Learning Jewish Prayer – A Primer

Prepared by Gordon Goldman, Ritual Director

There is an old saying; “When I pray I talk to God, when I study Torah God talks to me”.

There is, of course, a lot of truth in this old saying but it need not necessarily be true that I talking to God and God talking to me are mutually exclusive in the same conversation. In fact, in my opinion and experience, back-and-forth takes place a lot in properly conducted prayer and study. In addition I have found that in much of my prayer I’m talking to myself.

The dialogue element is apparent in at least two ways in study. First of all study is commenced with a prayer, a bracha which ends “and has commanded us to concern ourselves with (to study) words of Torah”. So at the very outset we, speaking to God, acknowledge that it is by God’s command that we are studying and implicitly, we request assistance in understanding. Secondly, when the meaning of the text we are studying are not altogether clear we are free, perhaps required, to ask God or his messengers, in the form of sages who have preceded us or our current teachers and rabbis, to help clarify our thinking. Thus study becomes a sort of Q and A whereby God speaks to us in the text, we encounter difficulty in understanding and we ask God to elucidate.

Prayer is a little more difficult. It seems at first blush that we, the offerers of prayer, are simply saying a few words of praise, thanks or, more often, petition. However, fully understood, our prayers should speak right back to us too.

We refer in this sense to the fixed prayers, the ones where we recite relatively fixed and time-honored texts to fit special circumstances or even more so the prayers recited three times a day as part of the daily service. These prayers should serve as reminders to us of the role God plays and has played in our very existence and in our everyday lives. They should also remind us that God and we are partners in perfecting the world that has been created for us (Tikkun Olam). They should keep us in mind of the fact that as God’s messengers to humanity we have an obligation to maintain high standards and to teach by example. When we recite various petitions of the Amidah for weekdays, we should be reminded that God does, in fact, provide sustenance, healing, forgiveness and so on. We say so at the end of each of the petitionary brachot “blessed are you, Lord who…” We should also be reminded that in most cases God is only providing the raw materials. It is up to us to use them. God has granted me rain seed and strong arms but I must till and plant and reap if I want to turn these gifts into food. God has created the laws of nature and the instruments of good health but I must care for my body in order to stay healthy and seek appropriate medical care if I am ill. For there to be peace and tranquility I (we) must act toward our neighbors in a manner that fosters good will. Every step along the way, every gift we ask of God must also remind us of our obligation to be part of the team.

On reflection, the distinction, the dichotomy between study and prayer begins to blur. How can one read of miracles and learn great moral teachings without becoming a “fan” of God. And isn’t this admiration, or rather the expression of this admiration, a form of prayer? In addition, so many of our “prayers” turn out to passages from the Bible. There are Torah verses like the Shema and the song at the sea and so many of the psalms recited as part of the service, every day weekdays and Shabbat that it stops being clear where prayer ends and study begins. Perhaps then, it is not so important whether we a re praying or studying but it is important that we enter both activities with a certain level of intent and that we continue to carry on the conversation with God, with ourselves, with our history and tradition and with our fellow man in a manner designed to make our world better when we leave than it was when we entered.

The Jewish Prayer Service

We are reviewing four different parts of the service, how they relate to one another and a sense of the techniques and “choreography”. The goal is to make people feel more comfortable in the services either on Shabbat and Yom Tov or just a regular weekday because there is an understanding of the “what is happening now?” “How does it relate to what came before?” “When do I stand and when do I sit?” sort of questions that we all have at one time or another. We are not here to hone our Hebrew skills, to learn how to lead the service from the front of the room or any of that sort of thing.

The normal morning Jewish prayer service can be looked at as having four parts:

  1. P’sukei d’zimra, (literally “verses of song”) an opening service
  2. Shacharit, the “main body” of the service
  3. Torah Service ( on Monday, Thursday, Shabbat and various holidays
  4. Musaph- the additional service on Shabbat and other special days

At first glance, these various sections might seem separate and unrelated. In fact they are very much related one to the other in what I hope we will find is a natural flow from one segment to another.

P’Sukei D’Zimra

This is the part of the service that happens in the very beginning, in our congregation at 9:00 AM. It takes about 25-30 minutes on Shabbat and about 15 on weekdays. It can be looked upon at he warm up time, a series of prayers psalms and biblical quotes that are meant to heighten our sense of nearness to God and of the greatness of out God so as to put us in the mood and spiritual place to enter upon the main body of prayer.

