Jewish Worship: Prayers, Practices and Religious Customs

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20120504-Grand_Rabbi_Aaron_Teitelbaumin_synagogue Hanukkah.jpg Judaism is a very complex religion, full of complicated rituals and elaborate prayers and texts. In ancient times, religious activity revolved around animal sacrifice and The Temple. After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, the focus of religious life shifted to prayer and incorporating religion into everyday life. Many Jews view every aspect of life as an opportunity to express their faith and love of God.

Daily prayer lies at the center of Jewish religious Devout Jews attend formal prayer services three times a day: 1) Shacharit in the morning; 2) Minchah in the afternoon; and 3) Ma'ariv in the evening. The Jewish day run from sundown to sundown. The Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat, day of rest), begins at sundown on Friday and continues to sundown on Saturday. The Sabbath hnors God's day of "rest" on the seventh day after six days of creation, as recounted in Genesis. The seventh day of creation is regarded as the first celebration of Shabbat, and the obligation to celebrate Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments. Daily prayers are collected in a book called the Siddur. [Source:]

To be a real Jew most Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews believe that you have to follow Jewish law and commit to the Orthodox lifestyle. This entails eating only kosher foods, regularly praying and reading religious scriptures and following a myriad of rules that many aspects of everyday life. Religious texts provide detailed rules on marriage, sex, birth, child rearing, business and death as well as what to do on religious holidays and how to practice their religion.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; ; Jewish Museum London

Judaism Practices

Jews generally do not proselytize though they did in the distant past. They have traditionally handed down their beliefs from parent to child, through parents understanding, and the attendance of religious school. Because of this religious life is centered very much around the home and community. Within Jewish communities, rabbis have traditionally exercised a great deal of control. In some cases they use corporal punishment and the threat of excommunication.

In the days of The Temple wine was poured over the altar during an animal sacrifices. Today it drunk at the close of the Sabbath, offered as a sign of welcome and used in circumcision and Passover ceremonies. “Without the Temple there is no way to fulfill many of the religious obligations such as ritual sacrifices, that the Torah requires. In Orthodox theology, that means that all Jews are stuck in a state of impurity, and are therefore unable to be in the presence of God.

Theology of offerings Relations between ritual and spiritual aspects: 1) Purification and cleansing. 2) Atonement and repentance. 3) Thanksgiving and honouring God. 4) Communion with God. 5) Petition; 6) For the welfare of the whole world; 7) Participation in communal occasions. [Source: BBC]

Cleanliness and purity are important aspects of religious practice and everyday life as they are in Islam and other religions. In ancient times "cleanliness was equated with moral purity." According to Jewish law, the hands must be ritually cleansed after rising from sleep, touching a corpse, urinating or defecating and before eating, praying, or performing rituals such as lighting candles.

Judaism, Candles, Lamps and Ram’s Horns

menorah in an ancient Jewish catacomb

The lighting of candles on the Sabbath and festivals is one of the most important Jewish rituals. This custom is linked to the Jewish belief that the spirit is like a light or fire. The candles are often lit while the following prayer is murmured: “Blessed are you Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has commanded us to light the lights of the festival.” When candles are lit at home the woman of the house has traditionally lit the candles, waved her hand over of the flame and covered her eyes.

Oil lamps and candles are lit as an expression of faith. Light, lamps and candles are all important symbols in Judaism. God is often compared with light and light is often mentioned in prayers such as “By your light, we shall see the light.”

A menorah is described in the Bible as the seven-lamp (six branches) ancient Hebrew lampstand made of pure gold and used in the portable sanctuary set up by Moses in the wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Throughout history the menorah has been a symbol of Judaism and Jewish people. The Hanukkah menorah, also chanukiah or hanukkiah, is a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah, as opposed to the seven-branched menorah used in the ancient Temple or as a symbol. On each night of Hanukkah, a new branch is lit. [Source: Wikipedia]

The shofar (a trumpet made from a ram’s horn) has traditionally been blown during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is also sometimes blown at the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday and during moments of celebration. According to Maimonides the purpose of the call is to encourage sinners to repent: “Awake you sinners, and ponder your deeds; remember your Creator, foresake your evil ways and return to God. It is considered a great honor to blow it.

