Jewish Liturgy

Level: Intermediate

  • 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 "To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service", an excellent Orthodox resource on the subject of Jewish prayer.

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). The afternoon service for one day and the evening service for the next (which begins at sunset) are usually davened back-to-back so that a person only has to set aside time twice a day, but they are techically separate services.

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 for each service. It is the same root as the word seder, which refers to the Passover home service, which also has a fixed order.

Central Prayers

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 intentional [sinners].

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 Torah Readings.

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 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 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 purpose.

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 holiday.

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:

  1. Evening Service (Ma'ariv)
    1. Shema and it's blessings and related passages
    2. Shemoneh Esrei
    3. Aleinu
  2. Morning Service (Shacharit)
    1. Morning Blessings
    2. P'sukei d'Zimra
    3. Shema and it's blessings and related passages
    4. Shemoneh Esrei
    5. Hallel, if appropriate
    6. Torah reading (Mondays, Thursdays, Shabbat and holidays)
    7. 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 days)
  3. Additional Service (Musaf) (Shabbat and holidays only; recited immediately after Shacharit)
    1. Shemoneh Esrei
    2. Aleinu and other closing prayers, Psalms and hymns
  4. Afternoon Service (Minchah)
    1. Ashrei (Psalm 145)
    2. Shemoneh Esrei
    3. Aleinu

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 Orthodox 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:

  1. In Orthodox synagogues, 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 English, 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 most of the time.
  4. 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, there is a song about this, I Got the What Page Are We On In The Prayer Book 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 Orthodox and Conservative 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.

Saying "Amen"

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 room.
  • 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 Mourner's Kaddishes.


Judaism 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 thanks").
  • 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 after 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 (Hardback) (Paperback) 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 (Hardback), 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 synagogues for many years was Siddur Sim Shalom, though they are moving to a new one, Siddur Lev Shalem, though I'm not crazy about this one. The structure and contents are very traditional, but the text is so loaded down with alternate texts in the margins and extra words to gender neutralize (every reference to the word "forefathers" is followed by "and foremothers," etc.) that the text becomes too long and basic prayers get broken across pages in odd and confusing ways. But I do like the way they put the same page number on both the Hebrew page and the English translation page making it easier for everyone to stay together. On the Reform side, the siddur I used in synagogues many years ago was Gates of Prayer, though I gather that they have moved to a new siddur published in 2006, Mishkan T'filah.

In researching this page, I relied extensively on Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin's To Pray as a Jew (Paperback) (Kindle), and I recommend the book highly. I have also heard good things about the Synagogue Survival Kit by Jordan Lee Wagner, although I have not had a chance to review it myself.

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