Traditional vs. Messianic Services

Q: I am not a life-long Jew. I have never attended a Jewish service. I am a life-long Christian, however, and I have come to really value the Jewish roots of my faith. Would it be possible to explain how the Messianic Shabbat service is different from the traditional Jewish service? It would help educate me in honoring our shared tradition(s).

A: Your question is difficult, because there are many different types of services in both the traditional and Messianic Jewish communities. So let me start by saying that the point of reference for this discussion will have to be the Shabbat service at Kehilat Sar Shalom. With that in mind, let me see if I can do your question justice.
The biggest difference between a traditional service and a Messianic service would obviously have to be the emphasis placed on Messiah Yeshua. While there are plenty of Messianic references in the traditional service, Yeshua is not recognized as having fulfilled that role. Similarly, where elements of our service emphasize an obedience to Rabbi Yeshua’s interpretation, there is no such emphasis in a traditional service. For example, it is common for me to make reference to Yeshua’s statement, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.'” This is from Mark 12:29, of course, where Yeshua quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4. This is the Shema that we recite every service. We follow it with the V’ahavta prayer, which Yeshua also quotes from (Deuteronomy 6:5) in the passage from Mark. (See Mark 12:28-34.) So while the Shema is recited in synagogues all over the world, only in Messianic services would you find those types of things brought out.
Apart from that, our services are very similar. Traditional services may include some singing. The more traditional shuls will probably not have musical instruments, as that may be construed as work on Shabbat. Their focus will be more on the recitation of the Psalms. However, many do include music in their services. In fact, a large portion of the Jewish world is turning to the art of music to reinvent the traditional liturgy. Artists like Debbie Friedman, Sam Glaser, and Craig Taubman have been pioneers in what has been termed the Jewish Revival Movement. They have been producing songs that are based on the traditional liturgy, but put to modern-sounding music. The Barechu that we sometimes do, and the Romemu version that we do are both creations of Craig Taubman. How much or how little music is included will depend entirely on the synagogue.
Each service will also have some type of liturgy. Liturgy includes various prayers, such as the Shema, the V’ahavta, the Aleynu, the Kaddish, and the most common one, the Amidah. There are many others, and additional ones are added at various times during the year, including special liturgical pieces for the High Holy Days. At KSS, we have limited the amount of liturgy that we do, primarily because the majority of the people who come are not too familiar with it, and wouldn’t find it meaningful at first. Of course, those who stay and learn eventually come to appreciate and enjoy the liturgy. But again, even in traditional services, the amount of liturgy that is done will vary greatly. The more Orthodox the congregation, the more liturgical it generally is. That is not to say that the other services don’t have any liturgy at all, but you will more likely find the liturgical prayers recited in the form of a song or poem in those less traditional congregations.
The language will tend to be different as well. The more Orthodox the congregation, the more likely it is that the entire service will be conducted in Hebrew, with little or no translation. The siddur (Jewish prayer book) that they use will most likely also be completely in Hebrew. As you move more toward the conservative and reform congregations, you are likely to find a progressively less Hebrew prayer book. That is, they will add in the English translations. They may add in transliterated Hebrew so that the person who doesn’t speak Hebrew fluently will be able to recite the prayers in Hebrew by reading the transliteration. Then there are those congregations that don’t even use the siddur at all, and conduct the entire service in English. It has always been the policy at KSS never to have prayers or blessings that aren’t translated. Because whatever the language, the element of kavannah is of importance.
Kavannah is the heart attitude with which the prayers are recited. It used to be that it was felt that the recitation of the prayers was more important that even knowing what the prayers meant. If you can read them and understand them, and actually MEAN them, even better, but it is more important just that they are recited. You can tell these congregations when you go in and the prayers are being read at break-neck speeds, all in Hebrew, sometimes with just one person doing them, and the congregation responding with a well-placed, “Amen!” Their goal is simply to get through them. Understanding is secondary.
At KSS, understanding is primary. After all, how can you really mean what you are saying when you don’t even speak the language? The prayer become almost irrelevant. This was partly what was driving the Jewish Reform Movement when it began in Germany. Therefore, while we encourage people to learn Hebrew, and certain Hebrew lessons are taught during the weekly message, all services will be conducted primarily in English, and all Hebrew prayers will be translated for understanding. This will help everyone to be able to pray with kavannah.
Speaking of prayers, at traditional synagogues, there is a position called chazzan, or cantor. This is the person who has been trained in the recitation of the prayers, particularly how to sing them. He or she is also trained to read from the Torah scroll, using what is called a trope to sing the Torah. We do not currently have a cantor at KSS. Right now, the rabbi is filling that position, leading the singing of the prayers, and reading from the Torah scroll. And that does happen from time to time. This is a more common phenomenon in Messianic congregations, however, who will differ on their approach to the Torah.
One thing you will find that is consistent is the Torah cycle. You can see earlier posts about the origins of the Torah and Haftarah cycle. What you obviously won’t find in a traditional synagogue is the B’rit Hadashah portion. The traditional understanding of Torah comes primarily from the Jewish sages of the Talmud and later. Judaism looks to it’s learned men, men such as Rashi and Maimonides and others for the interpretation and application of the precepts of Torah. To them, the authority has been given to the rabbis to make those decisions. For us, “Yeshua came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.'” So rather than relying on post-Biblical rabbis for our interpretation, we rely on the One Rabbi Who actually is the Living Word for our interpretation. In that sense, the B’rit Hadashah is our Talmud. It is our guide how to interpret and apply the precepts of Torah.
I guess, to sum it all up, if you were to look at all of the different types of Messianic services, and compare them with all of the different types of traditional Jewish services, you would find some that are very similar, with the exception of Yeshua, and some that are very different. The bottom line is that all of them are theoretically designed to take you on a journey from the secular to the sacred. As you enter the service, you are being transitioned from a 6 day secular work week into a period of holy time. You are slowly brought up the mountain until you hear the very Word of God. When you are done, you make an offering, and you transition back into the realm of the secular, hopefully changed for the better by the mountaintop experience. However, the only one that can actually give life is the one that has Life infused throughout it.

