February 28, 2014
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Strange things Jews do during service explained

Between a rock and a hard place

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

Our family is trying to get more familiar with services so we can feel more comfortable at our son’s bar mitzvah. We’ve gone to Saturday morning services a few times and we’re so confused! It looks like a free-for-all. No one really stands still and everyone seems to make noise even when it’s supposed to be quiet. What’s going on?

— Trying to Be Polite

Dear Polite,

Welcome to services. Please rise. You may be seated. We continue silently. And so forth and so on.

A traditional Jewish service has a rhythm all its own, and it often seems at odds with basic decorum. We would expect to attend a sacred occasion like a synagogue service and sit politely. Sing when everyone else is singing. Stand up and stay still until told to sit back down. Yet, in a congregation full of veteran worshippers, that’s not really what happens.

Let’s take a look at some of what’s going on around you at services.

The moving around

If you didn’t know any better, you would think you were in a room full of little kids who can’t stand still. In fact, when Jews daven, a Yiddish term for pray, they traditionally rock back and forth a little, or sway from side to side. This is also known by the Yiddish or English term shochling. It derives from a verse in Psalms, which says that when a person prays, all of his limbs and bones should also praise God. This helped set the stage for history’s first complete body workout. It’s not enough to simply stand still and recite some words. You’re supposed to get everything moving as well. In fact, during certain parts of the service, you might notice some worshippers really moving and rocking back and forth rapidly.

Now the questions that you didn’t exactly ask: should you also be moving like that? Is it polite to imitate what you see around you?

I would recommend that you continue to attend and become even more comfortable and familiar with the service and what you see around you. I bet you will start moving a little without even realizing that you’re doing it. The key is to feel part of the service rather than to perform some action artificially.

The noise

I’ve always thought that the most ironic phrase in services is “We now continue silently.” Any regular attendee at services knows there’s no such thing as really remaining silent. And I’m not talking about 97-year-old Morris Goldblatt who thinks he’s whispering but really needs a fresh battery in his hearing aid.

At a traditional service, when everyone is reading “silently,” there’s usually a low level of murmuring or even some words recited out loud once in a while. This happens more often when the person is getting to the end of the reading; he often will read the last bunch of words more audibly. This provides a nice verbal cue to the bar mitzvah kid who can listen to what’s going on around the congregation and time his own entrances and chanting to maintain the flow of the service.

Nice job making the effort to get a better handle on the service! With a little practice, you will be rocking along with everyone else.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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