BTW is an exciting new way to learn how to lead synagogue services or to understand more about the process of how services are conducted. How many times have you searched the web for a YouTube video or other source that will show you how to do something in a simple direct fashion? With BTW you can now use that same approach to learn how to be a service leader!
The BTW… is divided into a series of Keynote presentations and videos. These presentations and videos will guide you step by step through the process of learning how to lead each service. You can play these at your leisure.
Of course you can ask questions any time by emailing me, Hazzan Michael Krausman at email@example.com. You can also arrange a time to meet either online or in person for practice or further instruction or just to hang out and chat! You can even email recordings of yourself chanting the parts of the service you are learning and I will happily review them with you. You can also respond to the comment section below with questions, suggestions or feedback.
Here is the first video, the BTW intro. You can also receive it as a keynote presentation if you send me an email.
With the American festival of Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, the notion of expressing gratitude is very much in our thoughts. For Jews, this is not an annual event but rather a persistent theme in our hearts and heritage. Indeed, we wake up in the morning with “Modeh Ani,” a prayer thanking God for watching over and restoring our souls to us and fill our day with a myriad of Blessings acknowledging the role of the Blessed Holy One in all of our abilities and in everything we experience.
Several years ago when reflecting on the Jewish connection to Thanksgiving I related the following teaching:
… As my good friend Rabbi Mario Roizman points out, as Jews our very essence is to be thankful. Jewish people are referred to in Hebrew as “Yehudim.” We receive this name from our Biblical ancestor Yehudah, the son of Jacob. When Yehudah was born his mother Leah she declared, “Odeh et Adonai, I will give thanks to God; therefore they named him Yehudah.”(Gen.29:35) thus giving thanks is part of our DNA. Indeed, Rabbi Roizman points out that Yehidim can be understood to mean: “the people who say thank you.”
Perhaps the quintessential prayer that indicates how much we value giving thanks is Modim Anachnu Lach. This blessing is found in the Hodaiya, or prayers of thanksgiving and acknowledgment section of Amidah, a collection of 7-18 blessings that are the central core of each of our daily, festival and Shabbat services. Below is the text according to Siddur Lev Shalem published by the Rabbinical Assembly.
“We thank You, for You are ever our God and the God of our ancestors; You are the bedrock of our lives, the shield that protects us in every generation We thank You and sing Your praises-for our lives that are in, Your hands, for our souls that are under Your care, for Your miracles that accompany us each day, and for Your wonders and Your gifts that are with us each moment – evening, morning, and noon, You are the one who is good, whose mercy is never-ending; the one who is compassionate, whose love is unceasing. We have always placed our hope in You.” Click here for the Hebrew text.
Our great Talmudic sages mandated that after having made a series of requests from the Blessed Holy One on weekday or even after expressing the uniquely holy nature of a Holiday or the Sabbath, we are to acknowledge the presence of God in all that we have in our lives. Ismar Elbogen one of the greatest scholars of Jewish liturgy of all time, notes that although the present text of Modim can be found as far back as in the 9thCenturay compilation of Rav Amram, earlier forms of this poetic expression can be found across time and liturgical traditions. Elbogen also points out that it is into this section of the liturgy that our sages required that prayers of gratitude for the miracles of Hannukah and Purim be inserted. Indecently, modern prayer books also include a similarly worded prayer for Yom Ha Atzmaut – Israel Independence day.
The devastating loss of the Beit Ha Miqdash, the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. was a watershed moment in the development of the Jewish people. Our great sages in their wisdom opted to replace the biblically mandated sacrificial cult with a system of prayer which would enable us draw close to our Creator by expressing our thoughts, fears, yearnings and aspirations. At first only a simple list of mandated blessings was produced – it was up to the individual worshipper to compose the introductory text that would more deeply express the theme of the blessing. Eventually gifted authors would compose relevant poetry to be uttered by the worshipper. While the current text of our blessing is indicted above, a second version of the Modim prayer that became known as the “Scholars Modim” or, Modim d’ Rabbanan was found to be so relevant that it too is included in our prayer books.Click here for the text.