“Yeshua said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. ‘” (John 14:6)

7 Responses to Traditional vs. Messianic Services

  • Gerald Taylor says:

    I am a life-long Jew and intend to remain one. I do not believe that “Messianic” Judiasm is Jewish. However I don’t want to start an argument.

    I only want to tell you that you have misspelled “gnosh”. It should be “nosh”. Trust me on this one.

    Yehudah ben Mosheh

  • Rod Koozmin says:

    What is the diffrence between a “service” and a meeting? What do you think was going on in the Acts 12:12 meeting and how about in Corintians where it says everyone bring a scripture or a teaching?

    Do your services have a woman lighting candles and where dose that tradition come from?

    More importantly what’s the diffrence between the traditions of men , the oral law and the law of Moses?

    • Rabbi Neal says:

      Those are great points, and I’ll answer them one at a time.

      A service generally has a planned structure to it. It may be broken down into official sections, as in the Jewish tradition: p’sukei d’zimrah, shema, amidah, Torah, aleynu, etc. It may be less official, as in the case of a more contemporary service, which begins with worship, that flows into Scripture readings, that flows into a message, etc. A meeting would be a less formal time of study or worship.
      We know that there was liturgy already happening in the 1st Century. How much I don’t think we can know for sure. I think that the meetings in Acts 12 were people getting together in each other’s homes for prayer, fellowship, study, etc. The community of God was never intended to be a once-a-week community. The community in Acts was always getting together. They broke bread together all the time. They were involved with each other. So the idea that Peter would go to Mary’s house and find them praying should not be surprising to anyone. At the same time, getting together regularly doesn’t necessarily assume that there were also opportunities for “services,” as well.

      Our services do not have a woman lighting candles because our services are on Shabbat morning. Candles are typically lit on erev Shabbat, Friday night, prior to the beginning of the Sabbath, because of the prohibition against kindling a fire on Shabbat. The tradition comes from Jewish idea that the woman is the queen of the home. Therefore, it is her responsibility to spread the light of Sabbath through her home, and upon her children. However, there is a deeper meaning in the Messiah. Since the Ohr Ha-olam, the Light of the World, came into the world not by the act of any man, the light of Shabbat comes into the home not through the act of any man, but through the act of a woman.

      The answer to the last question will depend on whom you ask. Here is my response. The law of Moses is the Torah. It was handed down to Moses at Sinai, and passed down from generation to generation in written form. Kings were required to write a copy during their rule. It is the God-breathed Word as we have it in the original language. The Oral Law, or Oral Torah, is what is known as the Talmud. It is a collection of laws and rulings, and discussions about those laws and rulings, that the Jewish sages have claimed were originally given to Moses at Sinai orally, and were passed down orally from generation to generation. They weren’t compiled and written down until about the 3rd century. Since that time, it has continued to expand, as the sages of generations add their thoughts to it. It is the observance of these laws and rulings over the written Word that are generally considered to be the traditions of men.

      To be clear, Yeshua never taught that traditions were bad. He, in fact, observed them as well, in the context of 1st century Judaism. What He objected to was placing them as more important than the Torah itself, or even claiming that it was the very word of God. This is exactly what has happened over the years in mainstream Judaism. Again, observing them isn’t necessarily bad, but to elevate them to the status of divine is contrary to Yeshua’s teaching, and to the very Torah itself.

      May this be a blessing to you.

  • Patricia says:

    Rabbi, these two verses confuse me. In Deuteronomy 10, God tells his people to love the stranger ; but in Deuteronomy 14, god commands hiS people to not eat anything whIch dies of itself aNd instructs to either give or sell it to the strangers at their gates.

    What am I not seeing.

    Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20

    21 Ye shall not eat of any thing that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God.


    no comment, but a question. If traditional jews do not believe in new testament, do they still sacrifice animals? if not, what are their reasons.

    • A Jew says:

      They do not practice sacrifices because they believe that sacrifices can only be done when the temple in Jerusalem is standing. Since the second temple was destroyed in 70 AD, they do not practice animal sacrifice.

      • RabbiNeal says:

        Thank you for responding, “A JEW.” The sacrifices were replaced with three things according to the sages: torah study, acts of kindness, and giving to charity. This is well-documented in the talmud.

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