This section of the service actually has three subsections. There is a series of B’rachot which can be seen as acknowledging God’s presence in the waking and survival process. This segment usually includes some form of learning, a form of Kaddish known as the Kaddish d’Rabbanan (invoking God’s blessing on scholars teachers and generations of students) a psalm and a mourners Kaddish.

The next sub-section is a series of psalms and biblical quotes, culminating in the last six of the 150 psalms. This portion is virtually all statements of praise and gratitude to a kind powerful and generous creator, protector and provider. The last group of psalms sings praises to God that rise as high as the psalms we recite in the Festival and Rosh Chodesh (new month) Hallel.

The final sub-section of the P’sukei D’zimra section is a lead up to and then the recitation of the song sung by Moses and the Israelites upon their safe crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians.

So what this portion of the service does is to start out with acknowledgement and praise of a benevolent creator of all the earth and lead up to the germinal miracle God performed  specifically for us the children if Israel. Its purpose, as I said before, is to elevate our spiritual mood and our sense of God to the point that we are ready to approach God much more closely in prayer. This section, considering its contents, can be likened to study which one hopes will lead to a desire to communicate with this powerful and benevolent God.

Shacharit (The Morning Service)

Shacharit (from shachar meaning sunrise) is the main portion of the service. It is the part we think of a “prayer”. In fact the main body of the shacharit service, the Amidah (standing) prayer is referred to in the Talmud simply as “Ha T’filla”, the prayer.

The Shacharit service has two main segments. The first is the Shema section. This portion is introduced by a Hatzi (half) Kaddish followed by Bor’chu, the call to prayer. “Let us praise God, Who is to praiseworthy” says the leader of the service. The congregation responds “Praise God Who is to be praised for ever and ever.” This is followed by two fairly lengthy B’rachot. The first of these describes God as the Creator of all things and attributes wisdom to the work of creation. (I guess it was we Jews who gave the world the idea of intelligent design.)  It ends “Blessed are you Lord, creator of light”. The second of the two b’rachot preceding the Shema speaks to a God who loves the people Israel and manifests that love by giving us the Torah thus teaching us God’s law and the path to righteousness. Perhaps it is appropriate for a different discussion but the lesson for parents is that real parenting and real love involve pointing our children in the right direction and teaching them right from wrong.  The b’racha ends “Blessed are you Lord who has chosen the People Israel in love”.

This is immediately followed by the Shema itself. The Shema consists of three sections from the Torah two from Deuteronomy and one from Numbers. It starts with a declaration of the oneness of God “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one” The first paragraph goes on to command us to love God, to make God’s word a constant part of our lives teach God’s word to our children and to wear t’fillin “they shall be a sign upon your hand and frontlets between your eyes” and to put a mezzuza on our doors “write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates”. The second paragraph provides a warning that dire punishments will result from the failure to obey God’s law especially worshiping other gods and repeats the requirement of teaching our children and of T’fillin and mezzuzot. The final paragraph of the Shema instructs us to put fringes on the corners of our garments as a reminder of God’s commandments (thus the Tallit) and reminds us that it is God who took us out of Egypt to be our God.

The Shema section concludes with one more b’racha which again reminds us of God’s redemptive power and concludes “Blessed are you O God, Redeemer of Israel”.

The Shema section is immediately followed by the Amidah (standing prayer) also referred to as the shemona esrei (eighteen, because there are nineteen b’rachot in the week day Amidah) or as mentioned above Ha T’filla (the prayer). The difference between the weekday and Shabbat/holiday amidah is the middle section. Every Amidah begins with the same three b’rachot and ends with the same three b’rachot. On weekdays the middle section consists of thirteen petitions. On Shabbat and holidays the middle is one big b’racha concerning itself with the special day.

The first of the three b’rachot that begin each amidah is called Avot. It addresses God as the God of our ancestors. It introduces God to us and introduces us to God. We are among other things presenting our credentials. We are reminding God of his friend Abraham and describing ourselves as his grandchildren. It is very analogous to approaching, with awe and reverence, a great king, which, of course, God is. It ends “blessed are you God Shield of Abraham”. The second refers to God as giving life to the dead. It is a reference to “olam haba” the world to come when the dead will be brought to life and good and peace will reign. The third is called “kedusha” holiness. It proclaims that our God is holy and that we will proclaim God’s holiness. It end “blessed are you’ the holy God”.

On holidays and Shabbat the middle section of the Amidah consists of one lengthy B’racha which deals with our joy at being given the gift of this special day and its observance. This b’racha ends “blessed are you Lord who sanctifies [the special day].

