JEWISH PRAYERS, RITUALS AND PRACTICES
Judaism is a very complex religion, full of complicated rituals and elaborate prayers and texts. In ancient times, religious activity revolved around animal sacrifice and The Temple. After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, the focus of religious life shifted to prayer and incorporating religion into everyday life. Many Jews view every aspect of life as an opportunity to express their faith and love of God.
To be a real Jew most Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews believe that you have to follow Jewish law and commit to the Orthodox lifestyle. This entails eating only kosher foods, regularly praying and reading religious scriptures and following a myriad of rules that many aspects of everyday life. Religious texts provide detailed rules on marriage, sex, birth, child rearing, business and death as well as what to do on religious holidays and how to practice their religion.
In the days of The Temple wine was poured over the altar during an animal sacrifices. Today it drunk at the close of the Sabbath, offered as a sign of welcome and used in circumcision and Passover ceremonies. “Without the Temple there is no way to fulfill many of the religious obligations such as ritual sacrifices, that the Torah requires. In Orthodox theology, that means that all Jews are stuck in a state of impurity, and are therefore unable to be in the presence of God.
Jews do not proselytize. They have traditionally handed down their beliefs from parent to child, through parents understanding, and the attendance of religious school. Because of this religious life is centered very much around the home and community. Within Jewish communities, rabbis have traditionally exercised a great deal of control. In some cases they use corporal punishment and the threat of excommunication.
Websites and Resources: Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Judaism and Jewish Resources shamash.org/trb/judaism ; Aish.com aish.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; torah’org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/judaism ; Judaism.com judaism.com ; ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history ; Wikipedia article on Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Origin of Judaism adath-shalom.ca ;Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish Culture and History Resources ddickerson.igc.org/judaica ;
Books: A Short History of Judaism by I. And D. Cohn-Sherlok (1994); The Gift of the Jews by Thomas Cahill; Ancient Biblical History Books: Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times by Donald Redford; Oxford Companion to the Bible ; Palestine Bible as History by Werner Keller; The Bible Unearthed by I. Finkelstein & N. Asher Silberman ; Historical Atlas of the Holy Lands by K. Farrington
Judaism, Candles, Lamps and Ram’s Horns
Yemenite Jew with Sabbath Horn The lighting of candles on the Sabbath and festivals is one of the most important Jewish rituals. This custom is linked to the Jewish belief that the spirit is like a light or fire. The candles are often lit while the following prayer is murmured: “Blessed are you Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has commanded us to light the lights of the festival.” When candles are lit at home the woman of the house has traditionally lit the candles, waved her hand over of the flame and covered her eyes.
Oil lamps and candles are lit as an expression of faith. Light, lamps and candles are all important symbols in Judaism. God is often compared with light and light is often mentioned in prayers such as “By your light, we shall see the light.”
The shofar (a trumpet made from a ram’s horn) has traditionally been blown during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is also sometimes blown at the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday and during moments of celebration. According to Maimonides the purpose of the call is to encourage sinners to repent: “Awake you sinners, and ponder your deeds; remember your Creator, foresake your evil ways and return to God. It is considered a great honor to blow it.
Life at Jewish Temple in Ancient Times
During the pilgrimage season at The Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times tens of thousands of thousands of visitors visited the Temple. Around the entrance were baths for ritual purification, small shops and vendors who sold animals for sacrifices. The moneychangers outside the Temple, whose tables were overturned by Jesus, exchanged the foreign currency of pilgrims for local silver shekels.
Brazen Sea of Solomon Temple Some historians have speculated that this area was like Speakers Corner in London, a place where crazies and wannabe Messiahs could stand on the equivalent of a soap box and rant and rave. The pilgrims often camped out in the hills around the temple. Festivals were regarded as festive occasions and no doubt people partied and sang and drank heavily. Money spent by pilgrims, believers and visitors supported a large economy.
Rituals and animal sacrifices at the Temple were performed by priestly class that purified themselves with ashes of a red heifer. The high preist was a descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron. Jewish men, Jewish women and Gentiles were all allow to enter the Temple but each group was segregated to a specific area. Roman soldiers had a post set up to maintain order.
The historian Paul Johnson wrote: “The place was as vast as a small city. There were literally thousands of priests, attendants, temple soldiers and minions. Dignity was quite lost amid the smoke of the pyres, the bellows of terrified beasts, the sluices of blood, the abattoir stench, the unconcealed and unconcealable machinery of tribal religion.”
