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 Shema (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.
Living a Jewish life is also a form of worship. This includes observing the Sabbath and festivals, centred both on the synagogue and on the home. The Jewish home is an integral part of Judaism. The family gathering, especially on Friday night when Sabbath begins, is widely observed even amongst those who do not claim to be strictly observant.
Food laws (“keeping kosher“), based on the Bible, require certain meats and fish not to be eaten, notably the meat of the pig. Kosher animals, e.g. cattle and sheep, and poultry, are slaughtered in a set way which minimises pain to the animal or bird. Meat is soaked in water and salted on all sides after which the salt is washed off, in order to remove blood (liver requires a different process). Meat and dairy foods are not prepared, served or eaten together, because of Biblical rules about not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. Kosher homes have separate sets of meat and dairy utensils. Additional laws apply during Pesach (Passover).
Other Jewish observances include the mezuzah on the doors of a house (a small parchment scroll containing scriptural passages and encased in a decorative cylinder), the tallit or fringed garment worn by males during worship, and the tefillin or prayer boxes affixed by adult males to the arm, hand and head for morning prayers. Males wear a kippah or skull-cap or other form of head-covering during prayer and religious observance; some cover their head at all times. Religious married women cover their hair at all times.
Life-cycle events have their own special observances – b’rit milah or circumcision for boys on the eighth day after birth (or thereafter if medical reasons require postponement), a naming ceremony for newly born girls, Bat-Mitzvah (entry into religious adult status) when a girl is 12 and Bar-Mitzvah when a boy is 13, a pattern of ceremonies when a wedding is celebrated, a solemn procedure if unfortunately a divorce takes place, and bereavement practices when someone dies.
How many Jews observe the whole pattern of Jewish practice is not known. A useful indication is the research work that reveals that in Australia over 60% of Jewish homes practise some form of Sabbath observance, even if it is limited to a special meal on Friday night; over 80% of Jews say they fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; and an even higher percentage say they attend a Seder, the ceremonial meal on the first evening of Passover.
What these observances mean to them varies. For some, it is enough to know that they are fulfilling the word of God. Others regard Jewish practice as a mark of Jewish identity. Some emphasise the beauty and poetry that Jewish observance brings into their lives. Some stress the symbolism of the observances, e.g. the lesson of freedom that is taught by celebrating Passover, which marks the emergence of the ancient Israelites from generations of enslavement and degradation.