It is in this area that the daily and Shabbat Amidah differ. While on Shabbat we emphasize the special nature of this one day on weekdays the middle section of the Amidah consists of thirteen petitionary prayers for everything from wisdom to health to the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, Of course since Shabbat is a day of rest, even for God, we don’t make these mundane requests on that day. Nor should we concern ourselves with our “physical”, everyday needs. Shabbat is a time for spiritual renewal, for rest and for study.

The first of the last three is mostly a request that our prayers be heard with favor and that God’s spirit return to Zion. The next to last is a thankful acknowledgement of the presence and power of God and that God is the source of our gifts and well-being. The final B’racha is a prayer for peace “Sim Shalom”.


There are a number of moments during shacharit that require special actions. First, one stands during the Bor’chu.  The next action is that during the second of the two b’rachot preceding the Shema, when we reach the paragraph that begins “gather us from the four corners of the earth…”, it is customary for those wearing tallitot to gather the four corner fringe and hold them between two fingers of the right hand or to wrap them around the right index finger. It is also the custom to cover one’s eyes during the recitation of the first verse of the Shema “Shema Yisrael… Hashem echad”. Finally during the last paragraph of the Shema it is the custom to kiss the gathered fringes upon each of the three times in this paragraph that we say the word “tzitzit” (fringes).

We rise as we recite the last B’racha before the Amidah. Without any interruption, we take three steps forward and remain standing, feet touching for the entire Amidah. At the conclusion of our own private Amidah we may be seated but must be careful not to disturb the concentration of our neighbors. Both the Shema and the Amidah should be whispered or spoken in a soft undertone so that we are vocalizing or at least mouthing every word.  At the end of the Amidah we take three small steps backward, bowing left right and center before sitting down.

There are four occasions when we bow during the private recitation of the Amidah. At the beginning of the first B’racha we bend the knees slightly while saying the word “Baruch”, bow forward from the waist on the word “atah” and straighten at the mention of God’s name (the third word.) This pattern is repeated at the end of this B’racha. A similar pattern is performed at the next to last B’racha, “Modim” (basically “thank you”)  At the beginning of this B’racha we bend the knees at the first word, the waist at the second and straighten at God’s name, in this case the sixth word. At the end we repeat the pattern of the first B’racha.

The private Amidah is followed by the repetition by the Sh’liach Tzibbur (usually the Cantor) When he or she gets to the third B’racha, known at the Kedusha, we rise and adopt the same posture of attention as during our own private Amidah. At then end of each subparagraph of the kedusha there is a congregational response (“kadosh, kadosh kadosh…”, “Boruch kevod …” and “yimloch hashem…”  During the first of these responses it is customary to rise on ones toes at each iteration of the word “Kadosh”. During the second, we rise to our toes as we say the word “Baruch” At the end of the Kedusha we are seated. When the Cantor gets to the next to last B’racha, again the “Modim” we lean forward and rise a bit as we begin to recite (quietly) the paragraph designated in the siddur. The conclusion of Shacharit is noted by the recitation of a full Kaddish.

Torah Service

Torah Reading is an integral part of the service on Shabbat morning and afternoon on Holidays and fast days, on Rosh Chodesh (the new month) and on Monday and Thursday mornings. That this is a part of the regular service further reinforces the sense of a blurring of the line between prayer and study. On an ongoing basis the typical pattern is to read a new section of the Torah on each Shabbat morning so that over the course of a year the Entire Five Books of Moses are read in order. The readings for Shabbat afternoon and Monday and Thursday mornings are the first section of the portion for the following Shabbat. Rosh Chodesh, fast days and holidays have their own special readings.

The service begins with and introductory hymn (Av Harachamim) at the end of which the Ark is opened. We rise as the ark is opened and remain standing until the Torah is carried around the room and placed on the reader’s desk. After the ark is opened there is a brief prayer which ends with the congregation singing together “bei anah rachatz….” And the Torah scroll is removed from the Ark. (Note that on holidays there will be two scrolls.)  The Ark is closed. The Cantor sings the first verse of the Shema followed by the congregation responding with the same verse; the Cantor chants a verse that begins “echad eloheinu…” (One is our God…) and the congregation repeats that verse. The Cantor and everyone on the Bimah (raised platform) then turn to face the Ark and bow slightly from the waist as the Cantor chants one more verse We then all face the Torah as the Cantor carries the Torah scroll around the sanctuary. As indicated above, when the Torah is returned to the Bimah and placed on the able we are seated.