Thus, in communities where the Amidah is expressed individually by the congregation and then repeated aloud by prayer leader, individuals recite the Modim d’ Rabbanan individually while the leader chants the main version. One of the salient features of this scholarly Modim is the expression of gratitude for the very ability to express our thanks. The commentator on our Siddur Lev Shalem points out that “the ability to express gratitude is seen as a special gift to humanity. The attitude of thankfulness connects us to the world with a sense of humility and a joyful spirit of openness.”
Rabbi Ruven Hammer, noted authority on Jewish liturgy explains the process of bowing as we say Modim Anachnu Lach and the significance of this prayer in a note published in his wonderful commentary on the Conservative Sim Shalom Siddur entitled Or Hadash:
“Bowing at the beginning and end of the Modim blessing indicates that we are bringing our Prayer to an end. We began with bowing to God and we conclude with a bow. We physically symbolize our acknowledgment that God is our true Ruler, to whom all thanksgiving is due. The seriousness with which the Sages viewed this particular prayer can be seen by the fact that the Mishnah teaches that if one who is leading the service says the word ‘modim’ twice, ‘he is silenced’- i.e., stopped from leading the prayers (Berakhot 5:3). As the Talmud explains, ‘It is as if he acknowledged that there are two powers in the world’ (Berakhot 33b).”
Whether is it is because of what is hardwired into our identity as Rabbi Roismam suggested above or whether it is due of the many and sometimes harsh lessons of our history, we as a people never take anything for granted. On the contrary, Jews as people are continually expressing our gratitude. Jews do not only give thanks on special occasions or when we are siting down to eat a festive meal; we are constantly cognizant and appreciative of our special relationship with our Creator – “evening, morning and noon.”
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is among other, things a celebration of the birthday of the world. Unlike our Birthday, which celebrates our becoming one year older, a reality many of us work very hard to hide, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of a brand new, newly born world. That is to say, according to the teaching of one of the foremost scholars and teachers of our time, Rabbi Brad Artson, the world and everything contained within it that existed the day before Rosh Hashanah no longer exists and a brand new replacement world is created in its place. Thus, Rabbi Artson teaches, that the “you” that existed the day before Rosh Hashanah is only a memory; replaced by a “new you” on Rosh Hashanah. It is in this spirit that the prayer, Ha Yom Harat Olam, today the world is born, is inserted into the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.
Ha Yom Harat Olam is an ancient prayer that dates back to the time of the Geonim, the great sages of the Talmud (8th to early 11th century) and can already be found in the prayer books of the renowned twelfth century sage Maimonides (1135-1204). It serves as a leitmotif or recurring theme that punctuates the three distinctive blessings – each reflecting an aspect of our relationship with the Blessed Holy One, that are inserted into the body of the Musaph (additional) service of Rosh Hashanah: Malchuyot (Monarchy,) Zichronot (Memories) and Shofar (Moments past, present and future associated with the sounding of the rams horn in the context of divine revelation.)
Although it is one of the shortest poetic insertions in our liturgy, it is also one of the most impactful. Here is the text as translated by the High Holiday Prayer Book of the United Synagogue, Mahzor Lev Shalem:
“Today the world stands as at birth. Today all creation is called to judgment, whether as Your children or as Your servants. If as Your children, be compassionate with us as a parent is compassionate with children. If as Your servants, we look to You expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us and, as day emerges from night, to bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One.” (Click here for the Hebrew Text)
Even the first phrase of the text is packed with meaning. The Hebrew term “Harat” implies not birth but rather conception. Rosh Hashanah, then, is seen not simply as the birthday of the world but can also be considered as the moment of its conception. The time of conception is a moment fraught with infinite uncertainty and potential; any direction or occurrence is a possibility.
