews for more information.
A regular weekday morning service in an
synagogue lasts about an hour. The afternoon
and evening weekday services (which are usually performed back-to-back) are
about a half-hour. A Shabbat or festival morning service, which includes
Shacharit and Musaf, runs three to four hours, but what else are you doing on
Shabbat? The service starts early in the morning and runs through to lunch
time. The evening service on Shabbat (that is, Friday night) and festivals are
also somewhat longer than on weekdays.
Variations from Movement to Movement
The above is from the Orthodox prayer book. 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 G-d who "gives
life to the dead," they praise G-d who "gives life to all" because they don't
believe in resurrection). The Conservative
version is very similar to the Orthodox version, and contains only minor
variations in the content of the prayers (instead of praying for the
restoration of the Temple with its "offerings and prayers," they pray only for
the restoration of its prayers). 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:
- In Orthodox synagogues, women and men are
seated separately; in Reform and Conservative, all sit together. See
The Role of Women in the Synagogue.
- In Orthodox and usually Conservative, everything is in Hebrew. In Reform,
most is done in English, though they are increasingly using Hebrew.
- 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
most of the time.
- Conservative and Reform are rather rigidly structured: most people show up
at the same time (or if they don't, they simply pick up where the group is),
and do 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. For example, different people
may have different customs about when to stand, when to bow, and so forth. This
is terrifying if you don't know what you're doing, but once you've got a
handle on the service, you'll find that it lets you concentrate on your
prayers, rather than concentrating on what everybody else is doing.
Navigating the Siddur
If you've never been to a Jewish religious service, following along can be
quite a challenge! Even if you are experienced, it's possible to get lost at
times. In fact, a friend of mine tells me she once heard a song called "The
I-Don't-Know-What-Page-We're-On-In-The-Siddur Blues"! In most synagogues, the
person leading the service will periodically tell you what page they are on,
particularly when pages are skipped. In some synagogues, they even have a
flip-board with the page numbers on it. Here are a few hints to help you stay
with the group, even if the leader isn't providing such assistance:
The biggest trick is being aware of the structure of the
siddur itself. The siddurs most commonly used in
synagogues include within a single volume all
of the prayers for all four prayer services (Shacharit, Musaf, Minchah and
Ma'ariv). Make sure you know which service you are attending. Normally,
services are held at two times of the day: morning (Shacharit and Musaf) and
early evening (Minchah and Ma'ariv). The morning services are generally at the
beginning of the siddur, while the afternoon and evening services are normally
in the middle.
Most siddurs include weekdays, Shabbat and most festivals in a single volume.
(Exception: Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur have such extensive additions that
they have their own separate siddur called a machzor). To save space, the
sections are not laid out exactly in the order they are recited, so you may
need to skip around the book a bit for certain sections. Usually, the prayer
leader will tell you when you are skipping around, but sometimes they will not.
Watch for notes in the siddur that will tell you to skip to different sections
depending on whether it is: 1) Shabbat; 2) a
Festival (i.e., non-working day); 3)
Chol Ha-Mo'ed (intermediate days of festivals); 4)
Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a Jewish month);
or 5) a weekday. Most of the major skips will occur at the breaks in sections
described above under Outline of Services above. For
example, a Shabbat morning service on Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) in
my siddur would begin with a generic Morning Blessings, then would skip 200
pages forward for a Shabbat/Festival P'sukei D'Zimra, Shema and Shemoneh
Esrei., then forward 200 pages to pick up Hallel (which is recited on Rosh
Chodesh), then back to where I came from for the Torah reading, followed by the
Musaf Shemoneh Esrei and the closing blessings.
Another skip that is confusing for most newcomers is the Shemoneh Esrei (also
called the Amidah). In traditional practice, congregants stand and read through
the entire Amidah silently, skipping the Kedushah blessing and the Priestly
Blessing. This is a very long prayer -- 10-20 pages in my siddur. The process
may take as much as five minutes, and the end is not always clearly marked.
Watch for Oseh Shalom (May He who makes peace in his heights make peace for us
and for all Israel, and let us say Amen). The Shemoneh Esrei ends with the
paragraph after that one. The leader of the service then begins repeating the
entire Shemoneh Esrei aloud, and you must flip back to the beginning to read
along with it. (Note: the Shemoneh Esrei is not repeated at Ma'ariv).
What to Say and What to Do
Another source of confusion for newcomers is what to say and what to do. When
do I say "Amen"? When do I stand or bow? Here are a few of the more common
things to watch for. There are a lot of these, and not all of them are easy to
spot the first time.
As a general rule, you say "amen" whenever someone else says a
blessing. It's sort of the Hebrew equivalent
of saying "ditto": when you say "amen," it's as if you said the blessing
yourself. Whenever you hear someone say "Barukh atah...", get ready to say
"amen." The "amen" may be at the end of the current sentence, or at the end of
the current paragraph.
Keep in mind that you only say "amen" when someone else says a blessing.
After all, it would be silly to say "ditto" after something you yourself said!
There are a few other places where "amen" is said. If the leader says "v'imru
amen" (let's say "amen"), you join in on the word "amen," so watch for the word
"v'imru." This comes up several times in the
Kaddish prayer. There is also an additional
"amen" within Kaddish: right at the beginning, after "sh'mei rabbah."
