What a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest Needs to Know

This guide explains appropriate synagogue behavior, major sections of the service, the synagogue environment, and service participants.

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Major Sections of the Shabbat Morning Worship Service

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.

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 worshippers are also encouraged to pray from their hearts if the printed words do not speak to them.

Take oru quizThe 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 accoutrements of the Torah scrolls recall the priestly garb of ancient Temple times, i.e., breastplate, robe, crowns, and belt.

When the Torah scroll is removed from or returned to the ark, it is carried in a procession around the synagogue, accompanied by song, to show the love and reverence in which Jews hold its teachings. In more traditional synagogues, congregants kiss the Torah as it is carried around.

The Torah reader must learn the Torah portion so well that he or she can chant it accurately without relying on punctuation (which is absent from the Torah scroll). The melodies in the prescribed cantillation system facilitate the learning process by providing proper parsing. All guests and participants are encouraged to follow the reading in the English translation in the printed Torah books.

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.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.

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