Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Get Back to the First Century: Come to Synagogue with Me

Come to Synagogue with Me

 “And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate: and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the ADONAI had commanded Israel.  And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding upon the first day of the seventh month.  And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and all those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law.  And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and besides him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam.  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people ;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up:  And Ezra blessed ADONAI, the great Elohim.  And all people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands:  and they bowed their heads, and worshiped ADONAI with their faces to the ground.  Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbathai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the Law: and the people stood in their place.  So they read in the book in the Law of Elohim distinctly and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.  And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, This day is holy unto ADONAI your Elohim; mourn not, nor weep.  For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.  Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared:  for  this day is holy unto our ADONAI:  neither be ye sorry; for the joy of ADONAI is your strength.  So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved.  And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.” Nehemiah 8:1-12 KJV

Have you ever seen Jews walking to synagogue on Sabbath and been curious about what goes on behind those closed doors?  Well, in reading the above passage from Nehemiah you just have.  For Ezra, one of the priests and scribe of Israel was the predecessor for the modern-day synagogue, which in turn, has partially been the model for the modern-day Christian church.  The other influence upon the modern church service came from the format of the Greek academies. 

A Brief History

In the beginning, the Nation of Israel had the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, then the Holy Temple in the Land of Israel, in the city of Jerusalem, on Mount Zion.   Not everyone could attend services regularly at the Temple due to a lack of room, or the distance.  Not every Jew lived in Israel and because of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivity, many Jews were scattered abroad.  The synagogue was developed and modeled after Ezra’s example in Nehemiah chapter 8 to help keep the Jews together throughout the Diaspora as a religious people.   It was to be second only to the Temple and the Home; the two places that a Jew received his religious education.

The word “synagogue” is a Greek word (don’t ask me how a Greek word became the world recognized word for a Jewish house of worship).  In Jewish circles, we call it Temple, Knesset, Beyt Tefillah, Shul, the K’hilah, and other names ranging from English, to Hebrew to Yiddish.  I personally like to use the word K’hilah, which refers first to the people than to the physical place.  How appropriate, for how can you have a synagogue without people; it would be meaningless, right?  The people make a synagogue a synagogue.

 After the destruction of the Holy Temple in 70 CE, the Sadducees, who mainly controlled and served in the Temple and fell into historic obscurity, simply ceased to exist.  The Pharisees survived and carried on the teachings of Torah.  The Sadducees’ practice was so bound to the Temple service that their very existence as a religious entity depended on the Temple's existence.   The Pharisees, however, lived by a philosophy of, “as if.”  They lived their daily lives and served God in every aspect, “as if” they were serving in the Holy Temple.  Therefore, after the Temple’s demise, the Pharisees survived and thrived, and became the main religious entity and influence in Judaism. They became forerunners and the predecessors of modern-day Rabbinic and Orthodox Judaism.  Even Yeshua, and all the Disciples and Apostles had a Pharisaic upbringing and background despite what many Christians may have been taught to think.

God is a God of order, and everything He does and commands us to do is in decency and in order (I Cor. 14:40).  He has a meaning and purpose behind EVERYTHING He commands His people to do, even if we cannot comprehend or understand it all ourselves.  We simply do it because we love Him, want to obey Him, and trust Him.  After all, His logic and understanding is way beyond our own (Isa. 55:8).  He is Infinite, and we are finite.  Because of this, Jews have a reason and explanation for practically everything they do, their customs, culture, habits, traditions, including the synagogue service.

So what is the meaning and purpose behind all the pomp and circumstance with all the formalities within the Jewish synagogue service?   Well, come with me on an imaginary tour to a day at the synagogue.


First, we wear our very best, because Shabbat is considered a Mo’ed, an Appointed Time, a Feast, a date with the Almighty if you will, and we want to look our best (Lev.23).  He said He would be there for the date, the question is, will we?  After all, if The LORD has scheduled a date with us, who are we to stand Him up?!  We wear a kippah (a skull cap) which reminds us that we are always in ADONAI’s presence, that He is always above our heads, and we fear and revere Him.  We arrive 15 to 30 minutes early.  Why, to get a good seat?  No, because it is considered a blessing to come early and stay late at the House of Study (another name for the synagogue).  It shows ones eagerness to get close to God, His people and His Torah.  Besides, it’s a good time to schmooze (chat, fellowship, catch up on things) with family and friends.

