Forgive me for using the word liturgy, I'm not sure if that's the correct terminology in Judaism but it sums up the sort of information I'm looking for.

Most of my knowledge of what happens in a synagogue comes from the movies and pop culture, so my knowledge is incredibly vague and choppy.

What is it like to go to a Synagogue Saturday worship service (again, sorry for the Christian terminology)? What happens? Is there a cycle of readings from the scriptures which get followed according to the day of the year? Or is the rabbi free to choose to preach on whatever he wants to? How much focus is given to preaching, the Torah, the other scriptures, the Talmud, the Mishnah, the Midrash (Forgive me again, I'm using these words without knowing exactly what they are).

Do you sing songs? If so, are the songs very liturgical such as the psalms, or do you sing more modern "invented" songs?

Are there prayers? If so does only the rabbi pray or does someone from the congregation come up and pray?

Are there traditional blessings performed? (I heard somewhere that the "live long and prosper" gesture that spock does with his hand in Star Trek is actually a Jewish blessing)

Is everything done in Hebrew? Or is everything done in the vernacular? Or is there some other language used (Aramaic?)? Perhaps there is a mix of languages?

I've asked a lot of questions just to get across the sort of information I'm looking for but I don't expect direct answers to all of them. I'm just interested in getting an outline of what happens when Jews come together on Saturday in a Synagogue.

  • related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/17097/759
    – Double AA
    Jan 17, 2017 at 4:23
  • I've edited out your last question, which is already dealt with here judaism.stackexchange.com/q/33684/759 and at the questions linked to that one
    – Double AA
    Jan 17, 2017 at 4:25
  • Possible duplicate: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/9047 (cc @DoubleAA)
    – msh210
    Jan 17, 2017 at 12:22
  • 1
    If you're curious, and largely depending on where you live, some synagogues have designated beginner's services that are exactly that. Some prayers are in Hebrew; some are in English. Each place will have a different style to conduct such services. If you're bold enough, the best way to discover what happens is to attend a service. I'd recommend contacting the rabbi first to explain your situation and request a "mentor" to guide you a bit. And, of course, find a place that uses a prayer book and Bible with an English translation, otherwise you will be lost.
    – DanF
    Jan 17, 2017 at 15:18
  • @DanF - TheIronKnuckle is Catholic. judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/79107/…
    – ezra
    Jan 17, 2017 at 15:39

5 Answers 5


At an Orthodox Jewish service, pretty much everything liturgical will be in Hebrew, with bits of Aramaic thrown in. There's a cantor AKA "Chazzan" up front who leads and recites certain communal parts aloud and helps to set the pace. A rabbi is not strictly necessary in order to have a service.

The central part of a Jewish prayer service is the Shemoneh Esrei AKA the Amida which is a prayer recited by all nearly silently while standing at attention. Think of it like personal time talking directly to God. This lasts about 5-10 minutes, and is done 3-5 times a day. At most services the prayer is then repeated aloud by the Chazzan both for the benefit of those who don't know how to say it themselves (can't read, etc.) and as a gesture of communal prayer. This is usually done melodically with various tunes woven into the reading.

In addition, the Shemoneh Esrei is preceded by various mood-setting Psalms and/or the Shema service, depending on the time of day. At the end of the service too there are often certain Psalms or praises of God that are traditionally recited. During these parts the congregation will generally be mumbling along to themselves, with the Chazzan saying certain bits aloud, usually melodically, to keep everyone roughly in sync. Sometimes, a congregation will choose to put an entire such piece to a tune and sing it together. The tunes here are about making the text meaningful and pretty, but the essence is saying certain texts (and some communities who don't have time might omit much or all of the singing).

On holidays and certain days of the week (Monday, Thursday, and Saturday) a Torah scroll is brought out at a certain point and set portions are read: there's a portion assigned to each week of the year, but certain holidays get their own portion which trumps the regular weekly one.

On the Sabbath and other holidays (ie. when people are off work) rabbis often deliver sermons about the Torah portion read, a matter of Jewish law, or other topics, but this is not strictly part of the service. It is often done before or after the main service, or even strategically in between the various parts.

Different days and times have different components, but just to give you a sense of what it sort of looks like:

A typical Saturday morning service might be 30 minutes mumble along, 5 minutes quiet prayer, 10 minutes listen to communal prayer, 40 minutes listen to Torah portion, 10 minutes listen to rabbi's sermon, 5 minutes quiet prayer (again), 10 minutes listen to communal prayer (again), 10 minutes mumble along.

