What day do Jews go to the synagogue?
Jewish liturgy, Torah and festivals
The liturgical year
In Judaism, religious rites and customs both inside and outside the synagogue play an important role as preservers of religious consciousness and sustaining the Jewish community. Attending weekly church services, celebrating various holidays together, observing various Torah commandments, passing on the Hebrew language, invoking a separate calendar - all of this gave and gives Judaism uniformity and survival power despite the worldwide dispersion of its members.
The liturgical year in Judaism forms its own cycle, which is set out in the lunisolar calendar. In contrast to the usual Gregorian calendar, this calendar is based on the course of the moon. The Jewish year begins with the month of Tishri, that is in September / October. This is followed by 12 lunar months of 29-30 days each. A day begins at sunset, the new week at the end of Shabbat, on Saturday. This moon-oriented time calculation differs from the usual solar calendar by about 11 days. In order to ensure that the festive season and public holidays fall in the right season, a thirteenth month is added approximately every three years according to fixed rules.
The center and starting point of the Jewish liturgy is the reading of the Torah, the five books of Moses. It is divided into 54 sections, so-called Paraschot. A divine service is held on the last day of the week, the Shabbat, in which a section of the week is read continuously. The solemn celebration of Shabbat is an important part of the Jewish liturgy.
The church service
The dignitaries elected by the congregation ensure that the service is solemn and regulated. The rabbi is the contact person for religious questions and the pastor of his parishioners. The task of the prayer leader, however, is shared by the kore, the reader, and the chazan, the cantor or cantor. In some municipalities this office is held by one person. It is the responsibility of the kore to recite the weekly passage from the Torah scroll. This requires an extremely good knowledge of the text, because the Torah scroll is still notated today without vowels and punctuation marks. At the same time, the kore must have a good musical memory, because the sacred text is recited in a precisely defined singsong and rhythm. For certain sections of the Torah there are fixed, catchy melodies that the chazan is responsible for performing. In addition to a very good musical feeling and a pleasant singing voice, the chazan must also have a certain stamina, because the services are usually long and the lecture is held while standing. A consistently high concentration is also important, because the service is only considered to have been adequately performed if the Holy Text is recited correctly.
The Cohanim - Hebrew plural for priests - are also used on high holidays. The term “priest” does not mean a preacher in the Christian understanding. A Cohen is considered a direct descendant of the Levites, the biblical high priests in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. His privileged status in the synagogue is derived from this. According to the fourth book of Moses, it is up to the Cohanim to say God's blessings on the children of Israel. This Aaronic blessing or priestly blessing is spoken during the main prayer over the congregation, with Kore and Cohen praying together:
May the Eternal bless you and keep you; the Eternal let his glitz shine for you and be gracious to you; the Eternal turn his glitz to you and give you peace!
(Numbers 6: 24-26)
In addition to the duties of the official dignitaries, there are also a number of honorary offices or mitzvot that can be carried out by any parishioner. Mitzvot usually include smaller tasks as part of the service, such as opening and closing the doors of the Torah shrine, carrying the Torah scroll to the lectern, unrolling and holding, decorating and returning the Torah after use. This enables every believer to take an active part in the worship service.
The most important church service in the course of the week takes place on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. The Shabbat begins on Friday at dusk with a ritual devotion in the company of the family. The believers gather in the synagogue for the main service on Saturday morning. The "Shema Yisrael" - the confession of the only God and the observance of his commandments - and the Amida - the eighteen supplication - are prayed together. They can be found along with other prayers and blessings in the Jewish prayer book, the Siddur.
The most significant part of the service, however, is the recitation of the new part of the week. On this occasion, the valuable Torah scroll is taken from the Torah shrine, a cabinet on the east wall of the synagogue, and ceremoniously carried to the Bima, the lectern in the middle of the house. There she is received by the kore, the chazan and a rabbi. Every member of the congregation can now “be called to the Torah”, that is, recite the prescribed praise before and after the reading. The core text, however, is read by the Kore himself, whereby he is visible to all with a pointer, the Jad (Hebrew hand) moves along the corresponding lines in the Torah scroll. The chazan sings individual prayers, psalms and hymns. Those present follow the lecture in their printed Bibles. At the end of the reading, the roll is ceremoniously stowed away again.
In addition to the Shabbat, the liturgical year of Judaism includes a large number of other festivals and holidays. The Jewish festival cycle begins in the month of Tishri (September / October) with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year festival. In contrast to the Christian tradition, the beginning of a new year in Judaism is marked by remembrance and atonement. The ten-day period of penance is traditionally blown in by the shofar, an instrument made from the horn of a ram. By eating an apple dipped in honey, the believers symbolically ask for a mild and healthy year. The dead are also commemorated with a walk to the cemetery. At the beginning of the New Year, many Jews take so-called half-fasting days, which means that they do not eat anything until noon.
