Reform Sanctuary Customs
Q When are Shabbat (Sabbath) services held?
A In Reform congregations, Shabbat services are customarily held on Friday night and Saturday morning. Service times may vary from week to week depending on the community and the occasion. Most congregations have websites, or you might ask the congregation if to add your name to the temple bulletin mailing list, which usually includes a schedule of all services and events.
Q How will I be greeted and how should I greet those I meet before and after services?
A When you enter the sanctuary, you may be welcomed with one of the traditional Sabbath greetings, either "Shabbat shalom," which means "a peaceful Sabbath," or "Good Shabbes," which means "a good Sabbath." It is appropriate to respond with either of these phrases.
Q Do I need a prayer book?
A All synagogues provide worshippers with a prayer book (siddur) on Shabbat. Some congregations offer worshippers a prayer book when they enter the sanctuary; others have prayer books in the bookracks at the seats. There are several different prayer books that the congregation may use: Mishkan T'filah is a recently introduced Reform prayer book; Gates of Prayer is an older Reform prayer book still in use; and some congregations create their own prayer book. In addition, the Chumash, a book that contains the first five books of the Bible with commentary, is used by congregants to follow the Torah and haftarah (prophetic) readings during the Friday night or Saturday morning service. Note that the congregation reads together all the italicized print in Gates of Prayer.
Q Should I wear a kippah? Should I wear a tallit?
A The tradition regarding the wearing of a kippah (head covering) and tallit (prayer shawl), while varying widely within the Reform Jewish community, applies equally to men and women. In most congregations, wearing a kippah is optional, and kippot (the plural form of kippah) are provided at the entrance of the sanctuary. If it is the synagogue's custom for worshipers to wear a tallit, tallitot (the plural form of tallit) will also be provided. It is important to note that tallitot are worn only by Jews during Shabbat morning services. In some congregations, those who recite the aliyah (blessings before and after the reading of the Torah) are expected to wear a tallit.
Q Will I be expected to participate in the service? How will I know what to do?
A Often, the rabbi or whoever is leading the services will announce the page you should be on and indicate when you are to stand or sit. You should follow that person's lead and stand or sit with the congregation. Read the prayers aloud and sing at your own comfort level.
During Shabbat services, congregants may be called to the bimah (pulpit) to assist in the service either by blessing the Shabbat candles and wine (only on Friday night), opening and closing the ark or reciting the aliyah (blessings before and after the Torah reading). Do not be concerned that you might suddenly be invited to the bimah without warning. These honors are usually prearranged, and those who have them are notified in advance.
During the Saturday morning service, often before and/or after the reading of the Torah, there is a procession around the sanctuary with the Torah scroll called the hakafah. At that time, you may see congregants reaching out and touching the Torah scroll with either their prayer books, their hand or the corner of their prayer shawl as the Torah passes. This is a custom for Jews that conveys reverence for the Torah, although no one is obliged to participate in it.
Q When may I enter or exit the sanctuary?
A Every congregation has its own etiquette, which you can learn by observing or asking questions. Some common times when people avoid entering or leaving the sanctuary are when the ark is open, the Torah is being read, or the sermon or d'var Torah is delivered. Because our most reverential times occur when we are standing, you should not exit or enter the sanctuary at such times.
Q What should I do with my cell phone and pager?
A To honor the sanctity of Shabbat and show respect for the service and fellow congregants, all worshipers should turn off their electronic devices before entering the sanctuary.
Q What happens after the service?
A At the conclusion of Shabbat worship, refreshments are usually served. On Friday evening, this gathering is called an oneg Shabbat, which literally means "the joy of the Sabbath." On Saturday morning, it is called Kiddush, which is also the term for the blessing over the Sabbath wine. Everyone is welcome to attend and enjoy both the oneg and the Kiddush, both members and visitors. This is also an opportunity for you to meet the rabbi and members of the congregation.
Q What is the raised area in the sanctuary called? What ritual objects should I be aware of?
A The raised area either in the center or on one side of the sanctuary, where services are conducted, is called the bimah. On the bimah is the most sacred place in the sanctuary, the Aron HaKodesh or holy ark, which houses the Torah scrolls. Either in front of or above the ark hangs the ner tamid or eternal light, which burns constantly as a reminder of God's Eternal Presence.
Q What is a guideline for accepted dress at Shabbat services?
A We honor the separateness and sanctity of Shabbat by wearing appropriate attire. Each congregation has its own standard of dress for Shabbat services. Customarily, business attire such as a suit, dress, nice slacks, or a skirt and shirt or sweater is suitable wear. Some congregations have a more casual approach. If you are unsure, you may want to contact the synagogue office and inquire as to what type of dress is appropriate before you attend your first Shabbat service there.