Early Jews were required to take ritual baths before they entered The Temple in Jerusalem. The homes of the wealthy had their own ritual baths. Incense was commonly burned at the Temple. The smoke was considered symbolic of prayer. The word scapegoat come from the Jews. During the ancient Israeli Day of Atonement the High Priest took the sins of his the people and cast them on a goat, which was then allowed to escape.
See Animal Sacrifices Below
Morning Torah reading Jews have three set times for prayer: morning, afternoon and evening. The basic Jewish prayer is the shema (meaning “hear” or “obey”), the Jewish declaration of faith and unity. It is repeated in the morning and evening by every practicing Jew and is the first prayer whispered in a child's ear after birth and last said to a person on his or her deathbed—and were the last words of Jewish martyrs. It begins: “Hear O’Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is One (Deuteronomy vi, 4) or “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one....”
Jewish liturgy (prayer service) is described as “the service of the heart.” The most basic command is “Be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Other prayers include the Amidah , a series of benedictions based on the phrase, “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe.”
For centuries prayers were memorized and passed down from generation to generation. Prayer books were not introduced until around the 9th century. Modern prayer books—which include the Siddar (daily prayers) and the Mahazar (festival prayers)—generally are printed in Hebrew on one page and have a translation on the facing page. Many of these prayers are taken from the psalms. One of the most important is the Hebrew blessing of the Sabbath candles. These days, many Jews don’t know the words.
The goal of a prayer is to become one with God. The 13th century Jewish philosopher Nahmanides asserted: “Whoever cleaves to his Creator becomes eligible to receive the Holy Spirit.”
Jewish Prayer Rituals
Israeli soldier reading a prayer
wearing a tefillin Prayers are regarded as obligatory but the setting is not. They can be performed at anywhere and anytime. Ideally, however, set prayers are recited in a miryan , a group of at least 10 men, in a synagogue.
During prayer Jews are supposed to cover their head (men wear a yarmulke ). Men also cover their shoulders or head with a fringed prayer shawl called a tallit . Orthodox men always wear a small version of the prayer shawl under their clothes and always have their heads covered. The colors on the Jewish prayer shawl are on the Israeli flag.
During prayers some Jews wear tefillin , a black leather box with passages of the shema from the Torah coiled inside. The tefillin is worn on the head and sort of resembles the thing doctors used to wear on their head. Jews who wear these phylacteries ascribe to the dictum from Exodus calling on males to wear "a memorial between the eyes."
Observant Jews are expected be earnest and smooth when they say their prayers. Davening is the traditional practice of rocking back and forth while praying. The swaying and chanting performed by many conservative Jewish men when they pray is not all that different from what Muslims do when they recite passages from the Koran and shaman do before they go into a trances.
Ultra-Orthodox often sway over prayer books. Describing a group of men praying before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Doug Struck wrote in the Washington Post: “Men raise prayers and supplications in a plaintive cry. Draped in white prayer shawls, they huddle around Torahs and bow rapidly to the Wall, singing the scriptures in a mournful voice that carries the sorrow of the ages.” Women are not supposed to pray aloud. Their voices are considered to be “provocative and rude.”
Inside a tefillin Synagogue Rituals, See Above
Jewish Food, Women and Children
In ancient times "cleanliness was equated with moral purity." According to Jewish law, the hands must be ritually cleansed after rising from sleep, touching a corpse, urinating or defecating and before eating, praying, or performing rituals such as lighting candles.
Women, See Segregation of the Sexes
Food and Hygiene Rituals, See Kosher Food.
Circumcision, Bar Mitzvah, See Children
Jewish Animal Sacrifices
Tefillin straps with Sephardic knot Animal sacrifices were common occurrences among the ancient Israelites. The book of Leviticus describes how they were to be done and the book of Numbers lists off the animals slaughtered at the dedication of a temple (36 oxen, 144 sheep and lambs, and 72 goats and kids over a 12 day period). Some 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep were sacrificed at the dedication of Solomon's temple.
During the three major festivals of the year—Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth—when Jews were obligated to make visits to The Temple to make animal sacrifices as many as 250,000 visitors poured into the city. A lamb was sacrificed for Passover. A bull was sacrificed for Yom Kippur. Two doves were sacrificed to celebrate a birth and circumcision.
Traditionally, the animal’s neck was cut at a special altar and the gushing blood was collected in a basin and then sprinkled or poured out on or near the altar. Part s of the animals were immolated for God. The rest was eaten and shared by the pilgrims. For some people meat from the sacrificed animals was the only meat they ate the entire year.
Animal sacrifices were a way that Jews purified themselves, cleansed themselves of their sins and sealed their covenant with God. Eating the animal was regarded as symbol of the union of the people making a covenant. The historian W. Robert Smith observed in Biblical times, "people could never eat beef or mutton except as a religious act."