We Enter

As we enter, we see a cylindrical metal or wooden container attached to the door frame to our right, eye high; called a Mezzuzah.  This contains Hebraic passages dealing with the command to write ADONAI’s Word upon your doorposts and gates. (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21) We touch it with our fingers tips and kiss our fingers to our lips out of a holy reverence and consciousness of ADONAI and His Holy Commands.

As verse one of Nehemiah chapter eight states, we are there as one man, in unison, for one purpose, to hear ADONAI’s Torah!  In general, every synagogue service is basically the same. They all have the same general elements and order of service, but not all congregations do everything exactly the same.  Some have traditions and customs unique to their own particular branch of Judaism, or ethnic community.  They all seem to follow the basic order found in Nehemiah chapter eight.   All I can do is speak for my own sect of Judaism (Natsari), and how our K’hilah does things, and relay what I have experienced in my own visits to Rabbinic Orthodox Jewish synagogues. I will try to keep things as you would experience them at a typical orthodox synagogue service in Anywhere, USA.

We take our seats.  In most orthodox synagogues, the men sit on one side, and the women and children on the other.  Neh. 8:2 hints about this separation… “…congregation both of men and women…” as if they were two separate congregations, yet one as in being both present.  This also helps the men to keep their undivided attention on the service, without any distractions.  The observance of the majority of the mitzvot (commandments) are incumbent upon the men, more so than women, because of their domestic duties of keeping the house and looking after the children.  In orthodox communities, the men work outside the home, and are the breadwinners.  However, in my K’hilah, families sit together, men, women, and children.

Praise and Worship

After the welcome, announcements, prayer requests, and testimonies of good news about the week from the congregants, we enter a time of worshiping God through song.   Adults and children sing solos, and then we sing as a congregation.  We sing the Psalms.  It is so amazing and wonderful to use the Psalms as they were meant to be used, to sing the very Psalms that King David and others wrote and sang themselves!  This is where we differ from our  Rabbinic counterparts. They usually do not sing, or have instruments played on Shabbat, and they usually go right into a session of liturgical
prayers.  Even though Shabbat is to us all a delight, they choose not to sing or play instruments in the morning synagogue service. They do this in remembrance that there is no longer a standing, functioning Temple, where joyous singing, and rapturous music would be played.  We know that one day the Holy Temple will be rebuilt, and we all look forward to that time.   We sing because we believe this prepares ones soul to receive gladly the Living Words of Torah.

The Blessing upon the Children

The Rabbi calls all the Children, 12 and under (under Bar/Bat Mitzvah age), up to the Bimah (Pulpit) as he stands before them; The Chazzan reads the Passage:
Mark 10:15 “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
 16And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.” (KJV)
The Rabbi places his hands upon each head of the boys and recites the traditional blessing for boys on Shabbat:
“May ADONAI make you like Ephrayim and Manessah.”
Them he places his hands upon each girls head and says:
“May ADONAI make you like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah.”
Then he collectively blesses all the children with the blessing of the Aaronic Priest:
“May ADONAI bless you and keep you. May ADONAI make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you, and May ADONAI lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”
The congregation then gathers around the offering box; we do not pass the offering plate as in churches but take up an offering as has been done for centuries in the Temple and in the synagogues. We recite a few blessings and say a prayer over the offering and congregation and we sing with joy as we place our offering in the Tzedakah box. We return to our seats and we prepare to worship ADONAI through prayer.

The Shema and Amidah

The Chazzan, who is the Rabbi’s assistant, reads the prayers in English after the Rabbi chants them in Hebrew.  They come up to the Bimah (pulpit) to begin to lead the congregation in the prayer portion of the service, which temporarily replaces the Temple sacrifices.  Our prayers are like a memorial of those sacrifices. We all stand in respect and reverence as one body, pick up our Siddur (prayer book), which comes from the Hebrew word for order.  The men don their tallit (prayer shawl) which has the tzitziot (fringes) on all for corners according to  Numbers 15:37-41, and cover their head. Then they hold all four tzitziot in their left hand, and everyone covers their eyes with their right hand, in preparation to recite the Shema, and other Scripture passages pertaining to that. (Deut. 6:4-5; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41) You could think of the Shema as the John 3:16 of Judaism.  It is the Declaration of ADONAI’s Sovereignty and Oneness.  We cover our eyes because it says, “Shema (Hear), O Israel…”  not, “See, O Israel…”  covering one’s eyes deepens concentration and blocks out distractions, so we can fully give our undivided attention and worship to ADONAI.   Jews take the Scriptures very seriously, and very literally.  You may be wondering why we use scripted prayers.  Well, first off, the vast majority of the prayers come straight out of Scripture; second, just as the Torah was ADONAI’s gift to us, the Siddur is kind of like our gift of praise, thanks and adoration to Him.

