What's What?

Customs and Etiquette

The Torah scroll and its ornaments


Two books are used during a Jewish prayerbook: the siddur (prayerbook) and the chumash (a printed edition of the Torah).

The term "siddur" is derived from the Hebrew root "order" because the prayers are recited in a prescribed order. The prayerbook is developed over the course of more than 2000 years, with additions and emendations from virtually every age and generation. If you attend a service on Shabbat, the prayerbook used will probably be one for Shabbat and holy days. Prayerbooks for weekdays are usually published separately; though the order of the service is the same, there are so many small differences, it is simpler to print them separately. There are many different prayerbooks in use these days, reflecting the differences among Jewish communities, however the overall structure, and much of the wording is the same in all of them.

A printed edition of the Torah, called a chumash, is used when the Torah is read, so that the congregation can follow along with the reading. Most chumashim (plural of chumash) have the Hebrew text with an English translation printed in facing columns. Below you will often find a line-by-line commentary explaining the editor's interpretation of the text. There are many editions of the chumash in print, ranging from very traditional approaches, to far more liberal and academic interpretations.

Both the siddur and the chumash are considered sifrei kodesh (holy books) because they contain the tetragrammaton (the ineffable Name of God). They should never be placed on the floor or left sitting open and unattended on the chair. If a volume is dropped accidentally, it is customary to pick it up and kiss it.

For an overview and explanation of these and other Jewish Holy Books, click here.

Kippah (Yarmulke)

It is customary for Jews to wear a head covering when praying. Many Jews wear a head covering whenever they are awake, with the exceptions of bathing and swimming. In Hebrew, the small, round head covering worn out of respect for God, and as a sign of recognition that there is something greater and above us, is called a kippah, which literal means "dome" or "cuppola." The Yiddish word is yarmulke. The kippah also serves as a symbol of Jewish identity and loyalty.

The minhag (custom) of wearing a kippah has no basis in Jewish law, either in the Bible or later rabbinic law. This is confirmed by both the Maharshal (Rabbi Solomon ben Yechiel, 1510-1573) and the Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Solomon, 1720-1797). Therefore, there is no berachah (blessing) said when one dons the kippah.

The origins of the use of kippah are obscure. In searching the Bible, we might point to the description in Exodus 28:4 of the special garb of the High Priest, where we would find mention of the mitznefet, a special head covering. However, there appears to be no connection between the mitznefet and the kippah. In other passages in the Bible (eg. Second Samuel 15:30) head covering, along with a face covering, as associated with customs of mourning.

Some believe that the custom of wearing a kippah originated in Babylonia during the time when the Talmud was being written and redacted (200 - 600 CE), but there is little historical evidence for this theory.

It has been suggested that the kippah may derive from the armucella (Latin term), a religious head covering worn by monks in 14th to 15th century Catholic Europe. Originally, the armucella consisted of a hood and cloak attached to one another, but in time, separated into two garments. Others explain the word yarmulke as coming from the French arme (similar to the Latin arma), which was a round helmet with a movable visor in use during the Middle Ages.

A more traditional slant on the etymology of yarmulke holds that it derives from the expression yarei mei'Elohim ("in awe of God"), based upon the statement by Huna ben Joshua (5th century Talmudic scholar) who said, "I never walked four cubits with my head uncovered because God dwells above my head" (Kiddushin 31a). While historically, the custom of wearing a kippah was not universally practiced (for example in the Middle Ages, French and Spanish rabbinical courts authorities deemed the practice no more than custom, and many rabbis of this period prayed bareheaded, and in the 13th century Germany, many were called to the Torah bareheaded) today it is widely practiced as a sign of yirat shamayim ("reverence for God").

Kippot (the plural of kippah) may be fashioned from fabric, crocheted from cotton or wool thread, or made out of leather. They are made in many colors and designs, and their are fashions among different segments of the Jewish community. Women wear kippot, as well, sometimes in the same designs and colors as men, and often employing different designs which appeal to women.

Ner Tamid

An Eternal Light (Ner Tamid) hangs above the ark in every synagogue. It is often associated with the menorah, the seven-branched lampstand which stood in front of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also associated with the continuously-burning incense altar which stood in front of the ark (see First Kings, chapter 6). Our sages interpreted the Ner Tamid as a symbol of God's eternal and imminent Presence in our communities and in our lives.