Jewish sacrifices involved offering an unblemished life and were intended to remove defilement and enable man to get closer to God. Among the problems with this set of beliefs is the fact that animals are unblemished because they incapable of sin, they did not submit willingly and were not on a human level. Christians would later argue that Christ’s death was a true sacrifice.
Rabbis reportedly gave up the practice of sacrificing animals after the destruction of Jewish temple in A.D. 70.
Red Heifer and the Temple
Rambam portal “Without the Temple there is no way to fulfill many of the religious obligations such as ritual sacrifices, that the Torah requires. In Orthodox theology, that means that all Jews are stuck in a state of impurity, and are therefore unable to be in the presence of God.
According to laws set forth by Moses, God decreed that men who come in contact with the dead must be purified with the ashes of a red heifer, butchered in her third year. Ritual purification with these ashes was a requirement for anyone entering the Temple of Jerusalem. According to the Bible anyone who fails to be purified “shall be cut from among the congregation, because he hath defiles the sanctuary of the Lord.” [Source: Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, July 20, 1998]
Accord to Jewish law all Jews are impure through direct or indirect contact with the dead. Simply walking on the ground can cause indirect contact with the dead. Many Orthodox Jews believe that the only way they can be pure again is to be sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer. The commands involving the red heifer are some of the mysterious passages in the Bible. Even Solomon, who was said to understand the meaning of all things, was stumped by God’s choice of a red heifer for such as an important purpose.
Only nine cows in all Jewish history have met the standards to be red heifer. None have qualified for around 2000 years. The last batch of ashes ran out around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. The absence of ashes has been one of the obstacles to the reconstruction of Temple.
The slaughter of the red heifer has to be done by a ritually pure priest who has never been in contact with a dead body, or has been purified with ashes of a red heifer. The carcass is burned with cedar wood, kyssop and scarlet wool. The ashes of a red heifer are mixed with water taken from the pool of Shilom and applied to anyone wishing to be purified.
In Numbers 19, the Lord commanded Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel that they bring there a red heifer without a spot, wherein is no blemish, and which never came a yoke.” This has been interpreted as meaning that for a cow to qualify as a red heifer it must be immaculately red, a virgin and never used for any kind of work. A single blemish or more than one white hair technically disqualifies her.
Red Heifer and the Coming of the Messiah and Jesus
Inside Clean Place for the Red Heifer Some Jews believe that the arrival of a red heifer will herald the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple. The reasoning for this is that for Jews to rebuild the Temple they need to be purified with the ashes of the red heifer. Some Christian believe that the red heifer is the key to the second coming of Jesus. The reasoning for this is that the prophets predicted that before Jesus returns the Jews will rebuild their Temple and for that happen they need a red heifer.
A cow name Melody was born on a fam in northern Israel in 1996. Many Jews thought that she met the requirements for the red heifer. Some Jews heralded her as a sign from God that the Messiah would be coming soon. A member of the Temple Mount Faithful told the New York Times, “I see this cow as a sign from the heavens...for 200 years the Jewish people didn’t know what a red cow was, and suddenly she is born, right in our backyard, so I see it as a sign, a flash of light, that we’ve come close to redemption.”
Some Muslims and secular Jews worried that Jewish extremists would try to destroy the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount to clear the way for the construction of the third Jewish temple which is supposed to take place when the second messiah comes.
In the end Melody didn’t meet the standards. She grew a white tail and had white on her udder, white whiskers on her snout, and eyelashes that were white on one end and red on the other. Many people who saw her said at best she was auburn, and looked more brown than red. Many were happy by this development. A columnist in the Israeli newspaper Haarz wrote, “The potential harm from this heifer is far greater than the destructive properties of regular terrorist bombs.”
Clyde Lott, a Mississippi cattle rancher and Pentecostal preacher, has joined forces with the Jerusalem -based rabbi Haim Richman to breed a true red heifer. Lott has bred Red Angus with only a few blemishes and white hairs using artificial insemination and the latest animal husbandry technology on a 3,000-acre ranch in Nebraska. His aim is not only to produce a red heifer but an entire herd of them. Promising cows are sent to Israel because the red heifer has to be born in Israel.
Lott told the New Yorker, “In God’s timing we know that all Bible Prophecy will be fulfilled...Our calling is simply to begin the actual bringing of the red cow, and at the same time to work, as much as Christian people can, with the Jewish people for this restoration.”
Kabbalah Jewish mysticism
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Jewish Encyclopedia
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011