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Worship and Devotional Life: Jewish Worship


Although never discouraging private, incidental prayer, Judaism gives absolute priority to the formal worship of the community. Jewish law (halakhah ) establishes that even individuals praying privately must first recite the fixed texts, meeting their own needs through added intentionality (kavvanah ) before adding freely composed prayers only in restricted locations. This worship functions as a constant reminder to Jews of their existential situation: they are members of the people Israel, living a life enabled by God in a divinely created and maintained world, corporately heirs to the irrevocable covenants between God and Israel. The formal prayers grow from this relationship, expressing praise, petition, and thanksgiving to God, as well as reminding Jews of the expectations it places on them for a life lived constantly in the divine presence. In reciting these prayers, Jews locate themselves within a sacred history that extends from creation, through the exodus and Sinai revelation, to the future messianic fulfillment of God's promises.

Jewish worship includes prayers by which to respond to the inherent holiness found in every moment of life, from the seemingly mundane (like the proper functioning of bodily orifices), to the seemingly miraculous (like seeing rainbows and flowering trees). It touches on every moment of normal waking life, from rising, dressing, eating, and studying to interpersonal relations. The Babylonian Talmud (Menaot 43b) cites the second-century ce Rabbi Meir that everyone must recite one hundred blessings daily. By this practice, one acknowledges the sanctity of all these moments, praising God as sovereign of the universe for all aspects of the divine relationship with creation.

The first preserved Jewish prayer books, from the ninth century ce, begin as lists of these hundred blessings. Jewish worship calls for the regular recitation of many of these blessings during statutory formal worship of God, thrice daily with additional services on holidays. Concatenations of blessings structure the central statutory prayers. These prayers ideally are recited with a minyan, a quorum of ten worshipers, usually but not necessarily in a synagogue, in the presence of a Torah scroll. Individuals, however, may recite most of these prayers for themselves. Any member of the minyan (adult Jews, traditionally only men) may lead public prayers, taking on the role of the shelia tsibbur, the emissary of the congregation. No clergy are necessary, although a congregation may appoint a hazzan, or cantor, as a professional shelia tsibbur, and in modern liberal contexts rabbis often lead services.


This system of worship apparently developed in response to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 ce. While the Temple functioned, Jewish corporate worship of God was sacrificial, consisting of daily and festival sacrifices offered by the priestly families on behalf of the nation and in response to God's biblical covenantal commands. These sacrifices, like those of the Jews' neighbors, required scrupulous attention to detail, both in the choice of unblemished sacrificial victims and in the performance of the cultic acts. Priests offered lambs morning and afternoon, as well as incense and grain offerings and additional sacrifices to mark Sabbaths and holidays. Individual Jews who could attend brought various other offerings, either from personal obligation or in celebration. Many holy days called for special Temple rituals: the sacrifice of paschal lambs at Passover, the complex expiatory offerings of the high priest on Yom Kippur, the blowing of the shofar (ram's horn) on Roʾ sh ha-Shanah, circumambulation with lulav (palm branches) at Sukkot, or the singing of hallel (Psalms 113 to 118) on most festivals.

We know of few settings where Jews gathered for worship outside of the Temple while it functioned. Synagogues existed in Israel and in the Diaspora, but probably as places for reading and studying scripture or for meetings, not for regular communal prayer. Communities whose local priests were serving in Jerusalem (the maʿamad) apparently gathered for a scripture-centered worship during those weeks. At least one dissident group, objecting to the administration of the Temple, retreated to the Dead Sea and conducted regular, nonsacrificial worship. Textual evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as from liturgical passages in contemporary Jewish literature, suggests that a recognized register of prayer language was emerging, in Hebrew and in continuity with biblical prayer texts. Jewish prayer in Greek likely also existed in some circles, but evidence is sparse.

Rabbinic Prayer

With the destruction of the Temple, the covenantal, biblically-mandated worship of God ceased, creating a spiritual crisis. Many competing substitute methods of worship were likely proposed, most of which failed to gain authority. Some Jews may also have chosen simply to wait for a restoration of the cult, as had happened after the destruction of the Solomonic Temple by the Babylonians. The worship system that became universal Jewish prayer seems to have begun as a substitution for sacrifices among the rabbinic class under the leadership of Rabban Gamliʿ el at Yavneh in the last decades of the first century ce. In a revolutionary move, Rabban Gamliʿ el decreed that instead of priestly, sacrificial worship in Jerusalem, now every Jew everywhere was responsible for daily verbal prayer (Mishnah Berakhot 4:3). Sages of his academy organized a prayer of eighteen blessings, known then as "the prayer" (ha-tʾfillah ) to be recited at every weekday service, with shorter versions for holy days. Later Jewish communities call this prayer the ʿamidah, for the standing posture in which it is recited, or shʾmoneh ʿesreh, the eighteen. The recitations of this prayer assumed the names of the daily sacrifices and were recited at corresponding hours while facing Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The content of this prayer is complex, but its focal point on weekdays is a petition for messianic redemption, including the rebuilding of the Temple. On Sabbaths and holidays, a single blessing reflecting on the holiness of the day replaces its thirteen petitionary blessings.

