Jewish Observances and Religious Buildings

Jewish Observances

Jewish Ethics

Jewish ethics may be guided by halakhic traditions, by other moral principles, or by central Jewish virtues. Jewish ethical practice is typically understood to be marked by values such as:

  • Justice
  • Truth
  • Peace
  • Loving-kindness ( chesed )
  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Self-respect

Specific Jewish ethical practices include practices of charity tzedakah ) and refraining from negative speech lashon hara ). Proper ethical practices regarding sexuality and many other issues are subjects of dispute among Jews.

Prayers

Traditionally, Jews recite prayers three times daily, Shacharit Mincha , and Ma’ariv with a fourth prayer, Mussaf added on Shabbat and holidays. At the heart of each service is the Amidah or Shemoneh Esrei . Another key prayer in many services is the declaration of faith, the Shema Yisrael (or Shema ). The Shema is the recitation of a verse from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4):

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad— “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God! The Lord is One!”

Young Jewish boy and man each wearing a yarmulke pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Figure 6-6 Prayers at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, Israël by Paul Arps is licensed under CC-BY 2.0 .

Most of the prayers in a traditional Jewish service can be recited in solitary prayer, although communal prayer is preferred. Communal prayer requires a quorum of ten adult Jews, called a minyan. In nearly all Orthodox and a few Conservative circles, only male Jews are counted toward a minyan; most Conservative Jews and members of other Jewish denominations count female Jews as well.

In addition to prayer services, observant traditional Jews recite prayers and benedictions throughout the day when performing various acts. Prayers are recited upon waking up in the morning, before eating or drinking different foods, after eating a meal, and so on. The approach to prayer varies among the Jewish denominations. Differences can include the texts of prayers, the frequency of prayer, the number of prayers recited at various religious events, the use of musical instruments and choral music, and whether prayers are recited in the traditional liturgical languages or the vernacular. In general, Orthodox and Conservative congregations adhere most closely to tradition, and Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues are more likely to incorporate translations and contemporary writings in their services. Also, in most Conservative synagogues, and all Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, women participate in prayer services on an equal basis with men, including roles traditionally filled only by men, such as reading from the Torah. In addition, many Reform temples use musical accompaniment such as organs and mixed choirs.

Religious Clothing

Kippah or yarmulke is a slightly rounded brimless skullcap worn by many Jews while praying, eating, reciting blessings, or studying Jewish religious texts, and at all times by some Jewish men. In Orthodox communities, only men wear kippot; in non-Orthodox communities, some women also wear kippot. Kippot range in size from a small round beanie that covers only the back of the head, to a large, snug cap that covers the whole crown.

Tzitzit are special knotted “fringes” or “tassels” found on the four corners of the tallit, or prayer shawl. The tallit is worn by Jewish men and some Jewish women during the prayer service. Customs vary regarding when a Jew begins wearing a tallit. In the Sephardi community, boys wear a tallit from bar mitzvah age. In some Ashkenazi communities it is customary to wear one only after marriage. A tallit katan (small tallit) is a fringed garment worn under the clothing throughout the day. In some Orthodox circles, the fringes are allowed to hang freely outside the clothing.

Tefillin , known in English as phylacteries, are two square leather boxes containing biblical verses, attached to the forehead and wound around the left arm by leather straps. They are worn during weekday morning prayer by observant Jewish men and some Jewish women.

Handmade yarmulkes at a stand in the Old City of Jerusalem. Yarmulkes are described in text.
Figure 6-7 Handmade Yarmulkes at a stand in the Old City of Jerusalem by galit hadari Pikiwiki Israel is licensed under CC-BY 2.5 .

Kittel , a white knee-length overgarment, is worn by prayer leaders and some observant traditional Jews on the High Holidays. It is traditional for the head of the household to wear a kittel at the Passover seder in some communities, and some grooms wear one under the wedding canopy. Jewish males are buried in a tallit and sometimes also a kittel, which are part of the tachrichim (burial garments). (35)

Jewish Holidays

Jewish holidays are special days in the Jewish calendar, which celebrate moments in Jewish history, as well as central themes in the relationship between God and the world, such as creation, revelation, and redemption.

Shabbat , the weekly day of rest lasting from shortly before sundown on Friday night to nightfall Saturday night, commemorates God’s day of rest after six days of creation. It plays a pivotal role in Jewish practice and is governed by a large corpus of religious law. At sundown on Friday, the woman of the house welcomes the Shabbat by lighting two or more candles and reciting a blessing. The evening meal begins with the Kiddush , a blessing recited aloud over a cup of wine, and the Mohtzi , a blessing recited over the bread. It is customary to have challah , two braided loaves of bread, on the table.

During Shabbat, Jews are forbidden to engage in any activity that falls under 39 categories of melakhah , translated literally as “work.” In fact, the activities banned on the Sabbath are not “work” in the usual sense:

They include such actions as lighting a fire, writing, using money and carrying in the public domain. The prohibition of lighting a fire has been extended in the modern era to driving a car, which involves burning fuel, and using electricity.

Three Pilgrimage Festivals

Jewish holy days chaggim ), celebrate landmark events in Jewish history, such as the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, and sometimes mark the change of seasons and transitions in the agricultural cycle.

The three major festivals, Passover Sukkot , and Shavuot , are called ” regalim ” (derived from the Hebrew word “regel” or foot). On the three regalim, it was customary for the Israelites to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple.