Sacred and Holy in Judaism

Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The Hebrew term for "holiness" is kedushah, meaning the act of "setting apart," or dedication to God, who as the holy one and the creator of the universe is the source of all holiness. The act of dedicating oneself and one's actions to God constitutes the sacred in Judaism. Hence, it is said that Jews' relationship to God is preeminently through time and not space. It may, therefore, seem to be a paradox that one of the most frequent names for God in the Talmud is Makom, Hebrew for "space." The paradox is explained by a mid-rash ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (first–second centuries A.D.) on Psalm 90:1 — "… Lord, Thou has been our dwelling place in all generations" — pointing to the fact that wherever there are righteous and pious people "God is with them." [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s,]

Through pious deeds Jews sanctify the objects (food, drink, a residence, an object of beauty) and natural activities (sex, work, beholding beauty as well as tragedy) of the created order and thereby render them receptive to God's holy presence. These deeds include those specified by the Torah, as elaborated by the Halakhah, and those acts of reverence and morality that one must legislate to oneself. The rabbis, however, have held that it is life itself that is most sacred, and in order to preserve a life the precepts of the Torah may be suspended. Accordingly, they interpreted Leviticus 19:16 to mean "… neither shalt thou stand aside when mischief befalls thy neighbor," and hence if someone is, say, assaulted, it is incumbent upon all who are in a position to help to do so, even if this entails abrogating the ritual commandments of the Torah.

In Judaism reverence is accorded to ritual objects, and in this sense they are regarded as sacred. Religious books written in Hebrew, "the sacred tongue," starting with the Bible, are regarded as sacred. Hence, when these books become worn and no longer fit for use, they are not simply discarded but rather are reverentially buried in a cemetery, often in the grave of a great scholar or particularly pious person. In some communities it is the custom to store Hebrew texts, including correspondence dealing with religious matters, that are no longer in use in a special vault, or genizah (hiding place), usually in the synagogue.

Jewish Prayers

Jews have three set times for prayer: morning, afternoon and evening. The Jewish prayer book (siddur) has special services set down for each of these. The basic Jewish prayer is the “shema” (meaning “hear” or “obey”), the Jewish declaration of faith and unity. It is repeated in the morning and evening by every practicing Jew and is the first prayer whispered in a child's ear after birth and last said to a person on his or her deathbed — and were the last words of Jewish martyrs. It begins: “Hear O’Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is One (Deuteronomy vi, 4) or “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one....”

20120504-Tefillin Israel_Defense_Force.jpg
an Israeli officer praying
Jewish liturgy (prayer service) is described as “the service of the heart.” The most basic command is “Be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Other prayers include the “Amidah” , a series of benedictions based on the phrase, “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe.” An integral part of a Jewish prayer service is reading from the Torah, which is divided into sections so that the entire Torah is read in the span of a year. Also read is a passage from the twenty-one books of the Prophets (Nevi'im). These readings are accompanied with great ceremony, as the Torah is carried around the room and then set on a bimah, or podium, where a member of the congregation (group of worshippers) is often given the honor of reciting a blessing over it. [Source:]

The composition of each prayer service differs depending on the time of day and, in some cases, the day of the week. For instance, evening prayer consists of the Shema, the Shemoneh Esrei, and the Aleinu. The morning service adds other prayers and includes the reading from the Torah. The afternoon service includes a reading from the book of Psalms, the Shemoneh Esrei, and the Aleinu. Further, the Jewish service can differ for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, and it also differs for Jews from the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. While there are differences, however, the core of the service (blessings, praise of God, readings from the Torah) remains the same. [Source:]

Prayers are supposed to be addressed to God and God only. There are many prayers in the Bible. They tend to be private and individualistic. Communal prayer developed after the Bible was written. J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia On awakening, the pious Jew praises God for having made the new day. He blesses Him for having given him sight, for clothing him, for having renewed his strength, for granting him the power to walk, for putting firm ground under foot. There is a whole system of blessings accompanying the observant Jew throughout the day. (see berakhot.) If rightly used, such blessings open his heart to God's nearness and the many manifestations of His goodness. Yet like all acts to be performed at stated times, they are in danger of becoming routine.[Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

For centuries prayers were memorized and passed down from generation to generation. Prayer books were not introduced until around the 9th century. Modern prayer books — which include the “Siddar” (daily prayers) and the “ Mahazar” (festival prayers) — generally are printed in Hebrew on one page and have a translation on the facing page. Many of these prayers are taken from the psalms. One of the most important is the Hebrew blessing of the Sabbath candles. These days, many Jews don’t know the words.

Purpose of Jewish Prayers

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Morning Torah reading
The goal of a prayer is to become one with God. The 13th century Jewish philosopher Nahmanides asserted: “Whoever cleaves to his Creator becomes eligible to receive the Holy Spirit.”