Scholars today debate whether Rabban Gamliʿ el's court decreed simply the thematic structure of this prayer, enabling individuals to develop their own precise language, or whether they promulgated a verbatim tightly composed set of prayers. Classical rabbinic texts preserve only snippets of these prayers. The sheer variety of language that developed in subsequent centuries around the common Yavnean structure suggests some freedom. In either case, we know little about how quickly Jews throughout Israel, let alone throughout the Diaspora, responded to this revolutionary decree. Materials embedded in the late-fourth-century Christian Apostolic Constitutions (VII:3338) suggest that Greek versions were also extant.

It is possible that rabbinic prayers became Jewish prayers more broadly and became the worship of the preexistent synagogue only as rabbinic influence grew in the third and fourth centuries. Archaeological evidence points to a flowering of synagogue construction in Byzantine Palestine, and these synagogues show some evidence of rabbinic presence. Rabbinic tradition records that only in the third century did rabbis rule that only blessings formulated as "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe" were appropriate (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 40b). This is also the period where rabbis finalized the protocols for joining the tʾfillah with the recitation of shʾmaʿ.

The shʾmaʿ, the recitation of Deuteronomy 6:49, 11:1331, and Numbers 15:3741, forms the second major component of rabbinic prayer. Its origin is obscure, but its recitation morning and night as a liturgical unit surrounded by blessings is presumed in the earliest rabbinic texts. In reciting these biblical passages, one declares loyalty to God and God's commandments. The passages command Jews to surround themselves physically with reminders, placing the text on the entrances to their house (mezuzah ), wearing it on their forehead and arm (tʾfillin ), and knotting fringes on the corners of their clothes (tsitsit ). The complex blessings surrounding the biblical passages focus on Judaism's central theological tenets: God is creator, the revealer of Torah, and the one who saves.

Whether or not all synagogue communities conducted rabbinic prayer, the rabbis presumed early that their worship would take place in the presence of the Torah scroll and that the shelia tsibbur for the tʾfillah would stand before the ark housing itpresumably located in the communal synagogue. The third major component of rabbinic prayer is native to the synagogue: the public reading and exposition of scripture. This apparently had its roots in the Second Temple period. The rabbis maintained the pattern of reading Torah on the Sabbath and the Monday and Thursday market days. Cyclical reading of the entire Torah apparently developed gradually during the rabbinic period, with two cycles emerging: an annual cycle with the entire Pentateuch being read in one year, and a so-called triennial cycle with the entire text being read twice in seven years. Originally, each community followed its own cycle. By the Geonic period (late sixth to eleventh centuries), the Babylonian annual cycle gradually displaced all alternatives. Since then, on Simat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah) at the conclusion of the fall festivals, Jews complete Deuteronomy and immediately begin Genesis. Evidence for ritual reading from the Prophets (haftarah ) appears first in Luke 4:17. These readings, only performed on Sabbaths and festivals, are not cyclical. They correspond either to the content of the Torah reading or to the day and are not uniform universally. They include only a small fraction of the prophetic corpus.

A specified number of congregants participates in the lection each time, either by personally reading a section of the text or, more frequently, by reciting blessings over the text read by a designated reader. The pentateuchal text must be chanted from a properly prepared parchment scroll that contains a perfect copy of the entire Torah; the scroll itself, like ancient Hebrew texts, contains neither vowels nor musical notation. In this way, the reading ritually recapitulates the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, the rest of the congregation follows in printed Bibles that often include vernacular translation or commentaries. Until medieval Jews adopted other vernaculars, Aramaic translation (targum ) accompanied all readings of scripture. The scrolls of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther are read on Passover, Shavuʿot, the Ninth of Av, Sukkot, and Purim, respectively.

Psalms also play an important role in Jewish worship, but not in a lectionary context. The synagogue perpetuates the Temple's festival recitation of hallel (Psalms 113 to 118), as well as the daily psalms originally recited by the Levites there (Psalms 24, 48, 82, 9495:3, 81, 93, 92). Other psalms eventually became standard as introductory morning prayers (pʾsuqei dʾzimra, verses of song). Although the full list varies from rite to rite and is expanded on Sabbaths, all today include daily the core of Psalms 145 to 150 as well as Exodus 15.

