The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 6 January 2003

A Welcome and Spiritual Orientation for Newcomers
to be used by Synagogues

Newcomers to synagogues are often unfamiliar with Jewish prayer and become lost. The following material is offered to all synagogues for use. Print up copies and place them in the lobby of the sanctuary, perhaps in a special box on the wall labelled "A Spiritual Orientation to Prayer for Newcomers." Please forward this material to any interested parties and to any websites that would like to use it. The only condition for use is that you retain the credit and information at the end.


A Spiritual Orientation to Jewish Prayer

Welcome to our synagogue. We're so glad you've come to join us. If you're unfamiliar with synagogue worship and Jewish prayer, we'd like to offer a little helpful orientation.

First of all, please feel that you're among friends. Don't hesitate to introduce yourself or to ask anybody here a question about anything happening. You may want to just sit and watch or involve yourself in any way that seems comfortable.

If you come to the synagogue regularly, you'll eventually learn all the different customs and how to participate fully. But even if you don't know all that now, you can still participate and be elevated spiritually.

What's the essence of the service-- the purpose of the prayers, the singing, the ritual? Jewish tradition teaches that it's a way to develop love of God, love of people, and love of yourself. We can also become aware of God's love for us. Davvening (Jewish prayer) is a form of meditation. By entering into a meditative mood during the service and coming into contact with your deepest self (your soul), you can truly open yourself to other people and to God. The mystics teach that before a prayer-service it is good to utter one's intention to fulfill the commandment "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." That's why it's important for us to be friendly when we're together in the synagogue. So relax and feel at home. This is God's House, so it's also your house.

The main task in prayer is getting close to God. Don't worry overmuch about being in step with every detail of the synagogue service. Focus on the essence, which is to be in a meditative mood and open yourself to God. Only then can you meet Him.

How does one meditate in davvening? First, resolve to take your mind off any worries or concerns about outside affairs, and to concentrate on what you are doing now, which is tending to your soul. Then, through the recitations, singing, Torah reading, and other activities, focus more and more on spiritual reality and on God, until, God-willing, you'll have an experience. Initially, that means feeling meditative and calm, and eventually, that you will feel yourself to be in God's presence. So, if you want to get the most out of your synagogue experience, use this time to meditate. You can meditate by reciting, by listening, by singing, or by thinking deeply. Be friendly and relaxed, but avoid excessive conversation in the sanctuary. Concentrate on the prayers in a meditative mood. Avoid looking around constantly. As in any form of meditation, you must control your glance to focus your mind. One easy way to do this is to focus your gaze on the page in the prayerbook. Feel free to look around from time to time, but with a spiritual purpose-- to take in the religious activity happening around you. Close your eyes occasionally and picture yourself surrounded by God's presence or imagine that He is right in front of you, so that He is looking at you and you are looking back. Reflect on the deeper meaning of your life. Think about loving God, people, and yourself.

Read prayers aloud or whisper them, moving your lips (in traditional Jewish prayer, reading silently is not considered davvening). Try to say the prayers with feeling; mean what you say. Reflect on the prayers and try to understand them. Don't be surprised if some of them express ideas contrary to your own views. Part of your work in Jewish prayer is to become familiar with traditional views. If you encounter something in the prayers that disturbs you, don't dwell on it. Focus on the parts that speak to you. Try to keep up with the congregation but don't worry if you lag behind. Don't rush and lose your meditative mood. If you skip a prayer here or there, that's also O.K. If you lose your place in the prayerbook, just ask the person next to you. He or she will be glad to help.

If you don't read Hebrew, read the English in the prayerbook. If you are reading the Hebrew without understanding it, you may want to read the English occasionally to reflect on what you're saying. When reciting Hebrew prayers without understanding them, consider the words in the Holy Tongue as vehicles carrying your innermost thoughts and deepest spiritual yearnings to God. While uttering the Hebrew words, think thoughts related to the davvening and focus your mind on God. When the congregation sings a melody for a prayer, consider the spiritual message of the melody as primary and the words as secondary. Join in the singing and let the song carry your soul heavenward. If you feel comfortable doing so, it is a good practice, occasionally during the service, to utter short personal prayers for what you may need or what a friend or a loved one needs. (Personal prayers may be expressed mentally.) You can also say such things as: "God, I want to learn about You and how to get close to You!" or, perhaps, if you have trouble with faith, say: "God, people say You exist, but I've never met You. Please reveal Yourself to me!"

Try to establish a continuous meditative mood throughout the service. If you avoid interruptions, distractions, and distracting thoughts, you will build up spiritual power, enter a meditative mood, and with God's help, "something will happen." You will have a spiritual experience. Minimally, you're guaranteed at least a taste of peace and joy. We hope you enjoy the service in the deepest way.

This orientation to Jewish prayer is based on Yitzhak Buxbaum's booklet: Real Davvening: Jewish Prayer as a Spiritual Practice and a Form of Meditation for Beginning and Experienced Davveners. The booklet, which has much more valuable material, is not just for newcomers. It is available in Jewish and general bookstores and available directly from Yitzhak Buxbaum.

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Copyright 2004-2005, Yitzhak Buxbaum. All rights reserved.