Jews believe that prayer builds the relationship between God and human beings and that when people pray, they spend time with God. Praying regularly enables a person to get better at building their relationship with God. Jews believe practice makes perfect and sincerity is important. To pray is to serve God with your heart, obeying God's commandment: love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul,” — Deuteronomy 11:13 Jews also believe that spending time with prayers recited by other Jews enables a Jewish person to absorb the spiritual teachings of the Jewish people. [Source: BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

According to the BBC: “Jews, like other people of faith, pray in many different ways. 1) They pray so that their hearts can reach out to God. 2) They pray to express and exercise their beliefs. 3) They pray to share in the life of a worshipping community. 4) They pray to obey God's commandments The important things about prayer are: 1) You should do it with total concentration on God-there should be nothing else in your mind. 2) The prayer should be completely from the heart. |::|

Types of Prayer in Judaism

According to the BBC: “There are three different sorts of prayer, and Jewish people use all of them. These are prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of praise, and prayers that ask for things. Jews believe that God will take action in response to prayer, and a teaching from the rabbis tells us that the more we ask God to help us, the more God will love us. (Midrash Tehillim 4:3) [Source: BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“But prayer doesn't just do the things that the words say it does-thanking, praising, requesting. 1) Prayer changes our faith, and it changes us too. 2) Praying with heart and mind and soul takes a person into a state of being that is different from their everyday awareness. 3) Prayer enhances a person's closeness to God. 4) Prayer enhances a person's closeness to their fellow Jews The formal prayer in the synagogue provides a weekly (if not daily) revision class in the fundamentals of Jewish belief. 5) Helping Jews to remember what they believe. 6) Helping Jews find new insights into their relationship with God and with each other. |::|

“Observant Jews will say a blessing over everything they eat or drink, and in the face of many natural events. Doing so acknowledges that God is involved in everything. So before drinking wine a Jew would say (in Hebrew): ‘Blessed are You - the Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. Or on seeing trees blossoming for the first time in the year: Blessed are You - the Lord our God, King of the universe, who has withheld nothing from His world, but has created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees for the enjoyment of human beings.’” |::|

Commonly-Recited Jewish Prayers

praying at a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia

The oldest Jewish prayer is the Shema, which consists of passages from two books of the Torah, Deuteronomy (chapter 6, verses 4 through 9) and Numbers (chapter 15, verses 37 through 41). According to Another important prayer, one that is at the center of every Jewish service, is the Shemoneh Esrei, which means "eighteen" and refers to eighteen blessings. (The prayer is also called the Amidah, which means "standing," since the congregation stands when the prayer is recited, or Tefilah, meaning "the Prayer.") The Shemoneh Esrei consists of three groups of blessings. The first group praises God; the second group makes thirteen requests for such blessings as redemption (salvation), forgiveness, and health; and the third group expresses gratitude. [Source:]

Many non-Jews believe that a Jewish prayer called the Kaddish is recited only by mourners (those grieving for a loss). While there is a variation of the Kaddish that is used for mourning, the Kaddish, which echoes the language of the book of Ezekiel (chapter 38, verse 23) is recited more generally in praise of God. One reason for its significance is that it is written not in Hebrew but in Aramaic (a southwest Asian language related to Hebrew and spoken by Jews during the Babylonian exile). Yet another prayer, which is recited at the end of every prayer service, is the Aleinu, which also praises God. [Source:]

A portion of it, as reproduced on the Jewish Virtual Library, reads:May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified [holy] 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.

Jewish Prayer Rituals

Prayers are regarded as obligatory but the setting is not. They can be performed at anywhere and anytime. Ideally, however, set prayers are recited in a “miryan” , a group of at least 10 men, in a synagogue.

During prayer Jews are supposed to cover their head (men wear a “yarmulke” ). Men also cover their shoulders or head with a fringed prayer shawl called a “tallit” . Orthodox men always wear a small version of the prayer shawl under their clothes and always have their heads covered. The colors on the Jewish prayer shawl are on the Israeli flag.

During prayers some Jews wear “tefillin” , a black leather box with passages of the “shema “ from the Torah coiled inside. The tefillin is worn on the head and sort of resembles the thing doctors used to wear on their head. Jews who wear these phylacteries ascribe to the dictum from Exodus calling on males to wear "a memorial between the eyes." Observant Jews are expected be earnest and smooth when they say their prayers. Davening is the traditional practice of rocking back and forth while praying. The swaying and chanting performed by many conservative Jewish men when they pray is not all that different from what Muslims do when they recite passages from the Koran and shaman do before they go into a trances.

Ultra-Orthodox often sway over prayer books. Describing a group of men praying before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Doug Struck wrote in the Washington Post: “Men raise prayers and supplications in a plaintive cry. Draped in white prayer shawls, they huddle around Torahs and bow rapidly to the Wall, singing the scriptures in a mournful voice that carries the sorrow of the ages.” Women are not supposed to pray aloud. Their voices are considered to be “provocative and rude.”

