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)