While reminding us that Rosh Hashanah is also known as the day of Judgment, the text goes on to suggest that each of us has our own perception of our personal relationship with The Creator, ranging from those who see themselves as children of the Holy One to those who view themselves as subjects of a celestial monarch. The author, in either case presents God as a wellspring of favor, loving kindness and light who will be with us no matter what may unfold in the year to come.
“We therefore turn to God with the adjectives that are most appropriate to this the day: Ayom, Kadosh; You are above everything, You are the source and holiness to Whom we must all look with awe and also be connected, on all the levels of our existence.”
The placement of Hayom Harat Olam immediately following the rousing tones of the shofar that punctuate the subdivisions of the Rosh Hashanah Musaph, takes advantage of an exquisite moment for the worshipper to contemplate his or her bond with God. In a few short phrases, the poet transports us to the moment of creation; we are present at the nexus of all time, the very conception of the universe.
Hayom Harat Olam reminds us that the future, while uncertain, is marked by infinite possibilities for renewal, growth, change and development. As we sing this meaningful and inspirational prayer on Rosh Hashanah we are invited to examine, strengthen and invigorate our personal relationship with the “Ayom Kadosh” – the “Awe-inspiring Holy One.”
Here is a link to the melody we will sing at Beth El in Omaha. If you are fortunate enough to be able to attend our wonderful Service, feel free to learn this melody in advance so that you will be ready when it comes around. It is taken from a composition by Hazzan Sol Zim.
A great silence settles over the packed synagogue as a man cloaked in a white robe with a huge black and white striped Tallit over his head slowly raises and old Shofar to his lips. With majestic fanfare the Rabbi calls out in a rising and falling melodic tone, “Tekiah.” After a momentary, breathless hesitation, a piercing, reverberating blast trumpets through the silent sanctuary… One of my most prominent childhood memories is the sounding of the Shofar during the Rosh Hashanah service. Even today, the blast of the Ram’s horn sends a special kind of electric pulse through my spine. In fact, there are few of us who are not moved by the haunting call of the Shofar.
Sounding the Shofar, an ancient instrument made from the horn of a ram or similar animal is a tradition that dates back to biblical times. Most traditions trace the source of the Shofar to the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Abraham’s faith in God was so rigorous that he was willing to sacrifice his favorite son Isaac. At the last moment, an angel thwarted Abraham’s attempt to kill his son and a ram, caught in thicket of thorns was sacrificed in Isaac’s place. Thus the shofar reminds us not only of the solid faith and devotion of our ancestor but also of our connection through Abraham to God. We are also mindful that God preferred the sacrifice of the ram as opposed to what might have been an overly zealous, heinous act of child sacrifice.
A.Z. Idelsohn, perhaps the most renowned of all Jewish musicologists, points out that to the primeval Israelites, the Shofar was valued for its rhythmic rather than melodic capabilities. To our ancient ancestors, Idelsohn notes, the blowing of the ram’s horn had magical powers; with a blast of the Shofar, God could be awakened from His slumber and summoned to help His People. Furthermore, the Shofar could be used to frighten off evil spirts and lesser deities of neighboring peoples. Even God, remarks Idelsohn, was depicted as blowing His Holy Shofar in order to “frighten His enemies and to gather the remnants of His people…”
Our Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) cites as the biblical commandment to blow the Shofar a passage from Psalm 81, “Tiku Ba Hodesh Shofar… Sound the Shofar on our feast day, on the new moon when it is hidden. For it is Israel’s law, a decree of the God of Jacob.” According to Biblical and Rabbinic tradition, the Shofar was not only used on Rosh Hashanah but also on the first day of the new month, for the coronation of a new king as well as to proclaim the Jubilee year during which all slaves were freed and all land reverted to the clan that was its original owner. Similarly, a great celestial shofar sound was heard at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Shofar blasts were also employed to call the Nation of Israel together for battle. Perhaps the best know example of the latter was the story of Joshua (Josh 6) whose famous resounding shofar blast brought down the walls of Jericho. In times when the Great Jerusalem Temple stood, the Shofar was often used in conjunction with a metal Trumpet and other instruments that served to punctuate the ancient sacrificial service.