Other nonsacrificial Temple rituals specific to various holidays were also integrated into the synagogue service, often in the additional service (musaf). The Roʾ sh ha-Shanah musaf includes an elaborate ritual for the blowing of the shofar ; the Yom Kippur musaf includes an extended recollection of the high priest's rituals in the Temple; Sukkot rituals include waving the four species (lulav ) during hallel and parading with them with special songs before or after musaf. Jews of priestly descent also pronounce the priestly benediction (Nm. 6:2426) over the assembled congregation. Outside of Israel this occurs only during the musaf of festivals; in Israel, Sabbaths are added. In Jerusalem, in proximity to the location of the Temple, priests pronounce it daily.

The Hebrew of the core prayers described above also alludes deeply to biblical language but rarely cites verses verbatim. Probably in the mid-first millennium it became common to construct new prayers as florilegia of biblical verses. Prayers of this style appear around the earlier core, both in the introductory psalms and in the supplicatory prayers (taanun ) that came to follow the ʿamidah. However, allusions to the Bible and to midrashic comment on it continued to inform the rich body of liturgical poetry (piyyut ) that embellished the core prayers on Sabbaths and holidays in that period and later. Prayers constructed of verses characterize the liturgy of Karaite Jews, a group rejecting rabbinic teachings that emerged in the closing centuries of the first millennium.

Medieval Additions

Various elements of private liturgy also became part of public prayer in the medieval period, out of concern for their popular neglect. These include the series of blessings intended to accompany one's actions while rising in the morning (birkhot hashaar ) and a symbolic study of both written and oral Torah. This Torah study provides another opportunity to recall and vicariously participate in the Temple sacrifices by reciting the biblical and rabbinic texts describing them.

This complex of prayers constituted public worship for all Jews until modernity. All the regional rites preserved this basic structure, differing only in specific wording and, especially, in their poetic additions. Medieval Jews increasingly considered their received rites to be authoritative and unalterable, appropriately meeting God's desire for worship. Medieval and early modern Jews adapted their fixed prayers to new situations through interpretative strategies, investing their received prayers with new, frequently mystical, meanings. These meanings could find expression through meditations on the fixed texts or though additions in the interstices of the prayer book of qavvanot, texts expressing the mystical intentions of the prayers. Frequently, one generations' innovative response became the fixed liturgy of their descendents. Most widely accepted were memorial prayers added in the wake of the Crusades and liturgies influenced by the customs of sixteenth-century Lurianic Qabbalah, like the Psalms and songs welcoming the Sabbath (qabbalat shabbat ).

Especially with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the regional nature of the rites changed. Rather than adapting to the rites of their new homes, the refugees who were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe preserved their Sephardi (Iberian) rites. This led to the demise of almost all Mediterranean and Eastern rites and meant that communities now sometimes supported multiple synagogues with different customs. Heredity more than location determined liturgical details. Influenced by Lurianic mysticism, Hasidism, beginning in the eighteenth century, deliberately adopted elements of Sephardi-rite liturgy into their eastern European Ashkenazi context.

Little is known about women's participation in this system. Women seem to have attended services more in late antiquity and in Christendom than under Islam. From the twelfth century, there is evidence in the Rhineland both for women's sections of synagogues and for women who led other women in prayer there. In some places women prayed the statutory prayers but in their vernacular; others learned Hebrew; others were probably regularly "prayerful" but did not know the official prayers. Prayer books produced for women presume their participation in the normative liturgy, but such early modern Yiddish prayers (teines ) often parallel rather than participate in the "men's" liturgy.


With Napoleon (17691821), western European Jews became citizens and sought to become full members of greater society. This meant, for some, transforming Jewish worship into something less strange in Christian eyes. Elements of this transformation included increased decorum, more formal music, more preaching, and shortened prayers (by removing much piyyut and mystical accretions). Reform Judaism adopted vernacular prayer and theologically driven changes to its contents. This allowed for radical abbreviation of the traditional liturgy, but the structure described above usually remained discernable. Rabbis and cantors were increasingly liturgical experts performing for a largely passive audience. After 1948, the presence of the State of Israel encouraged a cultural expression of Judaism, generating a return to Hebrew prayer and concepts of Jewish peoplehood. In this period, women too became full participants in the non-Orthodox synagogue, counting for the minyan and serving as its professionals. Feminism has generated another set of changes to prayer language with demands for egalitarian language. While Orthodox Judaism (as it became known in this period) can allow only aesthetic changes to the worship service, a full spectrum now exists between it and the most radical Reform settings, where immediate response to cultural change is normative.

