The human race is characterized by its high level of variance exhibited in clothing, language, ideologies and religion to name but a few. This differences which are mostly as a result of cultural diversity and socialization are not only visible in our ways of life but also in the religious tenets that guide us.
Through out time, man has engaged in the practice many religions each serving a specific purpose to its faithful. As a result, there are many religions through which various cultures attain their spiritual and moral bearings in a bid to bring themselves closer to a higher power (deity).
The different religions are differentiated in terms of beliefs, customs and purpose and are similar in one way or the other. This paper shall set out to describe my personal experience at a Jewish synagogue. To this end, I shall explain a ritual that I observed and its impact on my life. In addition, I shall highlight various aspects that I found intriguing at this place of worship. Considering that I am not Jewish, I shall also reflect on how the congregation treated me during the service.
Jewish synagogue: A brief overview
According to Rich, the Jewish community goes to the synagogue for prayers, Torah readings and teachings (1). These practices act as replacements for the ritual sacrifices practiced by Jews of older days. The synagogue has three main functions: firstly, it is a beit tefilah; which means a house of prayer.
In Judaism, group prayers play an integral part in strengthening faith. The synagogue presents the followers with an avenue through which this practice can be observed. Secondly, the synagogue is also a house of study where Jewish children are taught about their religion, culture and moral practices. This process is commonly known as the bat mitzvah. Thirdly, like most places of worship, the synagogue acts as a social gathering place where various social and charity events can be held.
My experience at the synagogue during Sabbath
A few weeks ago, I visited a Jewish place of worship called Temple Sinai which is located in Summit, New Jersey. My main aim was to observe a ritual that is commonly practiced by the Jewish community (the Sabbath prayers held on Friday evenings).
Considering that I was from a different religion and that this was my first time to enter a synagogue, I did not know what to expect. However, the little research I had done on this religion gave my some clues on how to behave and what the experience ought to be like (especially to a visitor).
This synagogue practices Reform Judaism. This means that they welcome innovation in their religious practices all the while preserving the traditions that founded the religion (Temple Sinai, New Jersey 1). Upon entry into the synagogue, I received a warm welcome from members of the congregation.
I was offered a small round cap familiarly known as a yarmulke. The main purpose of this cap was to show respect to God and the place of worship. As I came to learn, all men and women are expected to cover their heads while at the synagogue. After wearing the cap, I was directed to a sit on the front rows. The portion of the synagogue where prayer rituals are held is known as a sanctuary and it is located at the front of the synagogue facing Jerusalem.
The set up within the synagogue was most intriguing. There were some salient items which as I later learnt were not part of the decor, but significant attributes to the religious rituals held at the synagogue. Key among them was an Ark which resembles a cabinet and holds the Torah scrolls (Holy Scriptures).
In fact, the Ark is commonly known as the Aron Kodesh which translates to the “holy cabinet”. Slightly above the ark, there was a lamp (ner tamid). “This lamp symbolizes the commandment to keep a light burning in the Tabernacle outside of the curtain surrounding the Ark of the Covenant (Rich 1)”. Finally, there was a pedestal commonly referred to as the bimah onto which the torah scrolls are placed when they are being read (BBC 1).
The prayers that were cited were very methodical. Every time the scrolls were retrieved or returned to the Ark, all congregants were supposed to stand. In addition, I noticed that the curtains inside the Ark could be opened or closed in some prayers. This I came to learn was an honor given to members of the congregation. Similarly, English translations of the prayers and citations were made available. As such, a visitor could easily follow on the proceedings without the feeling of segregation or isolation.
Relevance of the Sabbath to Judaism
The Sabbath is among the commonly celebrated events in Jewish communities. The purpose of this celebration is to remind the Jewish community that everything that the earth provides is indeed gifts that God has presented to them. As such, Friday evenings are spent welcoming the Sabbath through prayers, blessings and feasts.
The prayers that I attended are part of the rituals that are practiced during this ritual. This means that there are other rituals practiced during Sabbath. However, the prayers at the synagogue presents the congregants with an opportunity to pray together, discuss various scriptures and get valuable teachings form their rabbi.
Personal reflection and conclusion
This experience was very insightful to me. Despite the fact that I attended the service out of curiosity, I was surprised to find that I actually learnt something. To begin with, the level of organization as exhibited by the congregants was impressive. Each member new their roles and they executed them perfectly.
Their attentiveness, mannerisms and respect for their place of worship was also very admirable. In a sense, I felt the presence of God in the synagogue. By participating in the prayers, I felt at peace and thankful for what I had. People always take life for granted and in most cases forget to give thanks to God for what they have achieved. This experience was a wakeup call for me. This is especially so in regard to the fact that we often forget to thank God in wealth and only as for his assistance during hardships.
Similarly, I was surprised to find out that there are some similarities between Judaism and Christianity. In both religions, some prayers are cited in unison. In addition, the lighting of the candle is symbolic in both religions. Finally, praying together is equally important to both religions. On the other hand, there were some notable differences. The covering of the congregants’ heads is not as important to Catholics as it is to Jews.
In addition, the sharing and breaking of bread in the catholic is done in the church (Sacrament) while the Jews do that in their homes. Despite our differences in modes of worship, we all seek to find spiritual fulfillment from our religions. It would therefore be a worthwhile endeavor if we could embrace the common aspects in our religions and tolerate the differences. This would in the end, ensure a harmonious coexistence within the human race.
BBC. The synagogue. 13 August, 2009. Web. 16 March, 2011.
Rich, Tracy. Synagogues, Shuls and Temples. 2001. Web. 16 March, 2011.
Temple Sinai, New Jersey. What is Reform? 2011. Web. 16 March, 2011.