Author Archives: Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn

About 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.

Extras in the Siddur

The siddur was always intended to be the most popular Jewish book. As such, editors have had a variety of competing interests. On the one hand, if a siddur was the only book that a Jew might own, it should certainly have everything one might need for prayers in a synagogue. At the same time, if most Jews were going to own a siddur, putting in other important and valuable information was a significant draw. When printing became much less expensive, people began to cut these “extras” out of the siddur, because people had other books and they might prefer a smaller, more compact siddur.
extra prayers
One common addition is the first of the seven aliyot (sub-sections of the weekly Torah portion; literally “ascents”) for each Torah portion of the year. These first aliyot are each divided into three smaller sections for reading on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat afternoons. Another common addition is Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith.

Many siddurim include sections intended for home use, such as blessings and rituals for a family to celebrate Shabbat evening in their home. Beginning with blessings for lighting the Shabbat and festival candles, there are also the blessings that comprise the Kiddush, or sanctification over a cup of wine before the meal, as well as the blessing of bread. Some include Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, along with Shabbat zemirot, or songs to be sung at the table to celebrate the day.

Serving as a textbook of popular piety, many siddurim also have various berakhot (blessings) that one can say before eating different kinds of food, or to sanctify common moments in one’s life, such as seeing a rainbow, hearing thunder, or smelling fragrant trees and shrubs. Some siddurim also include a slim volume of the Mishnah, called Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, which is a compilation of the various ethical and moral sayings of the talmudic rabbis, as well as Psalms 120 to 134, all of which begin “A Song of Ascent” and were recited in ancient times by pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. These selections are included to provide an opportunity for common Jews to study rabbinic texts and to add to the sanctity of their enjoyment of the Shabbat and festivals.

The Parents’ Role in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service

In a strictly traditional bar mitzvah celebration, the role of the bar mitzvah boy’s parents (usually, just the father) during the worship service is to recite a blessing, baruch she-p’tarani, declaring the child to be liable for his or her own actions, according to Jewish law. (In traditional circles, girls do not participate ritually in the service and hence do not usually receive this blessing.) In liberal synagogues, parents often say only the shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for being alive to celebrate the occasion, and some are taking on new roles, like presenting a tallit (ritual prayer shawl) to their child and leading parts of the service.

The Father Traditionally Recited a Single Blessing

The baruch she-p’tarani blessing reads, “Praised are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe who has excused me (from being liable) for this one (meaning, the child).” The blessing was traditionally recited by the father, and today is said by both parents in some liberal synagogues. The blessing has two forms, one that mentions God’s name and one that does not. Although this seems like a rather strange and perplexing blessing for parents at their child’s coming of age ceremony, it is entirely consistent with the spiritual significance of the event.
Holding Torah
In traditional Judaism, children younger than bar/bat mitzvah age are exempt from the spiritual obligations of observing the Jewish mitzvot, or commandments. This means that children are not required to fast on Yom Kippur, observe Shabbat (Sabbath) prohibitions, or perform other religious rituals, although in actuality children are slowly educated about the commandments and inculcated into their eventual observance.
When children attain their Jewish legal majority, or adult status (at age 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy), they become legally and morally responsible for their own actions and religious observances in the eyes of God. At the same time, the parents are no longer responsible for any sins committed by the child. When parents recite baruch she-p’tarani, they are publicly declaring their children to be both ritually and legally responsible adults in the Jewish tradition.

Shabbat Liturgy

As a day of unique sanctity, Shabbat’s liturgy is different from the standard weekday liturgy in its structure and in many of its themes. A number of the themes interwoven throughout the liturgy of Shabbat emphasize certain larger spiritual values of Judaism; in order to explore them, we must turn our attention first to a structural characteristic of Shabbat liturgy.

On Shabbat, Requests Yield to Thanks

On weekdays, the central portion of the 19-blessing Amidah prayer–fully 13 of its blessings–contains temporal requests, such as those for a prosperous livelihood, a bountiful year for produce, and for true justice to be enacted on earth. This entire section is replaced on Shabbat with a single blessing that emphasizes the special holiness of the day.

synagogue service (shabbat?)

Called in Hebrew kedushat ha-yom (“the sanctity of the day”), this paragraph is repeated in each of the Amidah prayers recited on Shabbat–at Ma’ariv (evening service), Shaharit (morning service), at the additional Musaf service, and at Minhah on Shabbat afternoon.  In it, worshippers thank God for the gift of Shabbat and say: “Grant that we inherit Your holy gift of Shabbat forever, so that Your people Israel who sanctify Your name will always find rest on this day. Praised are You, Adonai, who sanctifies Shabbat.”

Why Not Ask for Things on Shabbat?