A typical weekday nighttime service might be 5 minutes mumble along, 5 minutes quiet prayer, 2 minutes mumble along.

  • when you say "40 minutes listen to Torah portion" does that mean that the Torah is literally read out loud continuously for 40 minutes? (Just cause that's a lot of Torah to be reading! You'd probably get through the whole thing in a couple of months at that rate) Jan 17, 2017 at 23:24
  • @TheIronKnuckle See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torah_reading For much of it, yes it's straight reading. Average about 120 verses on the Sabbath, read with cantillation (there's about 5800 verses in the Torah). There's a bit more pomp and circumstance to it (Psalms said while bringing the scroll in and out, dividing the reading between 5-7 honorees, etc.) but much of it is straight listening. If the reader is quick and the portion shorter it could probably be down to 20 if not 15 min. On weekdays the portions are shorter: only about 15 verses.
    – Double AA
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:30
  • interesting. actually that raises another question: are the Torah readings in Hebrew? Because as I understand it Hebrew isn't actually spoken any more except in Israel, so for example my local Sydney jewish community might not understand what is being read, and woah 40 minutes listening to something which you don't even comprehend is a big ask! Jan 17, 2017 at 23:40
  • 1
    @TheIronKnuckle Yep, Hebrew, and you're right that for uneducated communities it's a challenge. In some communities the rabbi will speak for a moment between each of the sections of the reading about what is coming up. I'm sure some people who can't focus read a translation to themselves or something. (There actually used to be a practice 1000 years ago to have a dedicated translator recite verses from the Targum after each verse of the Torah, but that fell into disuse when people stopped speaking Aramaic.) Learning some Hebrew is important for functioning in an Orthodox Jewish community.
    – Double AA
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:45
  • hmm, well I'll have to make a second visit to the synagogue once I know how to understand Hebrew! That way I might appreciate things more (I've been meaning to learn it for a while so that I can study the bible in the original language. I intend to learn it seriously in 2018) Jan 18, 2017 at 0:06

To answer your "Star Trek gesture" question. This is performed as part of a blessing carried out by those of the priestly family (Cohanim). It is done under the following conditions:

  1. At least one male Cohen aged 13 and over (and without certain disabilities) is present
  2. Outside Israel, the blessing normally takes place only on festivals
  3. In Israel it takes place every Shabbat (Saturday) in addition to the above, in what DoubleAA refers to as "communal prayer" in either both or only the second session, and there are synagogues where it takes place daily.
  4. During this blessing, the priests cover their hands with their prayer shawl (tallit) so you should not be able to see the gesture itself (and traditionally it is forbidden to gaze on their hands because the essence of G-d (Shechinah) rests there).
  • 3
    In Israel most communities do it every day.
    – Scimonster
    Jan 21, 2017 at 18:00

Part of your question asked:

How much focus is given to preaching, the Torah, the other scriptures, the Talmud, the Mishnah, the Midrash (Forgive me again, I'm using these words without knowing exactly what they are).

I'm not certain of your angle in asking this, so I'll divide the Shabbat (and holiday) service into 3 parts:

1 - Prayers - This is the main (by amount of time taken) part of the service. It is recited by the congregation led by a cantor. Much of the prayers themselves are taken from the book of Psalms, and much of it, especially at the beginning of the service contains entire chapters from Psalms. There are other parts that contain an assortment of verses taken from a combination of Psalms, the first Five Books of the Bible (called "Torah") and various prophets, esp. from Isaiah, though verses from Proverbs, Chronicles, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations can be found, as well, among others.

The beginning of the service does contain many paragraphs from the Mishnah and Talmud, esp. those subjects dealing with some of the activities done in the Temple and the description of sacrifices, libations, how spices were made, etc. Otherwise, there is very little that comes from the Mishnah or Talmud, in terms of "lessons".

The central part of the prayers, the Amidah or silent prayer contains many blessings that are mentioned in Talmud Berachot, and the same can be said of a few other parts of the prayer.

2 - Torah reading - Orthodox and some Conservative synagogues follow an annual cycle. The first 5 books of the Bible are divided into 54 weekly portions with a section read each Shabbat, unless a holiday coincides with Shabbat, in which case the weekly reading is postponed. Usually, one or more people will read the Torah portion. The Torah scroll, BTW has special Hebrew writing that has no vowels or sentences, so it takes studying and special skill to learn how to read from the Torah. Thus, the need for designated people who know how to do this.

