Visitor’s Guide to Shabbat at Beth El

Welcome to the Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew) morning service at Congregation Beth El. Any person, regardless of religious affiliation, is welcome to attend. We have prepared a booklet called A Visitor’s Guide to the Shabbat Morning Service at Congregation Beth El to help our guests feel comfortable and to provide information about the Shabbat service and our congregation. You may view the full booklet by clicking here; the booklet is also available in the Sanctuary during Shabbat services.

Synagogue Decorum

Guests who are not familiar with the Jewish worship service may wonder what they should – or should not – do during the service. Following a few simple guidelines will allow the visitor to comfortably be part of the congregation.

Head coverings. Head coverings are not religious objects, but through centuries of practice, they have acquired importance as a sign of respect. In accordance with Jewish tradition, all males, whether Jewish or not, should wear a head covering – a “kippah” or “yarmulke” – in the sanctuary. You may notice women with head coverings as well. This practice is optional for women.

Prayer shawls. Unlike head coverings, prayer shawls do have religious significance. The shawls have fringes at the corners as a reflection of the biblical commandment that Jews should place fringes on the corners of their garments as reminders to fulfill God’s commandments. (Numbers 15:38; Deuteronomy 22:12.) Those who aren’t Jewish are asked not to wear a prayer shawl because it signifies acceptance of Jewish commandments, and they may be called upon to fulfill a role in the service.

Standing. From time to time during the service, the congregation will rise. Visitors are also asked to stand. Certain prayers are recited silently while standing with each congregant proceeding at his or her own pace and being seated when he or she concludes the prayer. Please feel free to be seated when you observe congregants doing so. There also are occasions when only some congregants – those in mourning or those wishing to offer a prayer for the healing of another – will be asked to stand. You may remain seated when only some congregants stand or join in standing if you feel it is appropriate to your personal situation.
Participation. Participation is welcome. Please feel free to join in the English readings or read the English transliterations of the Hebrew prayers when they appear in the prayer book.

Taking a break. You may notice congregants leaving the sanctuary and then returning to their seats. The Shabbat service lasts until approximately noon, and some in attendance may need to step out of the service for one reason or another. If you need a break, please feel free to excuse yourself at a time when you observe congregants entering or leaving the sanctuary.

Please refrain from . . . . The Sabbath is a day of rest and worship and is distinguished from other days both by what we do and by what we refrain from doing. Out of respect for Jewish practice, please turn off and put away all electronic devices, do not take photos or record video or sound, avoid handling money, and refrain from writing or drawing while in the synagogue building. Applause during the service is considered inappropriate, so please express your appreciation to the participants in the service in person after the service concludes. If you must make a phone call, please do so outside.

Other questions? Each Shabbat service will have at least three ushers. The ushers, identifiable by their usher badges, will be glad to help with any questions you may have.

Occasionally Asked Questions

Why is so much of the service conducted in Hebrew?
Jewish law stresses the importance of understanding the prayers of the service and permits prayer in any language congregants understand. However, Hebrew is the preferred language of communal Jewish worship. The maintenance of a fairly uniform Hebrew prayer service enables Jews to feel at home in any synagogue anywhere in the world, even in countries where fellow Jews speak another language in everyday life. Hebrew is also the language in which the Bible was written millennia ago and the language in which Jewish worship has been conducted for more than 100 generations. The use of Hebrew thus unifies the Jewish people across space and time and adds meaning to the worship experience.

Do the congregants understand the Hebrew words of the service?
Some congregants understand every word of the Hebrew liturgy, while other congregants have no ability to read Hebrew whatsoever. Many congregants have facility in reading Hebrew and a very good understanding of the meaning of the prayers, even though the intricacies of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary would prevent them from performing a word-for-word translation of most of the prayers. However, all congregants share the sense that the use of Hebrew is meaningful. Even those who cannot read Hebrew, by following the transliterations (English renderings of the phonetic sounds of the Hebrew) in the prayer book and attention to the English translations, develop a deep understanding of the meaning of the prayers.

Why is the service so long?
The Shabbat service lasts longer than many other religious services. Apart from theological and traditional reasons for the inclusion of most of the content of the service, the length of the service encourages congregants to disengage from their daily lives and provides time for reflection and spiritual rejuvenation.

Why is almost all of the service sung?
The power of song to intensify the worship experience has made music an integral part of Jewish worship from earliest times. For centuries, nearly all the prayers, blessings, and recitations of the service have been chanted or sung. The use of melody in the chanting of Torah and Haftarah also serves as a learning tool. Musical notations are assigned to the texts so that the use of the designated melody results in reading the Hebrew with proper punctuation and emphasis. This is particularly helpful in reading the Torah scroll, which has no punctuation, vowels, or musical notation.

Why is there no organ or piano?
Historically, Judaism banned instrumental music in services as a sign of mourning following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. While many Jewish congregations now permit the use of musical instruments in services, Beth El is among those congregations that do not use instruments in the Shabbat morning service. Many congregants find that the exclusive use of the human voice enriches the worship experience.