Shofarot(pl) are constructed using the horn of a Kosher animal. In recollection of the sin of the golden calf, horns made of cows are prohibited. While Ashkenazim (German and eastern European Jews) prefer shorter Ram’s Horns, Jews of other cultures use longer horns such as those from an Ibex or Antelope. Barsheset- Riback, an Israeli purveyor of Shofarot, describes the process of selecting, boiling, cleaning out and finishing the horns to produce a functioning Shofar. According to Jewish law, nothing, such as an external mouth piece may be added to the horn, neither can holes be drilled to produce variable sounds.
A day of Blowing [the Shofar] is one of the ways in which the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah. As we usher in the New Year, the shofar is literally a wakeup call to our Jewish Soul. In fact, it is customary to begin the daily sounding of the shofar at the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew Calendar, to awaken the listener to the need for undergoing the process of Heshbon Ha Nefesh, the accounting of the soul.
We are jolted into the reality of the High Holiday season – the need for self-examination and introspection in order that we can enter the New Year with a clean slate and a renewed spirit.
During our Rosh Hashanah liturgy the shofar is sounded in the context of the Shofar service that comes just after the Torah reading as well as to punctuate the three unique sections of the Musaph (additional service.) Please see my post on Rosh Hashanah Musaph for more details.
There are three distinct calls that are made on the shofar; each has its own significance and meaning. Noted authority on Jewish Liturgy Abraham Milgram traces the source of these distinct shofar blasts to the biblical book of Numbers (10:5-7) which defines a “Tekiah” – a solid sound and a “Teruah” – a wavering or broken sound. Because the Rabbis of the Talmud (R.H 34a) could not agree on what constitutes a “broken tone,” they mandated the “Shevrim,” a sound comprised of three medium length notes and the “Teruah” a blast consisting of nine short individual blasts. A “Tekiah Gedolah” or longer Tekiah is also used. The skill of the Ba’al Tekiah (Master Blaster) or one who blows the shofar, determines the quality and duration of each type of sound.
Here is a video of the four types of Shofar sounds:
Deep meaning can be found in each of the types of shofar blasts. The website Mazornet, a traditional site that focuses on resources and explanations for Jewish celebrations, posts an interesting understanding of the shofar blasts: Tekiah, is a regal sound appropriate for Rosh Hashanah which celebrates God’s coronation as Ruler of the Universe. Shevarim is compared to the sound of sobbing; the heart cries out for strengthening the relationship between God and the worshiper. Teruah is an alarm, the challenge to wake up to the call for Teshuvah, or return to a path that leads to a meaningful and fulfilling way of life.
This explanatory reading by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, the great Conservative theologian appears in Machzor Hadash, published by the Prayer Book Press:
For untold generations, on this day, our ancestors listened to the sound of the Shofar. What did they hear in its piercing tones? What solemn truths did they detect in its calls which stirred them so profoundly each year?
And what does the Shofar say to us today, as we stand at the dawn of the New Year, groping for a light to guide us and a faith to sustain us?
Tekiah! Awake! Let not habit dull your minds, nor comfort harden your hearts. Examine your deeds, look well into your soul, mend your ways, turn to God.
As we hear the sharp Tekiah blast, let us rouse ourselves from smugness and self-satisfaction, from callousness and self-righteousness.
Shevarim! The broken refrain! Listen to the staccato cry. Hear the echoes of sighing and weeping. The deprived and the distressed, the neglected and the enslaved, the bruised and the broken-all cry out for relief from their pain, for release from their torment.
As we hear the anguished wail of Shevarim, let us open our ears to the cries of the afflicted and the oppressed, and let our hearts respond with compassion and love.