The time of repentance ends, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, with Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”. It is considered the highest and holiest holiday in Judaism. On Yom Kippur, devout Jews adhere to a strict rule of fasting and devote themselves exclusively to prayer. In some places white clothes are worn on this day in memory of their own mortality. The day ends with a common profession of faith in the synagogue and a final blow of the shofar.
The ten days of repentance are followed in the same month by Sukkot, the nine-day feast of tabernacles. It is a celebration of joy and vitality that unites thanksgiving and commemoration. A hut made of natural materials is being built with the whole family and will be used as a place to live for a week. This is a reminder of the living conditions of the Israelites after they left Egypt. As a token of their gratitude for the gifts of God, the family ties a lulav, a shrub that stands next to the hut and is taken with them to the synagogue for the next seven days, from four types of plants.
Sukkot ends with a special festival, Simchat Torah, the "day of joy in the law". In the service, the last part of the week of the Torah is read and the scroll of the law is rolled back from the beginning. Exuberant celebrations accompany this special day, the children get sweets. In some communities the Torah scroll is carried around the lectern several times, dancing and singing.
Hanukkah, the “festival of lights”, falls around the Christian Christmas season. The reason for this holiday goes back over 2000 years: with the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC, the Jewish people fought for autonomy against Hellenistic supremacy. The temple, the highest shrine of the Jews, had become a pagan place of worship under the Syrian king Antiochus IV. Epiphanes. When the Jewish rebel army recaptured Jerusalem, they rekindled the eternal light in the temple as a symbol of God's presence. According to legend, this light was on for eight full days, although the lamp oil would only have been enough for one day. In memory of this miracle, another light is lit on the Hanukkah candlestick every evening of the Hanukkah festival - until all eight lights are on. Hanukkah, with its traditional food, stories, games and gifts, is a family festival.
A rather small holiday is TubiSchevat, the New Year of the trees, which is celebrated in January / February. The festival goes back to a saying of the Mishnah, a collection of traditions of religious law. In the Jewish world it has become a tradition to spend this day outdoors, plant trees and eat as many different types of fruit as possible, preferably fruits that grow in Israel.
The celebration again takes place on Purim, the “festival of the lots” in the Jewish month of Adar (February / March). A biblical parable of the victory of faith over the frenzy of hatred of Jews forms the starting point for this festival: as it is written in the Book of Esther, the Persian Grand Vizier Haman intended to kill all the Jews of the empire and determined by lot the date of the extermination - the 14. Adar. Queen Esther, however, saved her people with wisdom and steadfastness, Haman ended up on the gallows. Every year on Purim, the story of the salvation of the Persian Jews comes back to life. Lots of food and wine, imaginative parades, costumes, theater plays and happy noise make it one of the most colorful festivals in the Jewish year.
Passover, which is in the month of Nissan (March / April), also has its origins in biblical history. It is also called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” and commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. After God sent ten plagues on the Egyptians to save his people, the Hebrews left their homes in a rush to flee into the desert. They didn't even have time to let the bread ferment for the journey. From this story arose the custom of preparing matzo over Passover, flatbreads made from flour, water and salt and eating them instead of bread. Traditionally, there is also a very thorough house cleaning on Passover: not a single crumb of leavened bread can be found in the apartment, every corner of the house is ritually searched for forgotten pasta with a candle. On the first evening of Passover, the Seder evening, the family gathers around a richly set table after going to the synagogue. There are all kinds of symbolic dishes on it, which are named and blessed before they are eaten. The ritual return to the common history is intended to strengthen solidarity and community among the believers.
Fifty days after Passover, in the month of Siwan (May / June), Shavuot is celebrated. The "Festival of Weeks" has a secular as well as a religious origin. As a harvest festival, it celebrates the gathering of the wheat harvest in Israel. At the same time, it is also a feast day in honor of the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Exodus describes how Moses, disappointed in the idolatry of his people on the golden calf, smashed the first tablet with the Ten Commandments. The Hebrews prayed in atonement for fifty days. As a reward, God sent them a second tablet of the law. Their solemn reading is still the focus of the divine service at Shavuot today. Many believers also stay up all night to pray and study the Torah together.
The liturgy of Judaism is heavily ritualized and partly shaped by traditions that are thousands of years old. The annual recurrence of the feasts of remembrance, the repetitive cycle of reading the Torah, the common prayer in exactly the same wording as 2000 years ago - all of this creates a framework of constancy that is necessary for the survival of Judaism. In no other religion have the members lived and still live so widely and under such different cultural influences. Knowledge of the Jewish liturgy promises the believing Jew community and security, regardless of where in the world the Jewish worship is practiced. The cohesion of the Jewish people is based on this phenomenon even after 2000 years of the diaspora.
Text: Nora Zender (student at the Free University of Berlin) in collaboration with Dr. Annett Martini
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