Why are there no individual or communal requests made of God on Shabbat?  After all, it might seem that such a holy day would be an especially propitious time to ask — and possibly receive — whatever one might request of God. An ancient midrash (rabbinic interpretation) deals with this precise question when it offers the following scenario:

“Why does a person not pray ‘Blessed are You, Adonai, Healer of the people Israel’ [one of the 13 weekday petitionary blessings] on Shabbat? Lest they remember a sick loved one and then become sad on the holy Shabbat which has been set aside as a day of rest and delight. Therefore, on Shabbat we consciously choose to enjoy and celebrate the unique sanctity of the day” (from Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Vayera).

Extra Festival Days in the Diaspora

In the Torah, major Jewish holidays are shorter than what most traditional Jews outside Israel celebrate now. So we read, “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:15) and celebrate eight days of Passover. The festivals of Shavuot, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Shemini Atzeret are listed as single days in the Torah.

How did Diaspora practice diverge from the Torah’s instructions? The answer lies in our history, during the time of transition from biblical to rabbinic Judaism around the beginning of the common era.

The Calendar Needed Witnesses, Beacons, and Messengers

The Jewish calendar is lunar. Over 2,000 years ago, a council of rabbis from the Sanhedrin, the ancient legislative and judicial body, held special sessions in Jerusalem at the end of each lunar month to receive witnesses to the first sliver of the new moon. Because a lunar cycle is approximately 29 days long, it was no mystery when the new moon should appear, but the Sanhedrin still declared months and holidays only on the basis of these witnesses. To encourage ordinary people to take the time to come and testify, they were fed and honored. The rabbis questioned every witness for credibility:

jewish holidays in diaspora‘Where did you see [the new moon]? Was it before or after sunset? Was it in the north or the south? How high was it? How high was it? Which way was it tilted?” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:6).

Once the sighting was legitimated, the rabbis declared the next day Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the new month. Originally, beacon fires would be set on mountaintops to spread the word to distant Jewish communities already living in far away places such as Egypt and Babylon. Watchers on faraway hills set their beacon fires as soon as they saw them, continuing the relay “until one could behold the whole of the Diaspora before him like a mass of fire” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:4).

But relations with neighboring sects such as the Samaritans worsened, and they deliberately harassed the Jews by lighting beacon fires at erroneous times. As a result, the Sanhedrin substituted messengers to alert the Diaspora communities, but they could take a long time to arrive from Jerusalem.

Purim Plays and Carnivals

The joyous nature of the Purim celebration often carries a serious message behind the smile.  The Purim Shpiel often takes a look at world politics with various world leaders playing the roles of heroes and villains. By offering a mocking commentary, the Purim Shpiel presents a Jewish version of political justice in the world. 

Despite the relatively minor nature of the festival of Purim, it has assumed far greater proportions and significance in popular Jewish culture. purim quizIt is often celebrated as if it were a major Jewish holiday. On the surface of it, the events of Purim–recounted in the biblical book of Esther–are about a near catastrophe in ancient Persia. The Jews, about to be attacked, end up turning the tables on their enemies and end up the victors. Therefore, the date of Purim became an opportunity for celebration of this miraculous turn of events. 

Early on, the Talmud records that Purim was a date of celebrations and riotous parties. In the Talmudic tractate entitled Megillah (megillah means “scroll,” referring to the scroll of Esther) the ancient Rabbis passed along a longstanding tradition that in order to celebrate the victory of Purim, everyone is supposed to drink alcohol and reach the point where they are unable to differentiate between the phrases “Bless Mordecai” and “Curse Haman”(Megillah 7a). While the dictum of consuming alcohol may not be palatable to everyone today, drinking (at least for the adults!) and merriment remain a traditional aspect of Purim celebrations.

Even though Purim is a religious opportunity for young and old to celebrate together, the celebration of Purim has been commonly relegated to a children’s event. Many synagogues today celebrate Purim by holding a Purim fair or carnival. This is an opportunity to set up booths with games, give prizes, and serve holiday foods. And the highlight of any Purim celebration is the Purim Shpiel.

Israeli children dressed up for Purim.

The Purim Shpiel

Shpiel is a Yiddish word meaning a “play” or “skit.” A Purim shpiel is actually a dramatic presentation of the events outlined in the book of Esther. Featuring the main characters, such as King Ahasuerus, Mordecai, Esther, and the wicked Haman, the Purim shpiel was a folk-inspired custom providing an opportunity for crowds to cheer the heroes (Mordecai and Esther) and boo the villains (Haman). It is a staple of many modern synagogue Purim celebrations for children to attend the ritual chanting of the book of Esther and Purim carnivals dressed in costumes depicting these main characters.

What a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest Needs to Know

Congratulations! You have been invited to the bar or bat mitzvah of a friend or family member. Now what? What are you supposed to do there? How do you act? Whether you are Jewish or not, the following is a brief guide to help you feel more comfortable at the worship service and enjoy the events as they unfold. Because this general guide may vary from community to community, please contact the host family for further clarification.