Teruah! The call to battle is sounded: Join the struggle against evil and suffering. Give of your bread to those who hunger; give of your strength to those who stumble; give of your time to the lonely and forsaken; heal the wounded, comfort the bereaved.
Let us hearken to the Teruah’s call to action.
For in our hands, in our hearts, and in our minds
Are the means for building a better world,
For fulfilling the promise of peace and justice,
And for hastening the day when all will hear
The sound the great Shofar of liberation.
Hopefully, the blast of the Ram’s horn will send a special kind of electric pulse through your spine and reverberate in your soul this Rosh Hashanah so that you too will moved by the haunting call of the Shofar. May you be inspired by the sounds of the Shofar to strive for a Shanna Tova, a year of Blessing and Goodness.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at part of our prayer service. If you have a suggestion, comment or question, please fee free to leave a comment below or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our Daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.
These are the notes from a class I gave entitled, “High Holiday Service Crash Course: A Quick and Easy Guide to Understanding the Themes and Meanings of our Hebrew High Holiday liturgy.” There are links to some of the materials to which I referred, so all you need are some really good cookies and you can almost have the same experience as those who joined me for the discussion.
With the High Holidays just around the corner, now is a great time to start to prepare for them. Here is a quick reference guide for making High Holiday services a more personally meaningful experience. By following some of these suggestions, services can become more of an active rather than passive process for you
A Reading Readiness
* Look over the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book), borrow one from the Synagogue if you wish.* Read through a copy of our High Holiday companion See the link at the end of this post) which explains the prayers of our Machzor * Compare different versions of the Machzor; find alternate readings or translations. * Visit the Library or a Jewish book store and select a book about the prayers or about the Holidays.
B Personal Experience
* The function of many of our prayers is to place us back into the history e.g. to “feel” what it was like to get the Torah at Mount Sinai: write down and be prepared to think of a time when you felt the presence of God, or felt profoundly Jewish.
C Z’chut Avot:
* May times during service we appeal for forgiveness due to the merit of our ancestors; find out about your own ancestors/family and share the results with other family members. * Ask kids to interview grand parents etc. and discuss the results during festival meals or before services. * Find out about and discuss past Holiday experiences such as sitting next to a grand parent in services.
D Personal Prayers/Meditations
* Personal prayers/meditations are provided for at various places in the services (e.g. at the end of the Amidah or silent prayer) * Bring a list of things you want to thank God for; things you want to ask for; or things you have trouble understanding. * Write poems that you can include in the service similar to the Piyutim, or liturgical poems, that are already part of the service. * List things about your self you a proud of or would like to improve in the coming year. * Think about plans or goals for the future.* before Yom Kippur it is costmary to ask for Michilah(forgiveness) from any individual you may have harmed either intentionally or inadvertently, think about who these individuals may be – family members are always a good place to start.This is an opportunity to enter the New Year with a clear conscious and rekindled relationships.
F By CD’s or MP3’s of Holiday Music
* Playing music in the home as you prepare for a Holyday always helps set the appropriate tone and builds excitement for the upcoming occasion.
E Buy You Own Machzor:
* Paper clip in you own: prayers, readings, meditations or personal lists from above, transliterations, names of family members to be remembered at Yizkor or during the Martyrology, which is said during Yom Kippur.
F Quick Guide to Prayer book Hebrew
Hebrew, as you may know is based a system of three or four letter roots around which all of the various forms and conjugations of words are formed. By looking at a few of these, you will be able to receive an idea of some of the concepts the author of the particular prayer is seeking to convey. These roots can be expressed in English transliteration as a series of letters separated by dashes. So here we go:
B-R-Ch. This conveys the concept of Praise or Blessing. Thus the word BRaCha, means blessing, as in Blessed are you our God. Any time this root is employed we are evoking the presence of the Creator in what we seek or in that for which we are grateful. So BiRCHat Kohanim, is the Priestly blessing recited on the Holidays, Festivals and on other significant occasions. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “knee” is BeReCh; we often bend our knee when acknowledging God’s presence.
