By Rabbi Raymond Apple, Senior Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney
Judaism is a way of life that applies at all times and in every place, not just on certain days and in set places. It aims to sanctify everything a person does, whether in directly serving God or in dealing with other human beings. Some Jewish duties are “between man and God”, such as prayer and religious observances governing food, clothing, Sabbaths, festivals and fasts. Others are “between man and man”, such as honesty, truth, justice and peace.
Jewish prayer is as old as history. From the time of Adam and Eve, human beings have been talking to God and God has been talking to them. At first, prayer was spontaneous and unstructured. Spontaneous prayer is still regarded highly, but Judaism has developed a prayer habit three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening. One theory attributes this pattern to the Biblical patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; another view holds that when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, worship services replaced the daily sacrifices.
Though prayer is possible at any time and even without words, official Jewish worship has a set structure, built around the Sh’ma (the proclamation of faith in a single God) and the Amidah (19 blessings acclaiming the attributes of God). Though any language is acceptable, Hebrew, the language of the Bible, is preferred, and prayer books will often have Hebrew and a vernacular on facing pages. The prayers are generally in the plural (“Grant us peace”, “We have sinned” etc), because we should pray for others, not just ourselves. They combine praises, petitions and passages for study through studying religious texts we understand God better and recognise our duties to Him.
Some particularly significant prayers require the presence of a minyan of ten or more males aged 13 or over, which illustrates the importance Judaism places on the idea of community. Public worship in an orthodox community is conducted by males, though women’s spirituality is acknowledged. Worship does not need a rabbi, though it is often convenient to have a cantor who officiates with the traditional chants. Some congregations have a choir, but orthodox synagogues do not use an organ or other musical accompaniment on Sabbath and festivals.
Synagogues do not follow any set architectural style, and indeed more important than the synagogue building is the presence of the community. Wherever one prays, it is traditional to face Jerusalem, and synagogue buildings are designed with this is mind. The focal point of the synagogue is the Ark in which the parchment scrolls of the Torah are housed; singing and ceremonial accompany the taking out and return of the scroll. Above the Ark is an often elaborate ner tamid or perpetual light, which symbolises the eternal presence of God. The service is conducted from the bimah or reading platform, which is traditionally placed in the centre of the building with the seats grouped around it. Orthodox synagogues have separate seating areas for males and females.