We are then led in a Sabbath version of a set of prayers Jews recite three times a day called the “Amidah”, which means, “to stand”.  This set of prayers was established way before Yeshua’s time.  Yeshua Himself referred to these very prayers in Mark 11:25-26, when He said, “When you STAND  (AMIDAH) to PRAY, forgive anything that you have against any man, so that your Father in Heaven may also forgive you of your transgressions.”  Most synagogues recite God!  Afterwards, at my synagogue we add Yeshua Moshieynu’s (Our Messiah’s) model prayer from (Matt.6: 9-13).  Then everyone at my K’hilah has a few moments of individual prayer expressed in their own way before we begin the next section of our service called…

The Torah Service

Everyone stands in respect and anticipation, for the time has come for the main reason why we are all here; to hear the words of Torah, to hear what God expects of us, to hear how we can please and serve Him, and to hear all He has done and given to us.

The Torah, the five books of Moses, is split up into an annual or tri-annual reading cycle, which consists of small sections of a few chapters called a “Parasha.”  Most congregations go by the annual reading cycle.  This allows us to read through the entire Torah within a year.  This also allows converts to read and study the whole Torah in a year in preparation for their conversion if they so wish to convert.  Along with the Torah portion is a complementary “Haftarah” portion. This comes from the Prophetic Scriptures out of the Tanak (Old Testament).   The Haftarah portions came about during a time when Israel was under foreign rule and was forbidden to study Torah (five books of Moses).  Their loophole was to study the Prophets!  As Natsari Jews within our drash (sermon) we add relevant Scriptures from the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) pertaining to the Torah and Haftarah portions.

The Rabbi approaches the Ark (a wooden cabinet with a curtain containing the Scriptures in scroll form), pulls back the curtain and recites Psalm 119:18, which reads; “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your Torah.”  And we respond, “For out of Zion will come forth the Torah and the Word of Adonai from Jerusalem.  Blessed is He who gave the Torah to His people Israel in His Holiness”. (Micah 4:2)  Then the Chazzan calls up a designated person for that week to come and read a section of the Torah portion for that week.  Calling someone up to read Torah in Hebrew is called “aliyah”, because usually the Bimah is on a stage, and they have to ascend to the Bimah just as the High Priests ascended the ramp to make the sacrifice upon the Altar.   We see this in verses three through seven of Nehemiah chapter eight. Traditionally, the Torah portion is split up into seven “sidrah’s” or sections, so one can read a section a day on their own and complete the designated Torah portion for that week.  This being the case, traditionally seven readers are called up to the Bimah one right after the other to read each section of the Torah portion for that week.  The reader is called the “Oleh.”  This is usually done in Hebrew.  It is a tremendous honor to be called to read from the Torah or the Prophets.  The honored individual is given the Torah scroll by the Rabbi, which is decorated in a velvet cover with bells dangling from it, a breast plate reminiscent of the one the High Priest wore, and it is topped with a crown.   Why?  Do we worship the Torah?  As a former Christian, I used to think that.  No, we clothe the Torah like this for several reasons.  One, out of respect and honor for these are the very words of ADONAI.  Secondly, the High Priest would read to the people from the Law, because the Levitical Priesthood does not exist at this time.  In addition, this is a representation of ADONAI the King, because these are His very words, laws, decrees, and it represents Elohim’s character.  Lastly, it reminds us of Yeshua who is the Living Embodiment of the Written Torah. 