K-D-Sh. This conveys the concept of Holiness. God is the Holiest of all entities because there on one God in the universe. So we have KidDuSh, the sanctification of Shabbat or a Festival usually made over wine. KiDuSha, the expression of God’s holiness found during the public recitation of the Amidah. KaDdiSh, the prayer said by mourners and KiDuShin, the Hebrew word for a wedding.
M-L-Ch (K). This conveys the concept of monarchy. God is described as MeLeCh Ha Olam, the ruler of the universe. We have a section of the Rosh Hashanah service that cites texts demonstrating and focusing on the monarchy of God called MaLCh Also we often sing the popular prayer, Avinu MaLKeinu, Our Parent Our Monarch, pointing out the continuum between Justice and Mercy that defines our relationship with God.
Z-Ch(K)-R. This conveys the concept of Remembering. So we have ZiChRonot, a section of the Rosh Hashanah service that cites texts demonstrating and focusing on the past and the memory of the relationship between God and our ancestors. Many gather on Yom Kippur and other festivals for the YiZKoR, memorial service. Also we have the Israeli version of Memorial Day; Yom Ha ZiKaR
Tz-D-K. This conveys the concept of Justice or doing that which is right. Thus the bible implores us, “TzeDeK, TzeDeK Tirdof; Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” We come to the realization before God during the High Holidays that we are not TzDiKim, completely righteous people like our great sages, but that we have indeed committed transgressions. During Yom Kippur we may be motivated to support the Synagogue or other worthy cause by giving TzeDaKah i.e. doing that which is right and just.
Collections of stories and other sources of reflection and insight that are perfect for before, during (not while the Rabbi is speaking of course) and after services. Rabbi Elkins is a world renowned motivational speaker and author.
I created this booklet so that it would be the equivalent of having me sitting beside you in services and explaining each prayer as it happens. I include the page number in Machzor Lev Shalem for each prayer as well as indicating particular points of interest throughout the service.
Part of a joyous series of music CDs jointly produced by the Cantors Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism featuring music and prayers sung by members of the Cantors Assembly. Familiar favorites and new compositions, includingHebrew texts, translations, and commentaries on the selections are presented.
For example, here is a beautiful, uplifting setting from the Rosh Hashannah Musaph service entitled, “Kadosh Atah,” “You are Holy,” sung by Hazzan David Lefkowitz and the Park Avenue Synagogue Choir.
Please feel free to contact me for help with any of the above suggestions or to explore other possibilities. By doing a small amount of preplanning, the services that we experience together this year can be the most meaningful ever.
Best wishes for a Shanna Tovah – a year of Goodness and Blessing
Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our Daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.
The 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, are known as the time of Sefirat Ha Omer, the “Counting of the Omer.” In ancient times, on the second day of Pesach the barley harvest was marked by cutting enough sheaves of barley, to make about an Omer of fine flour (about five pounds) which was combined with oil and spices to produce a special wave offering. This inaugurated an agricultural festival that was observed for 49 days until Shavuot, which celebrated the wheat harvest. More significantly, the 49 days of the Omer correspond to the days between Pesach, the holiday of our physical liberation from slavery, to Shavuot, the time of our spiritual liberation stemming from the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It was on Shavuot that we were transformed form a band of escaped slaves to a united nation with common goals and beliefs. Thus, the Omer becomes a period of excitement and expectation; we recall the experience of the children of Israel as they anxiously awaited their close encounter with God – the revelation at Mount Sinai.
For generations this was a joyous period, celebrating both an agricultural event and the anticipation of receiving the Torah. However, following the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman occupation in 135 CE, the Sefirat Ha Omer became a time of mourning and sadness. The Talmud relates that shortly following the Bar Kochba incident, the students of the Great Rabbi Akiva suffered a terrible plague and thousands perished. As a sign of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest of our sages, it became traditional to refrain from holding weddings and other forms of celebration. Some men do not shave, haircuts are not taken and many people will not attend movies, concerts or other forms of merriment.