See Also

Biblical Temple; Domestic Observances, article on Jewish Practices; Folk Religion, article on Folk Judaism; Priesthood, article on Jewish Priesthood; Rites of Passage, article on Jewish Rites; Siddur and Mazor; Synagogue.


Since the publication of a series of Hebrew articles by Ezra Fleischer beginning in 1990, there has been significant scholarly disagreement over the origins of rabbinic liturgy. For a review of these articles, see Ruth Langer, "Revisiting Early Rabbinic Liturgy: The Recent Contributions of Ezra Fleischer," Prooftexts 19, no. 2 (1999): 179194; and Ezra Fleischer and Ruth Langer, "Controversy," Prooftexts 20, no. 3 (2000): 380387. Among those disagreeing with Fleischer are Stefan C. Reif, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: New Perspectives on Jewish Liturgical History (Cambridge, U.K., 1993), which provides the most comprehensive recent scholarly survey of Jewish prayer, including important discussions of medieval and early modern dynamics. See also Reuven Kimelman, "The Literary Structure of the Amidah and the Rhetoric of Redemption," in The Echoes of Many Texts: Reflection on Jewish and Christian Traditions, Essays in Honor of Lou H. Silberman, edited by William G. Dever and J. Edward Wright (Atlanta, 1997), pp. 171218. Also of importance are Kimelman's "The Shemaʿ Liturgy: From Covenant Ceremony to Coronation," Kenishta: Studies of the Synagogue World 1 (2001): 9105. Fleischer challenges the still influential theory, informed by form-critical methods, of Joseph Heinemann, Prayer in the Talmud, translated by Richard S. Sarason (Berlin, 1977). Earlier methods are generally no longer accepted. However, Raymond Scheindlin's translation of Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (Philadelphia, Jerusalem, and New York, 1993; German ed., 1913), incorporates the editorial updates of the 1972 Hebrew edition. Even though Elbogen's historical reconstructions are now deemed unreliable, his descriptions of the liturgy remain valid. Important discussions also appear in Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven and London, 2000). Another dimension of attention to the nonverbal dynamics of early liturgy appears in Uri Ehrlich, The Non-Verbal Language of Jewish Prayer (in Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1999).

The subsequent history of Jewish prayer is less well studied. Reif's Judaism and Hebrew Prayer provides the only comprehensive overview. Hebrew liturgical poetry is the focus of many recent important publications in Hebrew. On the dynamics of this genre, see Joseph Yahalom, Poetry and Society in Jewish Galilee of Late Antiquity (in Hebrew; Tel Aviv, 1999). On early medieval liturgy, see Lawrence A. Hoffman, The Canonization of the Synagogue Service (Notre Dame, Ind., and London, 1979); Naphtali Wieder's collected articles, The Formation of Jewish Liturgy in the East and the West (in Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1998); and Ezra Fleischer's Eretz-Israel Prayer and Prayer Rituals as Portrayed in the Geniza Documents (in Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1988). On dynamics of liturgical development see Ruth Langer, To Worship God Properly: Tensions between Liturgical Custom and Halakhah in Judaism (Cincinnati, 1998). Collections of important studies include E. D. Goldschmidt, On Jewish Liturgy: Essays on Prayer and Religious Poetry (in Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1980) and Israel Ta-Shma's The Early Ashkenazic Prayer: Literary and Historical Aspects (in Hebrew; Jerusalem, 2003). On the impact of mysticism on the liturgy, see especially Meir Bar-Ilan, The Mysteries of Jewish Prayer and Hekhalot (in Hebrew; Ramat Gan, Israel 1987); Moshe Hallamish, Kabbalah: In Liturgy, Halakhah, and Customs (in Hebrew; Ramat Gan, Israel, 2000); and Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer (London and Washington, 1972; reprint, 1993). On women and prayer, see Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Philadelphia, New York, and Jerusalem, 1992); and Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women (Boston, 1998).

On the liturgies of the modern liberal movements, see Jakob J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe: The Liturgy of European Liberal and Reform Judaism (New York, 1968); Eric L. Friedland, "Were Our Mouths Filled with Song: Studies in Liberal Jewish Liturgy " (Cincinnati, 1997); and Eric Caplan, From Ideology to Liturgy: Reconstructionist Worship and American Liberal Judaism (Cincinnati, 2002).

Ruth Langer (2005)

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