Praying at a Synagogue

According to the BBC: Much of Jewish prayer consists of reciting the written services aloud in synagogue. Praying in public affirms that a person is a member of a community, and when they do so, an individual puts themselves into the context of other Jews, and to some extent puts their own particular situation aside to put the community first. It's also an act of togetherness with Jewish people who are doing the same all around the world. And attending regular services, and following the order of the prayer book, is a valuable spiritual discipline, and a mechanism that enables a person to spend time with God on a regular basis. [Source: BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

Bukharan Jews

The Jewish prayer book is drawn from the writings of the Jewish people across the ages. It contains the wisdom of great thinkers, and some of the most beautiful Hebrew poetry. For example, this extract from the Morning Service is a profound lesson in the nature of God, as well as an act of worship.

Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being; blessed be He.
Blessed be He who maintains the creation.
Blessed be He who speaks and performs.
Blessed be He who decrees and fulfils.
Blessed be He who has mercy upon the earth.
Blessed be He who has mercy on his creatures.
Blessed be He who pays a good reward to those who fear Him.
Blessed be He who lives for ever, and endures to eternity.
Blessed be He who redeems and saves; blessed be his name...

Shema (Prayer)

Structure of Daily Prayer (Rabbinic)
The Shema':
Blessing #1: "...Who creates light /evening"--Creation
Blessing #2: "...Who chose Israel in love"--Revelation of the Torah.
The Shema':
Deut. 6:4-9,
Deut. 11:13-21,
Numbers 15:37-41: Fringes: "...I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God" Blessing #3: "Redeemer of Israel"--Redemption

Jews are expected to recite a morning and evening Shema', and when you lie down, and when you rise:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD;
and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way,

Deuteronomy 6 reads: And if you will obey my commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may ga ther in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be full. Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worshi p them, and the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and he shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit, and you perish quickly off the good land which the LORD gives you.

Yemeni Jew

From the Mishnah, Berakhot:
1:1: From what time does one recite the Shema in the evening? From the time when the priests go in to eat of their heave-offering until the end of the first watch. ...
1:3: The House of Shammai say: In the evening everyone should recite it while reclining, and in the morning they should be standing, as it says: and when you lie down, and when you rise.
And the House of Hillel say: Every one should recite it in their normal manner, as it says: and when you walk by the way.
If this is so, then why does it say and when you lie down, and when you rise ? At the time when people lie down and at the time when people rise up.

Rabbi Tarfon said: I was once traveling on the road and lay down in order to recite, according to the view of the House of Shammai, and I placed myself in peril of robbers. They said to him: You deserved to pay the penalty for disregarding the view of the House of Hillel. 2:2: Said Rabbi Joshua ben Qorhah: Why does the Shema' precede the And if you will obey... ? Rather: In order that one should first of all accept upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, and afterwards accept the yoke of commandments...

The Tefillah ("Eighteen Benedictions"):
First section: Praise .
Second section: Petitions .
Third section: Thanksgiving

World’s Oldest Jewish Prayer Book

In 2014, a 1,200-year-old Jewish prayer book (siddur) — believed to be the oldest in the world — was unveiled for the first time at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum. Daniel K. Eisenbud wrote in the Jerusalem Post: “The siddur, which originates from the Middle East and is 50 pages long, is written in Hebrew and still encased in its original binding, the museum said. It contains three main sections, including the morning service, liturgical poems, and the haggadah, read during the Passover seder. [Source: Daniel K. Eisenbud, Jerusalem Post, September 18, 2014]

“Through sophisticated carbon-test dating methods, it was determined to date back to the first half of the 9th century AD, dating back to the period of the Babylonian Geonim, who were the generally accepted spiritual leaders of the global Jewish community in the early medieval era.

Amanda Weiss, executive director of the Bible Lands Museum, described the prayer book as a “treasure of the Jewish people.” “This is… evidence of a thriving and creative community and cultural life 1,200 years ago and we are honored to have it in our Book of Books exhibition,” she said. “We are happy for the opportunity to provide our visitors the privilege to see in person the ancient prayer book during the final month of the exhibition.”


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Israeli soldier reading a prayer
wearing a tefillin
Tefillin (also called phylacteries) are two small cubic black leather boxes that contain verses from the Torah. They are worn on the head and on one arm and are held in place by leather straps in accordance with line from Deuteronomy that reads: “And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” Observant men and boys who have had their Bar Mitzvah usually wear tefillin on their head and their arm during weekday morning prayer. Women do not usually wear tefillin, though this practice is changing.

According to the BBC: “Observant Jews consider wearing tefillin to be a very great mitzvah (command). The boxes contain four hand-written texts from the Bible, in which believers are commanded to wear certain words on the hand and between the eyes. The texts are Exodus 13:1-10, 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:12-21. The hand tefillin has all four texts written on a single parchment strip but the head tefillin has four separate compartments, with a single text in each. Jewish men start wearing tefillin just before their Bar Mitzvah. [Source: BBC |::|]

Wearing tefillin is based upon biblical law. Deuteronomy 6:5-9 states: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your might. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.” [Source: Ariela Pelaia, September 4, 2016 +]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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