Miraculously, on the 33rd day of the Omer, known by its Hebrew numeric equivalent – Lamed (30) Gimel (3) or “Lag” Ba Omer, the plague subsided. This gave rise to the festive observance of Lag Ba Omer, including the celebration of weddings and the holding of concerts and other musical events. It is customary to have outdoor activities on Lag Ba Omer such as bon fires, field days and picnics. Because Lag Ba Omer is also the anniversary of the death of the Great Talmudic and Kabbalistic sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai celebrations are often held in his honor, especially at his grave site in the Israeli town of Meiron.
Here is video by Rabbi Tovia Singer of Hundreds of Hassidim gathered at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai .
The process of counting the Omer is outlined in most prayer books and in many standalone Omer Counters and apps. An introductory meditation is first offered, containing the biblical commandment to count the Omer:
“You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an Omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”
A blessing thanking God for making us Holy by giving us the commandment to count the Omer is then recited followed by the announcement of the new day. This announcement includes the exact number of weeks and days of the counting, thus, on the 22 day of the Omer one would declare, “ Today is the 22nd day marking three weeks and one day of the Omer.” The Omer must be counted after dark to ensure that a complete day has passed between each counting. Here is the text in Hebrew and English.
“While Pesach celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one.”
Although it may seem like a lot of attention is given to counting a period of 49 days that fall between two Jewish Holidays; in a similar fashion to the Pesach Seder, the Sefirat Ha Omer helps create a mutigenerational bond that links us to our biblical ancestors and reminds us of the significance of personal as well as spiritual freedom. Counting the Omer is a ritual in which the entire family can participate. As we count each day, we are reminded not to take everything in our busy lives too seriously but to focus on what really counts.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at mailto:email@example.com or leave a comment below.
We all know that prayer is both a communal and an individual experience. Our tradition is replete with volumes of prayers that have been composed and codified throughout our history. Psalms and other Biblical sources are thousands of years old, yet they still have the power to sustain our liturgical yearnings and help us to reach out to The Holy One. Interestingly, though most of our prayers are couched in the plural – pertaining to the entire community, baked into our formal liturgy are opportunities for individual, personal prayer.
The first place to look for such private prayer opportunities is the very opening pages of most prayer books that begin with the morning service. Originally intend to be recited at home; these prayers were transferred to the synagogue to serve as private mediations which would help prepare the worshipper for the public worship to come. In October 2010 I wrote:
“Those who are familiar with the Siddur (prayer book) will note that even before the formal service begins there is a collection of personal prayers and reflections that can be offered. ‘Elohai Neshama – My God the soul that You implanted with in me…,’ the passionate prayer dating back to Talmudic Times (Berachot 60b) is a perfect example of such a prayer. The text reflects the notion that at night-timeis that part of God that is inside each and every one of us. Elohai Neshama gives us the opportunity to express gratitude to God and to remind ourselves of our connectedness to our Creator and to each other.”
Following the recitation of the Amidah, (see below), is a liturgical compilation known as Tachanun. Tachanun is a section of personal petitions and supplications that are inserted in the weekday morning and afternoon service. So intense is the recitation of Tachanun that we rest our heads on our forearms and say part of the Tachanun in a hunched-over submissive posture. Based on biblical president, our sages felt that since we are at a time in the service when we are most focused on our relationship with the Almighty, we should expand this intense period of concentrated prayer and introspection by adding Tachanun.
On Monday and Thursday mornings we extend the Tachanun with additional supplications. However, Tachanun is not recited on happy occasions such as Purim or Hanukah in the presence of a bride or groom or when a Brit Milah (Bris) is about to take place. Remarkably, this set of supplications is also omitted in the presence of a mourner and on Tisha B’Av, our day to grieve for the fallen Jerusalem Temple, so as to not too greatly increase our sadness.
