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Jewish Journal

Eleven Things to Know Before You Go

by Rabbi Daniel Kohn

August 7, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Congratulations! You have been invited to the bar/bat mitzvah of a friend or family member. Now what? What are you supposed to do there? How do you act? Whether you are Jewish or not, the following is a brief guide to help you feel more comfortable at the worship service and enjoy the events as they unfold. It includes appropriate synagogue behavior, major sections of the service, the synagogue environment and service participants. Because customs vary from community to community, please contact the host family for further clarification.

General expectations for synagogue behavior include:

1. Dress

Guests at a bar/bat mitzvah celebration generally wear dressy clothes -- for men, either a suit or slacks, tie and jacket; for women, a dress or formal pantsuit (depending on the congregation where the ceremony takes place). In more traditional communities, clothing tends to be dressier.

2. Arrival Time

The time listed on the invitation is usually the official starting time for the weekly Shabbat service. Family and invited guests try to arrive at the beginning, even though the bar/bat mitzvah activities occur somewhat later in the service. However, both guests and regular congregants often arrive late, well after services have begun.

3. Wearing a Prayer Shawl

The tallit (prayer shawl) is traditionally worn by Jewish males and, in liberal congregations, by Jewish females. Because the braided fringes at the four corners of the tallit remind its wearer to observe the commandments of Judaism, wearing a tallit is reserved for Jews. Although an usher may offer you a tallit at the door, you may decline it if you are not Jewish or are simply uncomfortable wearing such a garment.

4. Wearing a Head Covering

A kippah (head covering) is traditionally worn by males during the service and also by females in more liberal synagogues. Wearing a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification like the tallit, but is rather an act of respect to God and the sacredness of the worship space. Just as men and women may be asked to remove their hats in the church, or remove their shoes before entering a mosque, wearing a head covering is a nondenominational act of showing respect. In some synagogues, women might wear hats or a lace head covering.

5. Maintaining Sanctity

All guests and participants are expected to respect the sanctity of the prayer service and Shabbat by setting your cell phone or beeper to vibrate or turning it off, not taking pictures, not smoking in the synagogue or on the grounds and not writing or recording.

6. Sitting and Standing

Jewish services can be very athletic, filled with frequent directions to stand for particular prayers and sit for others. Take your cue from the other worshipers or the rabbi's instructions. Unlike kneeling in a Catholic worship service -- which is a unique prayer posture filled with religious significance -- standing and sitting in a Jewish service does not constitute any affirmation of religious belief; it is merely a sign of respect. There may also be instructions to bow at certain parts of the service, and because a bow or prostration is a religiously significant act, feel free to remain standing or sitting as you wish at that point.

7. The Service: Try to follow the service in the siddur (prayerbook) and the Chumash (Five Books of Moses), both of which are usually printed in Hebrew and English. Guests and congregants are encouraged to hum along during congregational melodies and to participate in the service to the extent that they feel comfortable. During the Torah service (described below), the entire congregation is encouraged to follow the reading of the weekly Torah portion in English or Hebrew.

Major sections of the Shabbat morning service include:

8. The "Shema"

"Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." This passage from the Book of Deuteronomy and the three passages that follow constitute a central part of each morning and evening Jewish prayer service. Probably the most important single sentence in the liturgy, the "Shema" is not a prayer but rather an affirmation of the unity of God.

9. The "Amidah"

"Standing Prayer." The "Amidah," a series of prayers recited while standing in silent meditation, is the major liturgical piece of every synagogue service throughout the year. On a weekday, the "Amidah" contains prayers for the physical and spiritual well-being of the one praying as well as of the entire community of the people of Israel; on Shabbat we praise God for the joy of the Shabbat and the rest that we enjoy. It is perfectly acceptable and even desirable that people recite the "Amidah" in English, and worshipers are also encouraged to pray from their hearts if the printed words do not speak to them.

10. The Torah Service

Following the "Shema" and the "Amidah" is a transition from prayer to study. The primary study text is from the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses. This text has been written on the parchment of the Torah scrolls by a specially trained scribe.

The Torah is divided into -- and read in -- weekly portions, according to a prescribed calendar, so that the entire Torah is read in the span of one year. The cover and accouterments of the Torah scrolls recall the priestly garb of ancient Temple times.

Usually the rabbi, and sometimes the bar/bat mitzvah child or another congregant, delivers a d'var Torah, a word of Torah, that comments on the weekly Torah reading.

Once the Torah reading is over, another person -- usually the bar/bat mitzvah child -- chants a portion from the prophetic writings of the Torah. The haftarah (concluding teaching), is usually chosen to reflect a theme or literary allusion in the Torah portion. The purpose of the haftarah is not only to provide an opportunity to teach from a different section of the Bible, but also to assert that prophecy serves to reinforce the laws of the Torah.

11. Mourner's "Kaddish"

Although there is no mention of death in this prayer, the "Kaddish" is recited at the end of all worship services by family members who have lost a loved one in the past year or who are observing the anniversary of a death in years past. Despite sorrow and pain, the mourner rises to declare continuing commitment in praising God's name, to which we all respond, "Amen."

Reprinted from MyJewishLearning.com , a project of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation with additional funding from the Abramson Family Foundation, co-produced by Hebrew College and Jewish Family & Life.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality.

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