In Reform synagogues and many Conservative ones, the weekly portion follows a "triennial" cycle. I put that word in quotes because it's not that they read sequentially and it takes 3 years to complete. (It used to be done this way, and still is in a few parts of the world. Send me a comment of you want more about this.) Rather, they follow the annual cycle, but read about 1/3 of the annual cycle version. So there's a year 1, year 2 and year 3 version corresponding to whatever the annual Torah portion is that week.

3 - Rabbi's sermon - This, of course, is optional. There are many synagogues where the rabbi speaks for 5 minutes to as long as an hour (if it's that long, he better be interesting!!) and depending on the rabbi's knowledge and type of congregation, he may choose from Biblical, Talmudic or any sources he prefers and may combine these with current events or newspaper sources, etc. Some rabbis opt to read directly from a page or section of the Talmud or some other book of laws and just translate it rather than offer their thoughts or a sermon on it.

Generally, I've found that Orthodox rabbis tend to focus a bit more on Talmudic sources while Conservative ones focus a bit more on current events and newspapers, periodicals, etc. for their sources and tie in something from the weekly Torah portion into their message. Again, this is from what I've seen, but, there is no general rule, here.

Many people choose a synagogue specifically based on the rabbi's sermons. If you're thinking about trying out a service, you may want to consider that as a criterion.


This answer is based on a lifetime of orthodox or conservative leaning toward orthodox services. I will hit on all your questions.

"what's it like and what happens": At the starting time, people start coming in (there is no particular stigma if you come in late). One of the congregants leads the service for the preliminary readings (even if the congregation has a regular Saturday cantor, usually one saves his energy for later parts).

The highlights of this pat of the service are the series of short "morning blessings" (one example of which is "Blessed art thou O Lord of the universe, who has not made me a slave") led by the reader -- the congregation says "amen" to each; a sequence of readings from the (5 books of Moses) Torah, prophets, and authoritative laws (Talmud) read silently with the readier marking the place by reading the first few words and the last sentence or two of each long paragraph; reading the song of Moses by the sea (ironically, this is read silently rather than sung); and a wonderful song "El Adon" based on sayings from the lighter parts of Kabbala (references to the holy chariot and cherubs and divine greatness and wisdom).

Then the reader for the morning service takes over; this would often be the cantor or the Rabbi, but could be another congregant. This section of the services consists of 4 main pieces: The congragational blessing "Barchu", whichis the first reading that requires a "minyan" -- ten adult jews (orthodox and some conservative require ten males) must be present. My current congregation sometimes misses, and that particular blessing has to be skipped -- not to worry, by the time of the Torah reading a few more will have straggled in to make the Minyan. In a small congregation, the Minyan concept lends a sense of fellowship -- each regular feels responsible to the others. The highlight of second piece of the morninv service is the "Shma Yisrael", the proclamation that G-d is our dieaty and that there is one G-d", and the reading of (usually aloud) of a paragraph from the Torah commanding us to love G-d with all our hearts, souls and might.

The third piece of the morning service is the silent amidah (amidah means "standing prayer") which consists of 18 blessings on weekdays, but is modified to have only seven on Shabbos (Saturday). It is important to have a Minyan at the start of this, because if there isn't, we won't have the reader's repetition.

The reader's repetition of the amidah is the final part of the morning service. Here, the reader uses melodies in many places and the congregation joins in singing in several places. One of my favorites is "Sim Shalom" -- grant us pease, good, blessing and life, roughly a two minute paragraph which is sung in at least 6 different melodies I know of (reader's choice) all of which are pleasant.

After the morning service comes the Torah reading service. This starts with opening the Ark holding the Torah's, removing the Torah or Torahs to be read from, and parading them around the congregation. There are several very nice songs sung by all during this Torah protocol. In our congregation, we have our first English reading, which is roughly a translation of the song that affirms that in Him do we trust.

There is a cycle of reading portions of the Torah so that the entire Torah is covered each year. (Reform and Reconstructionist services use a 3-year cycle instead.) Depending on the resources of the congregation, the reader is either the Rabbi, a special "Ba'al Korei" Torah reader hired to do the readings (which since the vowels do not appear in the Torah scrolls, is not a trivial thing to learn to do), or one or more congregants. For example, in a few weeks I will be doing the reading because our Rabbi will be away; it takes me about 15 hours of practice to get to the point where I get it right and also remember the tune symbols ("trop") so I can you the correct chant.