As the first Oleh comes, the Rabbi places the Torah scroll in his right arm; he recites a couple blessings, then parades the Torah around the synagogue as a traditional song is sung for just this moment.  The Torah comes down the aisle for all to touch with their fingers, tzitzit, or siddur, and then touch their lips.  We do this as one would kiss a Kings hand, out of love, devotion, and respect for the King’s very word to us.  After all, Psalm 2:12 states, “Kiss the Son lest he be angry…”

The Torah scroll is uncovered and laid out on the Bimah, and everyone in the congregation sits down.  With each Oleh, a blessing is recited before, and after the reading of each sidrah of Torah.  The same thing is done with the reading of the Haftarah portion. This portion is usually so short that only one person reads it.   This person is called the Maftir, and so to give honor to the Maftir, before he reads from the Prophets, he reads a few sentences at the end of the Torah portion.  A “yad”, which is a gold or silver pointer, is used to keep ones place while reading the Torah so as not to touch and possibly damage the Torah scroll with oil and residue from ones hands.  The Torah scroll is very holy, and very expensive.  It is written on animal skin, or special parchment.  A very special concoction of ink is used to hand write each scroll with a quill. 

After the portions are read, everyone stands. The Scroll is rolled back up, dressed, and taken around the synagogue once more before it is placed back within the Aron (Ark) as another traditional niggun (melody) is sung for this particular event in the Torah service.

Then the Rabbi, or designated speaker Drashes (preaches a sermon) on the passages for that week, as was done in Nehemiah 8:7-9.  The Torah is taught and expounded upon and made applicable to everyone’s life.

The Kiddush

Once the Drashes are complete, the Rabbi takes a cup of tirosh (grape juice) and in essence gives a toast to ADONAI for His wonderful creation, and for Shabbat Itself.  Everyone responds with the word, “L’Chaim!” which means, “To Life!”  You may have heard this in Fiddler on the Roof.

The Birkat Kohanim

As the service is about to close, everyone stands, and the men cover themselves with their tallit, the women and children bow their heads as the Rabbi chants the blessing of  Numbers 6:22-23, putting the name of ADONAI upon the people. Both of his hands are outstretched over the congregation in the shape of the Hebrew letter “Shin” meaning, “El Shaddi: the Almighty” as the Rabbi himself is covered in his Tallit. Leonard Nemoy who played Mr. Spock on Star Trek was Jewish and this is where he got the idea for Spock’s “Live long and Prosper” Vulcan hand gesture. With each stanza of the blessing the congregation responds, “Keyn, y’hi ratzon.”  Which means, “So may it be.”

Then everyone turns and greets one another with a warm and hearty, “Shabbat Shalom.”  “Have a peaceful Sabbath.”  Or, the Yiddish form, “Gut Shabbos.”  Everyone is dismissed. 

The Oneg

At this point some go home, and some synagogues have a light lunch prepared for everyone to eat and fellowship.  This is called an “Oneg”, which means, “a delight”.  Christians may call it a fellowship, or potluck.  In Orthodox shuls, zimros (songs) are sung, and people discuss the Torah and Haftarah portions of the day, and the Rabbi tells wonderful stories.  We see an example of this in Nehemiah 8: 10-12.  After a time of noshing (eating) and schmoozing (talking), everyone goes home for a Shabbat nap or spends time with family, or studies, until it’s time for the evening service.  Thanks for coming with me to visit the synagogue; I hope you had a wonderfully blessed time.  Please come again, you are welcome back any time!  Shalom my friend.

A Typical day for a Nazarene Jew Might be:

Waking up early in the morning and reciting the Shema, getting washed up and dressed and going to the local synagogue with the men, if he is so fortunate to be near one, and pray. Otherwise he recites his morning prayers from the Siddur (Prayer Book) of Shacharit and the Amidah. When he does so, he wears his Tallit and Tefillin. He will also spend time praying for his family and friends. After prayers, he may study his daily portions of Torah and the Talmud. Then comes breakfast with the family and then off to work. But before he leaves, he kisses his fingers then touches the mezuzah on his doorpost with his hand and vice versa. He does this also upon his return. Prior to lunch or thereafter he will either return to the synagogue or find a private place to pray Mincha; the afternoon prayers from the Siddur. Jewish men do not typically wear Teffilin and a Tallit for afternoon prayers unless he is at the synagogue. If he has time, he may study or recite the Psalms or read a section in a Jewish book. After lunch and work, he returns home to spend time with his family, eating dinner, playing games, having a family devotional time, watch the news, etc. Then, when the sun goes down he will either return once more to the synagogue or find a quiet place at home to recite the Ma’ariv prayers and study more if he so desires. He is not required to wear a Tallit or Tefillin during Ma’ariv. Afterwards, he may settle down for more study time or family time. When it is time to get ready for bed he will change and recite the bedtime Shema before retiring.