Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Synagogue

When large numbers of Jews moved from Israel to the Greek speaking world, they translated the Hebrew words Beth Haknesset into Greek. Beth Haknesset means house of assembly. Syn or sym is Greek for “together” as in symphony or to sound together; sympathy, i.e. to feel together; symposium, to drink together, and syn and agein to lead, hence to lead together or to assemble. (P.S. If you want your children to get good marks in English, have them study Latin and Greek. English is one half Greco-Latin).

If you enter a Beth Haknesset you can wear a hat or place a “kippah” on your head. You can also wear a prayer shawl known as a tallith. Among Reform Jews this is optional. Conservative Jews demand that all men wear a kippah and a tallith while for women it is optional. Among orthodox Jews only men wear these items as women are segregated from men behind a curtain or some other device known as a Mechitzah.

On a weekday morning or afternoon you will find that those who hold daily services will try to put together a quorum or Minyan of ten. In orthodox synagogues these must be men. Among Conservative and Reform Jews women are also counted into the Minyan of ten. Not all synagogues have a Minyan every day.

The morning service consists of preliminary prayers, blessings, the Shemah Yisroel which affirms the basis of the Jewish religion, i.e. the belief in one God. At each service, evening, morning and afternoon, the Eighteen Blessings are recited. These are called Shemonay Essray which means eighteen in Hebrew. At the end of each service there is a concluding prayer. That is often sung and is usually Adone Olam, meaning Lord of the Universe. It ends with the sentence “Adonai Lee, v’lo eerah” meaning “The Lord is with me, I shall not fear.”

On weekday mornings, but not on Shabbat or Holy Days, congregants will put “Teffilin” on their arm and forehead. The word Teffilin is derived from the Hebrew word for prayer, i.e. tefillah. The leather straps are wound around the right arm and hand in a prescribed fashion. One strap is placed on the head. Both straps include a small square box containing four biblical verses inscribed on strips of parchment.

Two are from Exodus and two from Deuteronomy (Greek for “this second law”). We use the Teffilin in order to fulfill the commandment found in Exodus 13:9, “And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and for a memorial between your eyes.”

I listed the evening prayer first because all Jewish days begin in the evening inasmuch as the Torah tells us “……it was evening and it was morning the first day.” Therefore, all days must begin in the evening.

The morning prayer is called Shacharit. This service again includes preliminary prayers, the Shema, the eighteen blessings and on Shabbat, on Holy Days, and on every Monday and Thursday a reading from the Torah. This means that some Jewish youngsters are Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah on Monday or Thursday, particularly when there is a legal holiday. The reason for reading the Torah on Monday and Thursday as well as on Shabbat is that in ancient Israel Monday and Thursday were market days in Jerusalem. Farmers brought their produce there on those two days and stayed to hear the Torah read.

On Shabbat the synagogue service is divided into four parts. First come the preliminary prayers, i.e. the warm up. These are generally said by a lay person. Then the cantor (Latin for singer), or Chazan, continues with the morning prayers, then there is the Torah service and finally the Musaf or additional prayers.

The Torah includes not only the five books of Moses but also the prophets and the writings. In Hebrew, Torah, Neveeiym and Chesuveem. This is shortened to Tenach. Then we have the earlier prophets, namely, Joshua, Judges, Samuel 1 and Samuel 2, First and Second Book of Kings and Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Then there are twelve minor prophets whose names you can look up yourself and read. We also include in the Torah Psalms, Proverbs, Job and the five scrolls, that is, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther, and finally Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and the First and Second book of Chronicles. A lot to read.

Every Shabbat we read a segment from one of the prophets or from one of the other books which corresponds in some manner with the part read from the Five Books of Moses. These five books are divided into Parshas or Segments. The first book, Beraysheet, or Genesis, is divided into twelve segments. One is read on each of twelve Shabbatim. Exodus, or Shemoth, is divided into eleven segments. Vayikro, or Leviticus, is divided into eight segments, Bamidbar or Numbers is divided into ten segments and Devarim or Deuteronomy eleven parts. All told, then, the Torah is divided into 52 parts, one for every week of the year.

On holidays and on Shabbatim which precede an important holiday such as Pesach, a different segment of Torah will be read than would normally occur sequentially.

Reading the Torah is done according to a chant which is almost the same for Western or Ashkenazi Jews all over the world. There are some variations in the chant from country to country. That is also true of chanting the Prophets. This is generally done by a member of the congregation who can read Hebrew and knows the chant. The American manner of presenting the Haftorah is somewhat different from the European fashion so that experts can detect the difference of the German from the Lithuanian from the Galician etc.

During the Torah service the rabbi (from rav or more) prays for the sick. Those who have died are remembered at every service when we recite the “Kaddish”. That prayer does not mention death even once. It is a recital in praise of God. Look at the English translation.

Now that you have read this, your curiosity will be aroused. Now you will want to see all this for yourself. Remember that there is a great deal of congregational singing. So if you like to sing, meet your friends, enjoy the Bible, remember your deceased relatives, listen to an enlightened sermon, and, above all, get away from the daily grind, the telephone, the boss, the employees, the government, the newspapers and TV, go to any “shul” (from Yiddish, meaning school) this coming Saturday. Try it; you will love it.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2003).