Where once the Ner Tamid was an oil lamp, as was the menorah which stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem, today most are fueled by either gas or electric lightbulbs. Theyare never extinguished or turned off.

To see a photo of a lovely 19th century Czechoslovakian Ner Tamid, click here.


The Book of Esther, one of the five megillot, or scrolls, of the Bible. It is traditionally written on a scroll, which is often decorated with scenes from the story told in the scroll, and mounted on one wooden roller and encased in a wooden or metal case. The scroll, which may be kept in the ark, or perhaps in another location in the synagogue, is read on the holiday of Purim, which celebrates our people's deliverance from the evil machinations of Haman, the prime minister of King Ahasueros of Persia, who sought to kill the Jewish people as revenge for the refusal of Mordecai, the uncle of Esther, to bow down to him. Esther marries the king, and schemes to undo Haman's plans. Her triumph results in the deliverance of all the Jews in the kingdom, and is celebrated to this day with great festivity and frivolity.

To learn more about the holiday of Purim, customs and tradtitions, recipes and crafts ideas, click here.


A shofar is an instrument made from the horn of a ram or other kosher animal. It was used in ancient Israel to announce the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) and call people together. It was also blown on Rosh Hashanah, marking the beginning of the New Year, signifying both need to wake up to the call to repentance, and in connection with the portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis, chapter 22) in which Abraham sacrifices a ram in place of his son, Isaac.

Today, the shofar is featured most prominently in the Rosh Hashanah morning services. It is considered a commandment to hear the shofar blown.

There is a great deal of symbolism tied in with the legal requirements for what constitutes a proper shofar. The shofar of Rosh Hashanah, whose purpose it is to rouse the Divine in the listener, may not be constructed of an artificial instrument. It must be an instrument in its natural form and naturally hollow, through whom sound is produced by human breath, which God breathes into human beings. This pure, and natural sound, symbolizes the lives it calls Jews to lead. What is more, the most desirable shofar is the bent horn of a ram. The ram reminds one of Abraham's willing sacrifice of that which was most precious to him. The curve in the horn mirrors the contrition of the one who repents.

In the Talmud, we read: Rabbi Abbahu said: Why do we sound the shofar? Because the Holy One, blessed be God, said: Blow me a ram's horn that I may remember to your credit the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and I shall account it to you as a binding of yourselves before Me. The Torah tells us: Abraham look up and behold, he saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns [Genesis 22:13]. This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be God, showed our ancestor Abraham the ram tearing himself free from one thicket and becoming entangled in another. Said the Holy One, blessed be God, to Abraham: Thus are your children destined to be caught in iniquities and entangled in misfortunes, but in the end they will be redeemed by the horns of a ram. Therefore the prophet Zechariah said of the time of redemption: And the Lord shall be seen over them, and his arrow shall go forth like the lightning; and the Lord God shall blow the shofar, and shall move in stormy winds of the south [Zechariah 9:14]. [Rosh Hashanah 16a]

Tzedakah Box

The tradition of Tzedakah (righteousness) is a fundamental part of Jewish living. There are many forms of righteous behavior, but giving charity is among the most basic. Charity is compulsory in Jewish tradition, because the poor need it. Charity is considered a befitting way to celebrate a simchah (happy occasion), recall a deceased loved one, and mark the passage of time (people often give charity around the time of various holy days). A pushke (charity box) can be found in most every Jewish home, and it is traditional to give children money each week just prior to Shabbat, to teach them the commandment of tzedakah. In addition, many synagogues have Tzedakah boxes, to enable people who come to worship, study, and celebrate, to fulfill the precept of righteousness. A tzedakah box can take any form, from a used coffee can to an artistic object. (As an aside, several years ago, when my daughter Rachel was 12, she and I visited a large craft fair in Baltimore. We passed the table of a Jewish artisan and my daughter pointed out a tzedakah box for sale. The price was $850. "What's wrong with this picture?" I asked her. "Nothing," she smiled at me, "because you're going to get a sermon out of this one." How right she was!)