READ: How Old is the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony?

READ: Bar or Bat Mitzvah Gift Guide

General Expectations for Synagogue Behavior

1.      Dress: Guests at a bar/bat mitzvah celebration generally wear dressy clothes — for men, either a suit or slacks, tie, and jacket, and for women, a dress or formal pantsuit. In more traditional communities, clothing tends to be dressier; women wear hats and are discouraged from wearing pants.

2.      Arrival time: The time listed on the bar/bat mitzvah invitation is usually the official starting time for the weekly Shabbat, or Sabbath, service. Family and invited guests try to arrive at the beginning, even though the bar/bat mitzvah activities occur somewhat later in the service; however, both guests and regular congregants often arrive late, well after services have begun.


Putting on a tallit (pronounced tall-EAT or TALL-is), the prayer shawl.

3.      Wearing a prayer shawl: The tallit, or prayer shawl, is traditionally worn by Jewish males and, in liberal congregations, by Jewish women as well. Because the braided fringes at the four corners of the tallit remind its wearer to observe the commandments of Judaism, wearing a tallit is reserved for Jews. Although an usher may offer you a tallit at the door, you may decline it, whether you are not Jewish or you’re simply uncomfortable wearing such a garment.

WATCH: How to Put on a Tallit

4.      Wearing a head covering: A kippah (KEEP-ah) or head covering (called a yarmulke in Yiddish), is traditionally worn by males during the service and also by women in more liberal synagogues. Wearing a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification like the tallit, but is rather an act of respect to God and the sacredness of the worship space. Just as men and women may be asked to remove their hats in the church, or remove their shoes before entering a mosque, wearing a head covering is a non-denominational act of showing respect. In some synagogues, women may wear hats or a lace head covering.

Prayer Services of Rosh Hashanah

When is Rosh Hashanah 2015? Find out here.

The description of the holiday services for Rosh Hashanah is standard for all the movements with one exception. Those branches of Judaism that do not have the Musaf (additional) service, such as the Reform movement, add the shofar service and the Aleinu prayer that is part of it, to the morning service, after the reading of the Haftarah (prophetic selection).

As one of the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new Jewish calendar year, is marked by the addition of numerous unique and elaborate prayer services. Understood by the rabbis as an annual coronation of God as the ultimate spiritual sovereign of the Jewish people–and, indeed, the cosmos–Rosh Hashanah worship services are characterized by a pageantry intended to parallel the royal celebrations in ancient kingdoms.

rosh hashanah prayerIn addition, Rosh Hashanah is the formal beginning of the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, in which Jews are called upon to begin a solemn process of introspection and repentance for past misdeeds. Therefore, in addition to the royal images of God prevalent in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, there are numerous prayers dealing with our personal, internal spiritual life and external behavior and conduct.

First and foremost, nearly every prayer and worship service of Rosh Hashanah is characterized by a special nusah, or body of musical themes and melodies. Both evocative and celebratory, the music of Rosh Hashanah is an occasion for great operatic innovation and displays of cantorial virtuosity.

Rosh Hashanah Amidah

The silent, standing prayers–called Amidah prayers–of Rosh Hashanah are filled with numerous piyyutim, or religious poems, written and interpolated into the services over the span of centuries. Most of these poems emphasize the awesome nature of the coronation of God as king and speak of the inadequacy and terror of mere human beings in approaching God in prayer and praise.

In addition, all of the Amidah prayers include entreaties to God to remember and inscribe the Jewish people in the book of life. In the rabbinic imagination, God was described as a heavenly scribe, recording all of the deeds of human beings and diligently writing them in down various heavenly archives: the book of life, the book of remembrance, the book of livelihood, the book of merit, and so on. On Rosh Hashanah, God records our deeds and on Yom Kippur God judges our spiritual fate for the coming year. Therefore, the Days of Awe are a time when all life on earth is subjected to God’s review and judgment.

Preliminary Blessings and Psalms

Rabbi Kohn describes the preparatory materials that precede the main morning service. These materials include blessings, readings from the Torah and Rabbinic literature, and extended selections from the Psalms.

