Shabbat Learners' Services

It all begins with a blessing …   
A brief précis of our Learner's Service
Rabbi Carl M. Perkins

Intro to Jewish Worship 2010 Learners Service image

Structure of the Service

Among the topics we will cover are the structure and organization (see image on right) of our liturgy and the choreography of worship. But we will also touch on the most serious challenge of all, which is that of praying in the first place. What does it mean to pray today? How does it make sense? What are we praying for – and what aren’t we praying for? What are we trying to accomplish when we pray? How can we pray using words written by people with very different beliefs and ideas from our own?
 
In a sense, it seems to me that this is about the most important thing we could be doing. After all, our synagogue is an educational institution. It’s also a social community. But fundamentally, it is a Beit Tefillah, a House of Prayer. And yet so many of us feel challenged by rather than inspired, or worried rather than consoled, by the notion of praying. 
 
What, after all, is prayer? For some, it is a spontaneous outpouring of the heart. 
 
(What, by the way, do we even mean by that?  After all, the heart is a physical organ in our bodies. It doesn’t “pour out” anything, right? So the word “heart” is a metaphor. As is “mind,” as is “conscience” and as is just about every word we use to describe our innermost essence. Keep that in mind.) 
 
For others, prayer is an experience of the mind. It is a review of certain propositions, certain ideas.
 
For still others, it is none of the above. It may be an opportunity to gather with others or to achieve a certain solace in solitude. We’ll continue to explore the nature of prayer during the coming weeks.

Polarities in Worship

Polarities in Worship Learners' Service imageWe spoke about the various polarities in our conception of prayer. Take a look at the chart to the left.

This past Shabbat, we focused on the basic building block of Jewish liturgy: the brachah (or, “blessing”). Abrachah is a formula, a fixed sequence of words that invoke God’s presence. Generally, brachot (plural) are expressions of gratitude or praise. For example, when we are about to eat bread, we pause to recite the Hamotzi, a blessing giving thanks to God for bringing forth bread from the earth (including, in particular, the piece of bread we’re about to eat). When we are celebrating a special occasion, we recite the Shehehiyanu, the blessing giving thanks to God for the privilege of presence. 
 
The formal, statutory blessings in our liturgy all include the following six word formula: 
 
Barukh atah adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam ….
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who …
 
We’ll discuss this formula in more detail on April 9th, but in the meantime, it’s helpful to realize that brachot are the basic building blocks of our liturgy. The liturgical brachot tend not to be one line (short) blessings such as the Hamotzi. They tend to be long blessings, consisting of a single paragraph or several paragraphs, expatiating upon a theme. Long blessings come in two varieties. The first in a series of blessings begins with the formula we saw above: 
 
Barukh atah adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam ….
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who …
 
The second and subsequent blessings in a series will NOT begin that way. They’ll simply begin by describing the theme of the blessing. All blessings conclude with the formula: Barukh atah adonai, followed by a predicate of some kind.

Amidah Prayer

The Amidah Learners' Service ImageWe examined the Shabbat Amidah and compared it to the weekday Amidah. The Shabbat Amidahconsists of 7 blessings; the weekday Amidahconsists of 19 blessings. But they’re related as you can see from this diagram.

We also noted that there are two blessings before the Sh’ma and one blessing after the Sh’ma in the morning service. We’ll look at these in more detail this coming week, when we study the Sh’ma.

For further reflection, refer to the handout we distributed and discussed during the April 2 service.
 
That’s about it for now. See you next Shabbat!