Welcome! So you’re visiting a synagogue (aka Temple) for Shabbat and you’d like to know what you’ll see and experience.
Shabbat (or Shabbos) שַׁבָּת is the Hebrew word for the Sabbath; it is Judaism’s weekly day of rest. What is Shabbat?
Interestingly, one of the most common Jewish words for our house of worship isn’t a Hebrew word. We say synagogue, from the ancient Greek συναγωγή, meaning ‘assembly.’
In Israel many Jews use the Hebrew terms – Beit Knesset בית כנסת , ‘house of assembly’ or בית תפילה beit tfila, “house of prayer.”
In Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish communities you may hear it referred to by a Yiddish word, שול shul.
In some Sephardic Jewish communities the synagogue has a name in the Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) language, אשנוגה esnoga, (bright as fire) or קהל kahal (assembly.)
Synagogues have a place for prayer (the main sanctuary) and may also have rooms for study, a kitchen ad social hall, and offices.
Some have a separate room for Torah study, called the בית מדרש beit midrash (house of study.)
A note on Shabbat observance and electronics: In observance of Shabbat we do not use cell phones on synagogue premises. Cell phones should be turned off. Of course for emergency workers on call, including medical personal, the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh פיקוח נפש says that those individuals on-call should keep one’s device on, on vibrate, in case one is needed.
Why do Jews pray?
Jewish people pray to God. But precisely how and why isn’t necessarily the same as how this is done in other faiths. One might want to look at the ways Jewish people understand prayer – Why pray? Jewish views
A head covering, the kippa (yarmulke) is worn as a sign of respect, reminding us of the One in Heaven above us. All male guests, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, wear one. Women may choose to wear a hat or head covering but there is no obligation to do so. However, women who ascend the bimah may be required to don a head covering; this tradition varies from community to community.
A tallit is a prayer shawl with knotted fringes, tzitzit, worn during morning prayers. They are only worn by Jews, never by non-Jewish attendees.
The Bible tells us, “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout their generations… and when you see them, you shall remember all of God’s commandments so as to keep them” (Num 15:38-40).
The knotting and winding pattern on the strings represents the 613 commandments in the Torah.
Here we see various styles of tallitot (plural of tallit)
You may see them looking like this –
The Siddur is the Jewish prayerbook, containing our three daily prayer services. Shacharit – morning prayers, Mincha – afternoon prayers, and Ma’ariv (also: aravit) – evening prayers.
Jews usually use two separate siddurim (plural of siddur) – One version for weekdays and another version for Shabbat and Festivals.
Parts of the Shabbat prayer service
Birkhot Hashachar – Morning Blessings
Morning blessings, traditionally said on waking up. These blessings focus are awareness of the miracles of life, of our soul, of Torah; there are readings from the Mishnah and Talmud on our obligations to other people.
A favorite reading of ours is on page 68, of Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals from Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Hosea, Micah, and tractate Sukkah.
Pisukei D’zimra – Verses of Celebration
We warm up for the morning prayers with blessings, and readings from Chronicles and Psalms. These ideas help condition us so we can say words of prayer with depth and integrity. Psalm 145 was uniquely treasured by the rabbis. It is the only Psalm traditionally recited three times daily: it extols God’s providence, which embodies all of creation.
Shacharit – The formal service
In this section we have the core prayers. The Barchu – our call to prayer – is recited; God’s creation of the world, and the remembrance of this with Shabbat is established; the service reaches a crescendo with the Sh’ma Yisrael, “Hear O Israel”, a statement of our monotheistic faith. We ride the wave of this crescendo with the Amidah (the standing prayer, said while facing Jerusalem) – our personal audience with God.
Kriyat Torah – reading of the Torah
Our reading of the Torah symbolically and emotionally recreates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Each Shabbat we read a section from the Torah. Each week congregations all over the world read the same parashah (weekly portion.) When one comes up to read blessings for reading the Torah, or reads from the scroll itself, one is said to have an aliyah.
Haftarah (additional Bible reading)
Each week we also read a selection from other books of the Bible. This offers another perspective on themes of the parashah.
A wonderful resource for all the Haftarah readings is The Haftarah Commentary, by W. Gunther Plaut and Chaim Stern.
In ancient times we had services in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Since our Temple no longer stands, the Musaf service is our remembrance of those times, and our replacement for it. We conclude the service with prayers for peace, and for the perfection of the world.
In many synagogues the end of the prayer service begins a time of socialization over food and drink.