The best service to get acquainted with synagogue prayers is the Friday evening service. It takes about an hour, contains a lot of singing and nice stuff and the structure is pretty simple. What most (traditional) synagogues do, is to combine two separate prayer service, the afternoon service for the weekday and the evening service for Shabat. This is done because the weekday afternoon service is quite short and probably nobody would bother to show up for it otherwise. So here is a quick introduction to what will happen if you show up in synagogue on a Friday evening. Explications of the different parts follow below.
1. Mincha (weekday afternoon service)
– Aleinu leshabeach
2. Kabbalat Shabat (welcoming the Shabat)
– Lecha Dodi
– more psalms
3. Ma’ariv (Shabat evening service)
– Shma and brachot
– Magen Avot
– Aleinu leshabeach
Mincha (the afternoon service) for a weekday is really short and may be done without any “decoration” so to speak. Ashrei is Psalm 145, in my synagogue it is little more than a murmur of the prayer leader while most people haven’t even realized service just started.
The Amida (lit. “standing”) is the center of every service, if we are talking about “The Prayer”, the Amida is meant. It may also be referred to by “Shmone-Esre” (lit. “eighteen”) which sort of refers to the fact that is made up by 18 blessings. Sort of, because it actually consists of 19 blessings on a weekday and only 7 on Shabat or most holidays. The name “Amida” comes from the fact that you stand when you say it. It is proper to be silent to allow others to concentrate on the prayer, even if one isn’t praying. Nothing is more annoying than trying to concentrate on a prayer while the people in the back talk about their new car or similar things. Actually… there is, now that I think of it: Someone telling you “sorry, this is my seat” while you are in the middle of it. Why can’t you people just wait when you see I’m praying?
An important point that gets first-time-visitors confused is, that the Amida at Mincha is repeated aloud by the prayer leader after everybody is finished with the silent recitation. It is about 10 pages in my sidur (prayer book), so yes, we really just went back that far. And yes, it takes about 5-10 minutes.
Aleinu leshabeach is added to mark the end of every service. People are unbelievably fast with this, there is just no way one can read the whole thing in the time your average prayer leader gives you. There is a really nice melody for the whole thing, but I have only ever heard it in reform services.
After the weekday Mincha, the prayer leader will change his place (or sometimes also the person will change) from the front pult to the bima (the reading platform in the center of the synagogue). This is a very good clue to notice that we are now in the second part of the Friday evening prayers, the Kabalat Shabat service. In some communities they will start here and omit Mincha.
Kabalat Shabat is not an obligatory service, but merely a nice custom to sing some songs to welcome the Shabat. The best known part is probably Lecha Dodi, a song from the middle ages. There are probably thousands of melodies. Apart from that song, the service consists of some other psalms with really nice melodies. Don’t concentrate on the words, just sing along!
After this short (or not so short) intermezzo, the prayer leader goes to the front again and starts Maariv, the evening service. It is now Shabat. The service starts with the call to prayer from the prayer leader, Barchu (let us praise). We bow before G’d whom we are praising (we’ve been doing this all the time until now as well, of course).
We are commanded in the Tora to say the Shma “when we lie down and when we get up” (5. Moses/Dvarim 6,7). So the evening service starts with it. But because it is such an important prayer, it is preceeded by two brachot (blessings). We bless G’d for “creating evenings” and for his “love of Israel”. This is at least partly chanted aloud. The first line of the Shma is then also said aloud by the prayer leader, the rest is usually read silently. In my synagogue the rabbi repeats the third paragraph aloud, but I have never heard that anywhere else.
The Shma has three paragraphs and it is directly connected to the following blessing, “emet veEmuna” (true and faithful). This blessing is part of the recitation of Shma and it really is only one blessing right up until “blessed are you who redeems Israel”. The last part of it is supposed to be responsive between prayer leader and community, but I guess the community doesn’t always know that.
The next highlight is VeShamru (“and they shall keep”). Everybody stands up for that and sings along. Standing up is pretty convenient, because it is followed by the second Amida of this event, this time the version for Shabat eve.
The Shabat Amida is much shorter, all the middle blessings for our needs are replaced by one blessing for the day. This is done, because on Shabat it is inappropriate to concentrate on your needs, it might make you unhappy. And on Shabat you are supposed to enjoy life. This time Amida is not repeated, only a part of the newly inserted blessing, “VaYechulu” (“thus were finished”). Afterwards is a beautiful piece, Magen Avot (“shield of our fathers”), that leaves you just in the right Shabat mood at the end of the service. Well, not really the end, because we end with Aleinu leshabeach (of course), like every service.
You can hear melodies for these things in the internet, if you just want to learn how to follow a service, Virtual Cantor is a good place. If you want to listen just for fun, you might find something better at youtube.
There is something I didn’t mention, something that is repeated about 1000 times during every service (in several variations): Kaddish. That’s when everybody stands up, three people start to mumble something and every now and then half of the rest says “Amen” at different times. I’ll leave that for a later post.
I find that knowing the structure of a service helps a lot in understanding what is going on. You may get lost during some parts, that’s perfectly ok, but once you know things like “when the prayer leader goes to the bima, we start Kabalat Shabat, that’s on page 86” or “when everybody is standing silently, it is Amida, that’s either on page 40 (Mincha) or page 92 (Maariv)”, you will always find back! I hope it helps.