Moses Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah ("Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor", chapter 10, sections 7&emdash;14) wrote that not all acts of charity are equivalent. There are better acts of charity and lesser acts of charity. In fact, he enumerated eight levels of Tzedakah, from highest to lowest:

  1. To assist a poor person by providing him/her with a gift or a loan or by accepting him/her into a business partnership or by helping him/her find employment&emdash;in a word, by enabling him/her to dispense with other people's aid.
  2. To give to those who need in such a manner that the giver does not know who the recipient is and the recipient does not know who gave the money.
  3. The giver knows who the recipient is, but the recipient does not know who the giver is.
  4. The recipient knows who gave the money but the giver does not know who receives the donation.
  5. The giver gives the money directly to the poor person.
  6. The giver gives money to the poor person only after been asked.
  7. The giver gives less than is appropriate, but gives it graciously.
  8. The giver gives, but reluctantly.


The seven-branched lampstand which stood in the Temple in Jerusalem is symbolized in many modern sanctuaries by the menorah. The seven branches, mirroring the seven days in a week (the Six Days of Creation plus the Sabbath) reflect Creation itself and thereby bespeak the Creator.

The seven-branched menorah is not the same as the nine-branched Chanukah menorah, which is more correctly called a chanukkiyah. The chanukkiyah was modeled on the menorah in the Temple, with an extra branch on each side to accommodate the eight lights required to represent the eight days of Chanukah, with the middle or extra light being the shammas (the "service" light which is used to kindle the others). Today, chanukkiot (plural of chanukkiyah) are produced in a wide variety of designs, not all of which resemble the original menorah.


In the Torah, in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 we read: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day. Teach them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away from home; when you lie down and when you rise up. Bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a symbol before your eyes; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates."

In fulfillment of this instruction, Jews write this passage, along with Deuteronomy 11:13-21 on small parchment scrolls, and affix them to the doorposts of their homes. Long ago, a small space was gauged out of the doorpost, the scroll was inserted, and the space was plastered over. Now, however, we encase the parchment in decorative cases, both due to the principle of hiddur mitzvah (make a commandment more beautiful) and for a more pragmatic reason: people move much more frequently in our society and they wish to take their mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) with them. A mezuzah scroll is usually approximately two to three inches square. On the outside of the parchment the word "Shaddai" (shin-daled-yod) is inscribed, which is one of the names of God. The letters of this name are an acronym for Shomer daltot Yisrael ("Protector of the doors of Israel"). On the back of the mezuzah, there is often a Hebrew cryptogram which, when the previous letters of the Aleph-Bet are substituted, renders Adonai Eloheinu Adonai ("Adonai, our God, Adonai"). It is rolled up and inserted into a case, which is then affixed to the right side of the doorpost as one enters the house or room, approximately 1/3 of the way from the top of the doorjamb. Arising from a disagreement concerning whether the mezuzah should be vertical or horizontal, it is attached at an angle, with the top facing inward and the bottom facing outward.

Tradition holds that a mezuzah must be affixed to the doors of the house and to the entrance of each room in which the inhabitants live. Hence bedrooms and kitchen would have a mezuzah, but bathrooms would not. You will find a mezuzah at the entrance to a synagogue, because it is the "home" of that particular congregation.

It is customary to touch and kiss the mezuzah with one's fingers upon entering or leaving the house.

Today, mezuzah cases are made by a variety of artisans, using a wonderful array of materials, including wood, metal, ceramics, and glass.


It is customary to have a representation of the Ten Commandments over the ark, symbolizing the Torah which is inside the ark. Depictions of the luchot (tablets) on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed give rise to many Jewish art forms.

