Friday Night Shul
Powerful communal prayer can really get you in the spirit.
When you are gearing up for Shabbat, Fridays can be a little... rushed. Everything has to be done in order to light those candles on time. For many, going to shul on Friday night really marks the beginning of Shabbat. You leave one plane and enter another. Seeing your friends and neighbors and wishing them a "Good Shabbos... Shabbat Shalom" connects you back to community and to being a Jew.
1. Even those who do not formally pray during the week often attend services on Shabbat. The Friday night service contains three sections:
- Mincha (the afternoon service)
- Kabbalat Shabbat (literally, "receiving the Shabbat")
- Maariv (evening service)
2. Mincha consists primarily of the Shmonah Esrei (the Silent Amidah), which literally means "18," for it originally comprised 18 blessings. It takes about 15 minutes to complete.
3. Kabbalat Shabbat is a special set of praises designed to create the proper atmosphere and attitude to welcome Shabbat. In northern Israel centuries ago, Jewish mystics used to go into the fields as the sun set, singing the song "Lecha Dodi" to usher in the Shabbat. This section of the service also takes about 15 minutes.
4. Maariv is special for Shabbat and includes the Shema and the Silent Amidah. The Shema is the ultimate in Jewish prayer, beginning with our credo:
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One
The Shema is said in our prayers every morning and evening, and even young children are taught to recite it before bedtime.
In the event that one cannot make it to shul, most parts of the service can be said at home. The ArtScroll Siddur has laid out in great detail the procedure and explanation of prayer and can easily be followed, with or without a congregation.
Remember: Prayer can be in any language, so choose one in which you feel most comfortable. However, try and brush up on the basics of Hebrew, as the songs and communal prayers can be even more inspiring when said as "one" with others.
What is Prayer?
Prayer. How do you relate to prayer? Is it something only children do at bedtime? Is prayer reserved for services in shul? Why do we pray? Should we pray? Why is prayer considered one of the fundamental pillars of Judaism?
Many questions. Let's go to the Source and try to derive some answers.
In Genesis 32, we find Jacob, one of the fathers of the Jewish people, receiving the news that his wicked and vengeful brother, Esau, who had earlier threatened to kill him, is planning to arrive along with 400 men.
Rashi, the 11th-century scholar and foremost commentator on the Torah, points out that, upon hearing the news, Jacob has three choices before him: appease Esau through gifts; fight him with a portion of his own men; pray.
Jacob chose to utilize all three options, but the order in which they were implemented is significant. Think -- when is the best time for him to turn to prayer? At the beginning? Or at the end, as a last resort?
Jacob was very frightened and distressed. He divided the people accompanying him into two camps (Genesis 32:8).
Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother (Genesis 32:12).
He selected a tribute for his brother Esau from what he had with him (Genesis 32:14).
Rashi notes that, clearly, Jacob chose to first prepare by dividing his people for battle, then by praying, and, finally, by sending gifts.
It seems surprising that Jacob, grandson of Abraham and one of the fathers of the Jewish people, who fully understood the power of prayer, would not immediately turn to God for help.
And in this we find an important insight into prayer. God responds to us based on our choices. Belief in the power of prayer is also belief in our responsibility to make the supreme effort. Prayers are meaningful and effective when preceded by serious intent and, in this case, action.
Prayer is also the confirmation of the Jewish view of the Almighty as a personal God. Relating to Him should be a daily part of one's life and should not be reserved only for special occasions or a pressing situation.
Talk to God. It can be in English, Hebrew, Chinese, Spanish... or in whatever language you feel most comfortable. God understands every word and wants to hear your prayers.
Because through prayer, we recognize our Creator and come close to Him. And being close to God is the ultimate pleasure.
When you pray, focus on the fact that God is our Father, Giver of all. Ask for whatever you aspire to in life, whatever you may need. If these things are not forthcoming, ask yourself, "What is God telling me? What am I to learn from this?"
Fill your prayers with praise and thanks for all that God gives you, and ask for things for your own life, as well as for others.
But never forget the lesson of Jacob. Make an effort and know that God is there: protecting you, sustaining you, and watching over you with love.
I'm usually halfway out the door when my wife is lighting the Shabbat candles, as it's always a rush to get to shul on time. So I don't get the "Whew -- it's Shabbat" feeling until I get to our little synagogue, see everyone there, and begin singing the Friday night service. As I begin "Lecha Dodi" (the song welcoming Shabbat), my whole body begins to relax, and I feel the weekday pressures just slipping away.
After the service, there's a lot of "Good Shabbos" greetings, handshakes, and catching up. A lot of these people I see only on Shabbat, so when I see them Friday night, it's like my own kind of candle lighting.
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Walking home from shul Friday night is the best -- traffic is zooming all around you, and yet you and the other people walking home are in a different world. It's Shabbat, and all that rushing around is over. No more cars, no more phones, no more work.
* * *
Friday nights in the winter are my favorite, because I know that after that cold walk home from shul, I'm going to be greeted by my kids, all dressed up for Shabbat -- and by that warm smell of chicken soup.
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Unless it's pouring, I always try to go to Friday night services, because seeing everyone around me dressed up and ready for Shabbat really puts me in the right frame of mind. Sometimes, especially if Friday was hectic at work, I just feel too tired to walk those few blocks. But if I just give myself a little push, I'm never sorry. By the time I come home I'm reenergized and ready for more.
Adapted from "Friday Night and Beyond" by Lori Palatnik (Jason Aronson Pub.)