At this point there are three people at the reader’s desk. There is the Ba’al korei (reader) flanked by two gabbaim whose task it is to help the reader if he/she loses the place or makes an error and to be an honor guard of sorts. Members of the congregation are then called up for Aliyot (aliyahs) based on the Hebrew for going up.

The number of Aliyot assigned depends on the day. On weekdays there are three, on Rosh Chodesh there are four, on most holidays there are five, on Yom Kippur there are six and on Shabbat seven. The progression reflects the relative holiness or importance of the day (note that Shabbat “outranks” Yom Kippur). Only on Shabbat can there be extras. At the end there is one additional aliyah called maftir. The person honored with this aliyah also recites the haftarah which is usually a selection from the historical or prophetic sections of the Bible. On Shabbat the maftir Torah reading is a repetition of the last few verses of the regular weekly reading. On Holidays it is read from a second scroll and is typically a selection from the book Numbers. The first aliyah is given to a kohen, a member of the priestly family, descendants of Aaron. The second goes to a member of the Tribe of Levi and the rest to the common folk, Yisrael. The person is called up be his/her Hebrew name He touches the fringes of his Tallit to the first word in the passage to be read, kisses the fringes and recites the B’racha. After the reading he touches the last word read with the tzitzit and recites the closing blessing.

After all but the Maftir Aliyot have been read the Torah is covered, the congregation rises and Half Kaddish is recited over the Torah. (More on the various Kaddishes later). There is generally at this point a recitation of Mi Sheberach, a prayer for healing for members of the community and their loved ones who are ill.

After the reading of the Maftir Aliyah the Torah scroll is raised and dressed. The people assigned these honors are called Hagbah and Gelilah respectively. When this is completed the Maftir recites the b’racha that precedes the haftarah, chants the Haftarah and the blessing following. This is followed by prayers for the well being of scholars for the congregation and people who support the congregation, for our home country and the land of Israel and for peace. On the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh (the new month) a prayer for a blessing of the coming month is inserted at this point. The ceremony for the return of the Torah to the ark begins with the chanting of psalm 145, known to most of us as Ashrei. We rise as the Torah is elevated to be carried around the sanctuary and remain standing until the Torah is placed into the Ark and the doors are closed.

The Torah service is used to mark various milestone or life cycle events such as Bar/Bat Mitzvah, aufruf (aliyah for a groom-to-be), Bentching Gomel (a prayer recited by someone who have just escaped serious illness or some other life-threatening event.

On most Shabbat and Holiday mornings the Rabbis’ sermon or D’var torah is given at this point of the service


Musaph derives from a Hebrew root that means “addition”. In chapters 28 and 29 we are told of special additional offerings to be brought to the Temple to mark special days such as Holidays and Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat. There is on these days now an additional service to commemorate these offerings. Remember, communal prayer was instituted after the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70CE so that we would have a vehicle for worship in the absence of the sacrificial service. Since the Amidah is effectively seen in part as a substitute for the daily sacrifice so too on the days when there would have been an additional sacrifice we have an additional Amidah. The format rules and choreography of the Musaf Amidah are the same as for Shacharit. The biggest difference between the two is that the middle, Shabbat-centric B’racha dwells on the additional sacrifice and our hopes for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in a Holy City dedicated to Jewish worship.

Other Special Moments

HALLEL: consists mostly of six psalms (113-118) whose nature and words reflect joyful praise of God. It is recited on Rosh Chodesh, the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot), on Channukah and, in recent years, on Yom Ha Atzma’ot, Israel’s Independence Day. It is introduced by a B’racha which ends “…and has commanded us to recite Hallel”. Hallel is recited standing and frequently involves a lot of congregational singing.  On Sukkot, the beginning of Hallel also includes the blessing and shaking of the lulav and etrog except on Shabbat. Hallel concludes with a b’racha “Blessed are you Lord, King extolled with praises”.  Hallel is recited at the end of the repetition of the Shacahrit Amidah.

AL HA NISSIM(For the miracles): is added to the Amidah, in the “modim” prayer on Purim, Channukah and Israeli Independence Day, three occasions which most certainly celebrate miracles in our ancient and recent history. It thanks God for helping us prevail over mighty enemies, giving us stirring victories and places the credit for these victories with God and not ourselves.