The Rabbis of the Talmud state: “One should not stand up to pray unless it is with a sense of respectful awe. The early pious ones used to wait an hour and then pray in order to better focus their hearts on God” (Mishnah Berakhot 5:1). Given the fact that the Rabbis established a fixed structure of obligatory prayers, they recognized and encouraged worshippers to take the time to develop and enter into an appropriately reflective and meditative state of mind. The Rabbis even warned, “Do not make your prayers perfunctory, rather, they should be true entreaties before the Holy One, blessed be God” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). To ensure that people would recite important prayers like the Shema and its blessings and the Amidah in a meditative mood, they created an introductory liturgical unit to the morning worship service called Birkhot HaShahar, or “Blessings of the Morning.”

preliminary blessingsOriginally recited by individuals in their home as they awoke, washed, and dressed for the day, these blessings, such as thanking God for giving sight to the blind (once recited before one opened his or her eyes in the morning), raising the downtrodden (recited before standing up from bed), and clothing the naked (recited before getting dressed), were transferred to the synagogue and included in the siddur. This section also included blessings after using the bathroom, a prayer thanking God for the creation of our souls, and selections of biblical and rabbinic texts to fulfill the daily mandatory requirement to study Torah every day.

A second, larger, more spiritually reflective set of preliminary readings following the Birkhot HaShahar section is called Pesukei D’Zimra (verses of song). These verses of song include a lengthy selection of psalms and passages from the Hebrew Bible chosen precisely to increase the kavvanah, or spiritual focus, of the one who is praying. These readings are sandwiched between an opening and closing blessing separated by the numerous exerpts from the Bible. The opening blessing is named after its first line, Barukh Sh’amar, or “Blessed is the One who spoke.” Barukh Sh’amar consists of 11 different attributes of God, such as Creator, Redeemer, and Rewarder, beginning with the word barukh, blessed. The opening blessing of this section states, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, King, extolled with songs of praise.”

The Torah Service

What Is the Torah Service?

Each Shabbat, a portion of the Torah is read, advancing each week until the entire five books of Moses are completed in a single year (three years, in some liberal communities). On festivals, special selections are read outside of this order that either mention the particular holiday or highlight a theme of the festival. The Rabbis further established that the Torah should also be read twice each week, on Mondays and Thursdays, when ancient market days were held in the land of Israel; on Saturday afternoons, the Torah is also read. The service for removing the Torah from the ark, parading it around the congregation, reading it, and then returning it became an opportunity to symbolically reenact the history of Israel, from the giving of the Torah at Sinai to the worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Torah service

Taking Out the Torah

The Torah service begins with the chanting of a series of biblical verses, primarily from the Book of Psalms, describing God’s grandeur and role as king of the universe. In every synagogue, the Torah scrolls are kept in a cabinet called the Aron haKodesh, or holy ark. In Sephardic congregations (generally Jews who lived in Arab lands), the cabinet is called a Teivah (ark). Both names, Aron haKodesh and Teivah, hearken back to the cabinet that housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments in the Holy of Holies in the portable Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The name confers upon the parchment scrolls a measure of the awe reserved for the stone tablets that, Scripture reports, were written by the finger of God. When the doors or curtains of the ark in a synagogue are opened, revealing the Torahs, it is customary for the congregation to stand just as the Israelites stood at the base on Mount Sinai for the revelation of the Torah.

At this point, the congregation chants the verse from the Torah, “When the ark was carried forward, Moses would say, ‘Arise, Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, may Your foes be put to flight'” (Numbers 10:35). By reciting this verse, the Jews in the synagogue begin the reenactment of the Israelite march through the wilderness with the holy ark in their midst. Collapsing history, the march proceeds metaphorically from Jerusalem, as the next line chanted is, “The Torah shall come from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).

The Amidah

The Amidah is the core of every Jewish worship service, and is therefore also referred to as HaTefillah, or “The prayer.” Amidah, which literally means, “standing,” refers to a series of blessings recited while standing.

Using the image of master and servant, the Rabbis declared that a worshipper should come before his or her master first with words of praise, then should ask one’s petitions, and finally should withdraw with words of thanks. Thus, every Amidah is divided into three central sections: praise, petitions, and thanks.

Originally, Jewish prayer was largely unstructured. Although the Rabbis eventually codified the format and themes of each of the blessings, it was initially left to the creativity of individual prayer leaders to generate the specific wording of the blessings. Individual communities in different countries began to settle on somewhat standard versions of the prayers over time. Today the variations between the traditional texts of the Amidah in different communities are fairly minor.

The Amidah is recited silently by all members of a congregation–or by individuals praying along–and then, in communal settings, repeated aloud by the prayer leader or cantor, with the congregation reciting “Amen” to all the blessings of the Amidah.

The First Three Blessings

The first three blessings of praise of the Amidah in every worship service are always the same, with only minor variations for weekdays, Shabbat, and holidays. The first blessing is called Avot, Hebrew for “ancestors,” and serves as an introduction to the God of our biblical heritage, connecting us to the Divine. Immediately before reciting the Amidah, the tradition developed of taking three steps backward and then forward again to symbolize entering into God presence. Mentioning the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–and in liberal congregations, the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel–this blessing praises God for remembering their good actions, and by implication, asking God to hear our prayer favorably because of their merit. The blessing begins and ends with a formal bow at the knees and hips, symbolically demonstrating our subservience to God.

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