The torah reading is broken into seven portions. For each portion we call to the Torah some congregant, who says the blessing on reading a Torah segment (and afterward the blessing on completing it). An extra reading is done after those seven -- the "maftir" which depending on the week may just be a repetition of the end of the seventh reading, or may be a reading from a second Torah. The maftir is the place that a Bar Mitzvah boy (or in conservative congregations a Bat Mitzvah girl) would be called up for his first official participation as an adult in the Jewish liturgy. Particularly well-prepared children (now adults) will actually do the Torah reading for the Maftir.

The person called for the Maftir blessings then reads the Haftorah -- a section of the Prophets or Writings that is loosely associated with this week's portion.

After the Torah reading, the Rabbi gives his sermon. He is free to use it to explain this week's portion, to preach about ethics, to discuss some important current event, to relate a story from the past, or whatever.

This answer is getting too long, so I will mention the 4th section of the services, which is Musaf, an additional Amidah. Again the repetition is about half singing.


Adding on to @DoubleAA's answer, services will be different in a Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogue.

In Reform Judaism, the prayer set is the same, however omissions are made very frequently, usually for the sake of time or that the synagogue does not find meaningful. Almost always, a prayer is put to song. Sometimes this is the traditional trope, but more often, it is one written by a composer.

Additionally, some prayers may be substituted for a vernacular reading, either a direct translation of the prayer or one keeping in tune with the meaning.

There are four-six parts to the service (depending how you count). In the first one (Birchot HaShachar, Morning Blessings), there are a few prayers meant for "getting in the mood" of the service. Normally, only a welcome prayer like Modeh Ani or Mah Tovu, Nisim B'chol Yom, and maybe one other prayer will be included in a Reform service.

In the second part (Pesukei D'Zimrah, Verses of Praise), there are a bunch of chapters from Psalms as well as some other prayers. Preparatory for the main service, these are praises to God. Normally in a reform service, only Psalm 150 and maybe Psalm 92 will be included.

The third part (Shema Uvirchoteha, Shema and its Blessings) can be considered the first "official" part of the service, starting with a call to worship. Most of these prayers are also in weekday services. Reform synagogues will usually do Bar'chu, Yotzeir Or, Shema, V'ahavta, and Mi Chamocha.

The fourth part (T'filah, Prayer; Amidah, The Standing Prayer; or Shmoneh Esrei, Eighteen) is the central part of all services. This is a much shortened version of the one on weekdays; it only has seven blessings. In the Reform tradition, these blessings will only be done once, but in Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, these will be done twice. Reform synagogues normally include Adonai S'fatai, Avot v'Imahot, G'vurot, Kedushah, Yismechu or V'shamru, Sim Shalom, a silent, personalized prayer, and Yih'yu L'Ratzon or Oseh Shalom.

The fifth part (Seder K'riat HaTorah, Reading the Torah) will probably take the longest. Note that in Reform Judaism, not all the weekly portion is read. Sometimes, it goes in a multi-annual cycle, which part of the weekly portion will be read, but sometimes only the first 20 or so verses will be read. In a Reform service, you will usually find Ein Kamocha, Ki Mitziyon, Baruch Shenatan, a repetitive prayer like Rom'mu sang while the Torah is carried around, the blessings for Torah readings, the Torah portion, V'Zot HaTorah, Haftarah blessings, the Haftarah portion (a part of Prophets related to the Torah portion), and Eitz Chayim. Somewhere in here, a sermon by the Rabbi may be added.

The final part (Aleinu v'Kaddish Yatom, Aleinu and Mourner's Kaddish) is short, usually only containing Aleinu (In Reform Judaism, usually only the first and last parts are recited), the Mourner's Kaddish, and a closing Shabbat song like Adon Olam. Sometimes, blessings for wine and bread will be added here, and after this, you can usually expect food!

This looks very long, but keep in mind any of these may be and are substituted for vernacular readings or put into song. Normally, a Reform Saturday Morning service will be about an hour or an hour and a half.

If you want more information, here is an online copy of the Reform siddur, Mishkan T'filah. Also, different synagogues have different traditions, so a prayer not mentioned here may be done, or vice versa.

Note: Much of this answer only applies for Reform Judaism. @DoubleAA's answer is better if you are looking for Orthodox traditions.

  • 1
    Where did you get the information about what is typically done vs. omitted in Reform services? Jan 22, 2017 at 0:16
  • Personal experience: I have been to many Reform synagogues and am myself a Reform Jew.
    – AAM111
    Jan 22, 2017 at 0:42

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