The place of worship where members of the Jewish religious community usually congregate is the synagogue (sometimes referred to as a ‘shul’). The synagogue is a place for congregational prayer, study or education, and socialising with others. Prayer services are held in the part of the synagogue called the ‘sanctuary’. The most prominent part of this area is the Ark, a recession in the wall that holds the Torah scrolls. In synagogues, it is also common to find a separate place for women to sit, usually as an upper-floor balcony or the back of a room separated from the men’s section with a curtain or wall (called a mechitzah).
Non-Jewish people are permitted to visit a synagogue and attend a service. Guests are expected to be respectful through modest dress and considerate speech. For example, in many synagogues, men are expected to wear a skullcap (kippah). Additionally, it is not appropriate to clap when in a synagogue. Everyone must stand and should not leave or enter the sanctuary when the Ark is open.
Handling Religious Texts
In Judaism, there are a number of expectations related to the handling of religious texts, especially the Torah. The following are practices to bear in mind:
- People are expected to stand if the Torah is lifted.
- People should face and kiss the mantle the Torah rests on to demonstrate respect.
- It is expected that Jewish religious texts (especially the Torah) should feature in a prominent place in one’s home, protected from being mishandled or destroyed.
- Religious texts should not be placed on a bench or chair where someone is sitting, nor should they be brought into the bathroom.
- If the text falls on the ground, someone should make up for this by buying a new Torah mantle, reciting psalms, giving money to charity or fasting.
- If the religious texts (particularly the Torah) are worn out, it is expected that the text is buried out of respect for the text and God.
Candles are prominently featured in weekly and special events throughout the Jewish worship calendar. For instance, the havdalah candle (a braided candle with multiple wicks) is used in the ceremony that marks the transition between the end of the Shabbat and the new week. Candles are also part of the event known as Chanukah. Many Jewish homes will have a special nine-stemmed candelabra known as a Chanukah Menorah (eight candles plus one ‘helper candle’ to light each candle).
Tefillin (sometimes referred to as phylacteries in English) are small black leather, cube-shaped cases with leather straps containing small Torah scrolls written on parchment. The objects are used in prayer. They also act as reminders of God and one’s obligation to uphold the covenant during daily life. Some denominations believe that, in accordance to Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:8, Jewish males of 13 years and older must wear a tefillin on their head (tefillin shel rosh) and on their left arm (tefillin shel yad) during their morning prayers.
The most common article of clothing in Judaism is a kippah (translates as ‘skullcap’ in English, but also known as yarmulke in Yiddish). A kippah is a small hat or head covering typically worn by men during a religious activity (such as prayer), or when entering a sacred space (such as a synagogue). Some women may also cover their heads by wearing a scarf, hat or wig. Skullcaps come in a variety of colours, sizes and materials. Some men may cover their head with a black hat or a shtreimel (a large fur hat). Head coverings are worn for various reasons such as ritual, modesty (tzniut), respect for God, or following customs or traditions.
Some may also wear a tallit (prayer shawl), which is decorated with 600 fringes. The tallit is draped over the shoulders like a cape. The most common time the prayer shawl is worn is during morning prayer. Some may also wear a smaller, poncho-like garment (called tzit-tzit) underneath their regular clothing. Prayer shawls are typically worn by men, although some women may choose to do so.
In accordance with the ethical principle of modesty, many Jewish people from streams wear clothing that goes down to their wrists and ankles, such as a long sleeve shirt or blouse, a coat, as well as trousers for men, or skirts or loosely fitted dresses for women.
Kashrut refers to the Jewish dietary laws that describe foods suitable for a Jewish person to eat. Jewish dietary laws make a distinction between kosher (appropriate) foods and treifah (forbidden) foods. Some foods are inherently kosher for consumption (such as fish that have both fins and scales), while other foods require a prescribed method of slaughter or preparation (known as shechitah). If this method is not followed, the food is classified as forbidden.
There are three categories of kosher foods: milchig (dairy), fleishig (meat) and pareve (neutral). One of the main dietary laws is the separation of all milk and meat products. In some Jewish households, it is common to find two separate cooking utensils to ensure greater separation of milk and meat products. Some people may wait several hours after eating a meat dish before consuming dairy to ensure that the remaining effects of the meat in the mouth do not compromise any subsequent diary consumption. There are also special dietary laws relating to the Jewish holiday of Pesach.
Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.