THE MIDDLE OF THE MUSAPH Amidah is interesting is interesting in that while it describes our memory of the additional sacrifices of Temple days and a longing for a return of Jewish sovereignty, it also contains an acknowledgement that our exile is out own (communal, not personal) fault in a long paragraph that starts out “u’mipnei chataeinu….” (Because of our sins we were exiled)

THE “HOLY SEASON”: More accurately, the season of T’shuvah (return), this is the period from the beginning of the month of Elul (the last month before Rosh Hashana) until Yom Kippur. Beginning with the first of Elul until Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot, Psalm 27 is added to the end of the service. It is considered a penitential psalm thus appropriate to the season.  Hoshanah Rabba (the “big” please save us) is seen as a second second chance in case we didn’t get Yom Kippur right. In addition the shofar is blown every day (except Shabbat) from Elul 1 through Rosh Hashana, except that it is not blown on the day before Rosh Hashana. The shofar blowing is a wake up call to remind us that the season for T’shuvah is at hand. The blowing is suspended on ever Rosh Hashana so it will be “new” on Rosh Hashana, justifying the recitation of Shehechianu.

There are six additions or changes to the weekday Amidah, four on Shabbat, during the ten day period beginning with Rosh Hashana and ending with Yom Kippur.

YIZKOR: Yizkor is a memorial for our departed loved ones. It is added at the end of the Torah service on four occasions during the year. It is recited on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atseret (the eighth day of Sukkot, really a separate holiday), the last day of Pesach and the second day of Shavuot. It is recited standing usually with some number of Torah scrolls being held on the Bimah. The yizkor prayer invokes God’s blessing on the souls of our loved ones. The text also includes a promise of charity thus the common phenomenon of the “Yizkor Appeal”.

KADDISH: There are several different forms of the Kaddish. Kaddish is a sanctification of God’s name and is recited in different places in the service. The hatzi, or half Kaddish seem to serve as an introduction to a major service segment, coming as it does just before the Bor’chu and just before the Musaph Amidah. The full reader’s kaddish seem to mark the end of one it is recited immediately after the Shacharit Amidah and after the Musaph Amidah. There is a Kaddish called Kaddish D’Rabbanan, invoking God’s blessing on scholars and their students recited after Torah study and the most familiar Mourners’ Kaddish recited by those in mourning or observing Yahrzeit. Note that even the mourners’ Kaddish makes no reference to death or the deceased only to the greatness of God and God’s name.

DRESS CODE:  All men and married women are required to have some sort of head covering at all times. The usual for men is a kippah while women can use a kippah, one of those doily things or a hat. It is customary (read required) for a man to wear a Tallit during morning services or when called to the torah or leading services at an afternoon service but not for those who are attending but not leading the service. Tallitot are permissible though not yet obligatory for women. Tallitot are not worn at night except on Kol Nidre night. On weekday mornings, of course, men should wear T’fillin which are apparently optional for women, except that on Shabbat and holidays wee wear the crown of the special day and need no further adornment nor reminder.

There are several other special moments that occur occasionally or once a year such as the prayer for rain at the end of Sukkot and for dew at the beginning of Pesach but they are too numerous and too rare to deal with in great detail here.

Page Locations of “Highlight” Points in the serviceSERVICE

  Old Sim Shalom New Sim Shalom for Shabbat
Birchot ha shachar (stand) 10 61
Kaddish D’Rabbanan 20 71
Mizmor l’Yom HaShabbat 32  72
Mizmor shir Chanukat 50 81
Mourners Kaddish 52 82
Baruch Sh’amar (stand) 54 83
Ki l’olam Chasdo (stand) 72 92
Last six psalms 80  96
V’yivorech David &Song at the Sea (stand) 90 101
Borechu (stand) 340 107
Shema (cover eyes for first verse) 346 112
Amidah (stand for entire amidah Feet together, no moving) Shabbat   354-364
Yom Tov 366-376
Shabbat 115-120
Yom Tov123-128
Repetition of Amidah by Cantor Same pages  
 – With kedusha (no movement, feet together) 356
Congregation’s Modim 360
HALLEL (Holidays  and Rosh Chodesh – Stand entire time) 379-388 131-137
(rise when ark is opened, remain standing until Torah is placed on  Reader’s table) 394 136
Rise for lifting of Torah(hagbah) 410 146
At end of Torah service stand while
Torah is being carried around the Room until Ark is closed.
Shabbat 429-440 156-161
Yom Tov 456-476 166-178
Same rules apply in Musaph as for Shacharit amidah and Kedushah.    
Concluding Prayers
Ein kelohainu etc 508 182