Other Responses to Prayer
On many occasions, when a person says, "Barukh atah
Adoshem," others who hear him interject "Barukh
Hu u'Varukh Shemo." This is generally recited very quickly, and often sounds
like "Barukh Shemo" (and some people say it that way). However, you do not do
this all the time, and I'm not sure how to explain the pattern of when you do
and when you don't.
There are several congregational responses in the
Kaddish prayer. We noted above the many "Amens"
within Kaddish. In addition, after the first "v'imru amen," the congregation
recites, "y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam ul'al'mei al'maya" (May His great
Name be blessed forever and ever). Also, after "sh'mei d'kud'sha" in the next
paragraph, the congregation joins the reader in saying "b'rikh hu" (Blessed is
He). All of this is usually clearly marked in the siddur. I have provided a
text of the Mourner's Kaddish, where you can see
this all laid out.
Whenever someone says "Bar'khu et Adoshem
ha-m'vorakh" (Bless the L-rd, the Blessed One) the congregation responds
"Barukh ha-m'vorakh l'olam va-ed" (Blessed is the L-rd, the Blessed One,
forever and ever). There are two times when this happens: the Bar'khu prayer (a
formal summons to prayer after P'sukei D'Zimra and at the beginning of
Ma'ariv), and as each person blesses the Torah reading.
During the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei, when the leader recites the
three-part priestly blessing (May the L-rd bless you and safeguard you... May
the L-rd illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you... May the
L-rd turn His countenance to you and establish peace for you...), the
congregation replies kein y'hi ratzon (so be it) after each of the three blessings.
You should stand at the following times:
- When the Ark is open.
- When the Torah is being carried around the
- During the Shemoneh Esrei, from the beginning of the silent portion until
after the Kedushah during the reader's repetition (Kedushah is the part that
includes the "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh" (Holy, Holy, Holy) blessing).
- During the Aleinu prayer, near the end of any service.
There are a few other prayers that require standing, but these are the most notable.
In addition, in Orthodox
synagogues, it is customary for everyone to
stand whenever Kaddish is recited, except for
the Mourner's Kaddish, where only the mourners
stand. The prayer is usually rather clearly marked as Kaddish, and begins
"Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba" (May his great name grow exalted and
sanctified). However, I have noticed in some non-Orthodox synagogues that the
congregants do not stand during regular Kaddishes, or sometimes stand during
has a special procedure for bowing during prayer: first you bend the knees,
then you bend forward while straightening the knees, then you stand up. See the
animation at right.
Bowing is done several times during the service:
- During the Aleinu prayer, when we say "v'anakhnu korim u'mishtachavim
u'modim" (which quite literally means, "so we bend knee and bow and give
- Four times during the Shemoneh Esrei (at "Blessed art Thou, L-rd" in the
beginning of the first blessing; at "Blessed art Thou, L-rd" at the end of the
first blessing; at "We gratefully thank You" at the beginning of the Modim
blessing and at "Blessed art Thou, L-rd" at the end of the Modim blessing).
There is also a special bow during the Oseh Shalom blessing: at "He who makes
peace in his heights," bow to the left; at "may he make peace," bow to the
right; at "upon us and upon all Israel" bow forward.
- During the Bar'khu blessing (after P'sukei d'Zimra and at the beginning of
Ma'ariv), the leader recites the Bar'khu blessing, during which he bows. The
congregation responds with "Barukh ha-m'vorakh l'olam va-ed" and bows.
- During Torah readings, when a person recites a
blessing over the Torah, this same Bar'khu and it's congregational response are
recited, with the same bowing. Often, the bow here is less obvious: seated
congregants just sort of lean forward out of their chairs.
Kissing the Torah
In any service where there is a Torah
reading, there is ordinarily a Torah
procession. A congregant holds the Torah and carries it around the
synagogue before and alfter the reading. As
the Torah passes congregants, they touch the cover with their hand (or
sometimes with a prayer book, or with their tallit) and then kiss their hand
(or whatever they touched it with). In Orthodox synagogues, where the Torah
procession often does not encompass the women's section, women generally reach
out in the direction of the Torah, then kiss their hands.
After a Torah reading, the Torah is held up in the air with its words facing
the congregation. It is traditional to reach out toward the Torah, usually with
the pinky finger, while reciting the congregational response (v'zot
ha-Torah...), then kiss the finger.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Of course, the best place to read about a Jewish service is in a siddur! The
one I use is The Artscroll Siddur
It is uncompromisingly Orthodox, but contains
detailed commentary and instructions for those who are less familiar with the
service. It's also available with an interliner translation
which can be helpful to learn the meaning of the prayers, but takes a bit of
getting used to!
The siddur used in most Conservative
Sim Shalom. The siddur I used in Reform
Prayer, though I gather that they are now moving to a new siddur published
In researching this page, I relied extensively on Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin's To
Pray as a Jew
and I recommend the book highly. I have also heard good things about the
Survival Kit by Jordan Lee Wagner, although I have not had a chance to
review it myself.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1995-2011), Tracey R Rich
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