  • Passover (Pesach) is a week-long holiday beginning on the evening of the 14th day of Nisan (the first month in the Hebrew calendar), that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt . Outside Israel, Passover is celebrated for eight days. In ancient times, it coincided with the barley harvest. It is the only holiday that centers on home-service, theSeder . Leavened products (chametz) are removed from the house prior to the holiday, and are not consumed throughout the week. Homes are thoroughly cleaned to ensure no bread or bread by-products remain, and a symbolic burning of the last vestiges of chametz is conducted on the morning of the Seder. Matzo is eaten instead of bread.
  • Shavuot (“Pentecost” or “Feast of Weeks”) celebrates the revelation of the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai . Also known as the Festival of Bikurim, or first fruits, it coincided in biblical times with the wheat harvest. Shavuot customs include all-night study marathons known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, eating dairy foods (cheesecake and blintzes are special favorites), reading the Book of Ruth, decorating homes and synagogues with greenery, and wearing white clothing, symbolizing purity.
  • Sukkot (“Tabernacles” or “The Festival of Booths”) commemorates the Israelites’ forty years of wandering through the desert on their way to the Promised Land . It is celebrated through the construction of temporary booths called sukkot ( sing . sukkah) that represent the temporary shelters of the Israelites during their wandering. It coincides with the fruit harvest, and marks the end of the agricultural cycle. Jews around the world eat in sukkot for seven days and nights. Sukkot concludes with Shemini Atzeret, where Jews begin to pray for rain and Simchat Torah, “Rejoicing of the Torah,” a holiday which marks reaching the end of the Torah reading cycle and beginning all over again. The occasion is celebrated with singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls. Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are technically considered to be a separate holiday and not a part of Sukkot.

High Holy Days

The High Holidays (Yamim Noraim or “Days of Awe”) revolve around judgment and forgiveness.

  • Rosh Hashanah (also Yom Ha-Zikkaron or “Day of Remembrance”, and Yom Teruah, or “Day of the Sounding of the Shofar”) is the Jewish New Year (literally, “head of the year”), although it falls on the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishri. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the 10-day period of atonement leading up to Yom Kippur, during which Jews are commanded to search their souls and make amends for sins committed, intentionally or not, throughout the year. Holiday customs include blowing the shofar, or ram’s horn, in the synagogue, eating apples and honey, and saying blessings over a variety of symbolic foods, such as pomegranates.
  • Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) is the holiest day of the Jewish year . It is a day of communal fasting and praying for forgiveness for one’s sins. Observant Jews spend the entire day in the synagogue, sometimes with a short break in the afternoon, reciting prayers from a special holiday prayerbook called a “Machzor.” Many non-religious Jews make a point of attending synagogue services and fasting on Yom Kippur. On the eve of Yom Kippur, before candles are lit, a prefast meal, the “seuda mafseket,” is eaten. Synagogue services on the eve of Yom Kippur begin with the Kol Nidre prayer. It is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur, especially for Kol Nidre, and leather shoes are not worn. The following day, prayers are held from morning to evening. The final prayer service, called “Ne’ilah,” ends with a long blast of the shofar.

Purim

Purim is a joyous Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Persian Jews from the plot of the evil Haman, who sought to exterminate them, as recorded in the biblical Book of Esther.

It is characterized by public recitation of the Book of Esther, mutual gifts of food and drink, charity to the poor, and a celebratory meal (Esther 9:22). Other customs include drinking wine, eating special pastries called hamantashen , dressing up in masks and costumes, and organizing carnivals and parties.

Purim is celebrated annually on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar, which occurs in February or March of the Gregorian calendar.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah , also known as the Festival of Lights , is an eight-day Jewish holiday that starts on the 25th day of Kislev (Hebrew calendar). The festival is observed in Jewish homes by the kindling of lights on each of the festival’s eight nights, one on the first night, two on the second night and so on.

The holiday was called Hanukkah (meaning “dedication”) because it marks the re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Spiritually, Hanukkah commemorates the ” Miracle of the Oil .” According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days – which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate new oil.

Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Bible and was never considered a major holiday in Judaism, but it has become much more visible and widely celebrated in modern times, mainly because it falls around the same time as Christmas and has national Jewish overtones that have been emphasized since the establishment of the State of Israel.

Other Days

Tisha B’Av or ” the Ninth of Av ” is a day of mourning and fasting commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and in later times, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

The modern holidays of Yom Ha-shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) commemorate the horrors of the Holocaust and the achievement of Israeli independence, respectively. (35)

Synagogues and Religious Buildings

Synagogues are Jewish houses of prayer and study. They usually contain separate rooms for prayer (the main sanctuary), smaller rooms for study, and often an area for community or educational use. There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly. The Reform movement mostly refers to their synagogues as temples.

Some traditional features of a synagogue are:

  • The Ark (called aron ha-kodesh by Ashkenazim and hekhal by Sephardim) where the Torah scrolls are kept (the ark is often closed with an ornate curtain ( parochet ) outside or inside the ark doors).
  • The elevated reader’s platform (called bimah by Ashkenazim and tebah by Sephardim), where the Torah is read (and services are conducted in Sephardi synagogues).
  • The eternal light ner tamid ), a continually lit lamp or lantern used as a reminder of the constantly lit menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • The pulpit , or amud , a lectern facing the Ark where the hazzan or prayer leader stands while praying.

In addition to synagogues, other buildings of significance in Judaism include yeshivas, or institutions of Jewish learning, and mikvahs, which are ritual baths. (35)