Personal prayers by such great liturgical sages as Sa’adia Gaon and Rav Amram as well as some poignant psalms are found in this plaintive collection. These prayers ask God to help us personally through whatever difficult times we may be currently experiencing.
We ask that God “assuage our fears, establish the works of our hands, heal our wounds and save us from our tormentors.” Even in our deepest time of despair we appreciate the ability to place ourselves in God’s hands.
Some of the other themes related to in Tachanun include, the value of a good friend, guidance in avoiding evil or temptation. Sephardi congregations often include the confessional as part of Tachanun.
All versions of this supplication include the prayer Shomer Yisrael – guardian of Israel which, as Rabbi Reuven Hammer notes, reflects the trepidation of the medieval European Jewish community. Tachanun concludes with the declaration, “alone we are helpless”; we rely on God for compassion and guidance. Here is a recording, again from the FAU archives, of Hazzan Israel Rand singing a popular setting of Shomer Israel.
Above I made reference to the Amidah the a formal series of 7-19 blessings that form the core of every synagogue service. Certainly an entire Blog post could be devoted to this quintessential prayer. We begin the Amidah with a most extraordinary process. It is customary to take three steps backwards and then three steps forward while reciting the phrase, “Adonai S’fatai Tiftach…Lord open my lips so that my mouth can find the proper words to address You.”(Ps 51:17) According to the great liturgical scholar Ismar Elbogin, this phrase was introduced by the sage Rabbi Yochannan in the 3rd century. The purpose of this ritual is to symbolically separate ourselves from the rest of the congregation enter into a private audience with the Holy One. In essence, at least three times a day we have the opportunity to have individual “face time” with our Creator.
This private conversation with God is guided by the age-old Blessings of the Amidah – some of which date back to the time of the Ancient Jerusalem Temple. Built into the process of reciting the Amidah, however, are specific opportunities for individualized prayer. Chief among these personal prayers is that contained within the eighth Blessing, the Prayer for healing. Our Siddur, contains a formula into which the names of those for whom we pray can be inserted. Moreover, the version found in both the Sim Shalom Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals and the Weekday Sim Shalom contain an extra line asking the Holy One also support the caregivers of those who we mentioned.
Similarly, the sixteenth blessing, “Shomeia Tephila – The One who listens to prayer”, is also a traditional point at which to insert a personal petition. Rabbi Hammer cites the Talmud (Avodah Zara 8a) for the origin of this custom. Not only can any heart-felt supplication be inserted at this point but prayers for comfort on the national days of sorrow are customarily included here as well. Thus prayers for Tisha B’Av, mourning the destruction of the Holy Jerusalem Temple and Yom Ha Shoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust are added to the Shomeia Tephila prayer. Interestingly, Hineni, the personal plea of the prayer leader on the High Holidays, ends with the same concluding phrase.
Just as the opening phrase of the Amidah is based on a psalm as instituted by Rabbi Yochanan, the concluding passage also contains a verse from a Psalm (19:15) “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart …” Preceding this is a moving personal mediation –“Elohai N’tzor L’shoni Me’ra – May God keep my tongue from evil.” This prayer is cited in the Talmud by the sage Mar Ben Ravia.
Although several permutations of this concluding meditation have existed in different liturgical traditions, offering some personal thoughts is an essential part of the process of the individual recitation of the Amida. At the conclusion of the Elohai N’tzor, with the words “Oseh Shalom,” we take three steps backwards and bow to the left and the right symbolizing the conclusion of our formal chat with God. Perhaps our sages felt that since we began by asking Divine guidance for our words, we should conclude our conversation with The Holy One with the hope that our language continues in this sanctified vein. Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English.
The provision of opportunities for individual prayer in the context of public worship reminds us of the nature of our relationship with God. We are connected to The Holy One on a personal level at all times, even when experiencing the power of communal prayer. It is clear that God is at the same time within us and part of the community at large; the more that we seek God, the closer we feel to God and the deeper our connection to our community through the Almighty.