The Ten Commandments are found twice in the Torah: Exodus, chapter 20 and Deuteronomy, chapter 5. However the term "Ten Commandments" appears only in Exodus 34:28, where it refers to a different set of commandments than those conventionally called the "Ten Commandments." There are minor differences between the two versions, in Exodus and Deuteronomy. For example, Exodus cites creation as the reason for keeping Shabbat, while Deuteronomy cites our experience as slaves in Egypt as the primary reason. Similary, while Exodus tells us to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, Deuteronomy instructs us to observe the sabbath day and keep it holy (this, by the way, is the source of the tradition of lighting two candles as Shabbat begins: one each for remember and observe). The Ten Commandments, as they appear in Exodus, chapter 20 and Deuteronomy, chapter 5 are:

  1. I am Adonai your God.
  2. Do not worship idols or images of other gods.
  3. Do not swear a false oath by God's name.
  4. Keep the sabbath.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not lie when giving testimony as a witness.
  10. Do not covet your neighbor's possessions.

During the time that the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Ten Commandments were recited daily as part of the liturgy. When sectarian groups began to claim, however, that only these mitzvot (commandments) were important to keep, the practiced stopped. Today, they are not recited as part of the prayer liturgy and are read from the Torah only when the cycle of reading includes the chapters in which they are found and on Shavuot, the festival which celebrates the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Aron Ha-kodesh

The Torah is kept in the Aron Ha-kodesh (the Holy Ark). The ark of a modern synagogue is reminiscent of the ark in which the Israelites kept the Torah which, according to tradition, God gave Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai. The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box overlaid with gold, which the Israelites carried with them throughout their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and then brought to the Land of Israel where it was kept at the religious center in Shiloh. King David brought it to Jerusalem, amidst a procession including music and dancing, when he made the Holy City his capital. After King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, the ark was installed in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary, of the Temple.

The Aron Ha-kodesh resembles a closet or cabinet, in which the Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) are housed. A Ner Tamid (eternal light) hangs outside and above it. Its opening is protected by a curtain called a parochet, which is described below.


The Ark is covered by a curtain, called a parochet, just as the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, was separated from the rest of the sanctuary by a curtain called a parochet. The parochet remains closed throughout the service except when the Torah is removed and returned to the Ark.

Customs and Etiquette

What to wear

The general rule of thumb is to follow the custom of the place where you're attending services. If they wear kippot, wear a kippah. Non-Jews who are guests in a synagogue can cover their heads; it is a sign of respect and not at all inappropriate for people who are not Jewish. If you are not Jewish, you need not wear a tallit (prayer shawl); there will be no expectation that you should. If you are offered one upon entering, just smile and say no thank-you. (To learn more about the tallit, click here.)

How to treat the books

In most synagogues, you will use two books for the Shabbat morning service. The first is a siddur (prayerbook). The second is a chumash (printed edition of the Five Books of Moses). Both are considered holy books because they contain the name of God. DO NOT place them on the floor. If a book should fall on the floor, it is customary to pick it up and kiss it. The books should be treated with respect and honor. They should not be left open, either face up or face down.

When to sit, stand, and bow

The choreography of the prayer service is complicated to one unfamiliar with it. In most congregations, the rabbi or whoever is leading the service will announce when it is time to stand or sit. The congregation stands for prayers of kedushah, including the Barechu, Amidah, beginning Torah service liturgy, and Aleinu. There are specific times during the service when people bow. If you are not familiar with the liturgy, and are visiting, you needn't be concerned about this. If you are Jewish and interesting in learning more about the structure and meaning of the prayer service, click here.

Coming on time, coming late

People often ask: Is it okay to come late? In a traditional Shabbat morning service, which often lasts for three hours, many people do not arrive the moment the service begins. The early sections of the service include prayers traditionally intended to be said at home upon awakening, and songs intended to cultivate the mood and mindset for prayer. Thus people filter in throughout these early sections of the service. One is expected to arrive on time for a Reform service.

For Gentile visitors to a synagogue

We want you to feel comfortable and welcome in our synagogues. We realize that you do not always understand what is happening and that this is not your tradition. Please do not feel that you must participate in the prayers, unless that is your choice. Please also feel free to ask someone to help you understand the service, find your place in the prayerbook, or explain a ritual that you see. Rest assured that your Jewish hosts will be delighted by your interest. For a more thorough explanation, please see Guide for Visitors to a Synagogue.

Who's who
Books used in the synagogue
History of the synagogue
The Torah scroll and its ornaments
Structure of the synagogue service
What are some of the things that happen in a synagogue?
Visiting a Synagogue
What does the Sanctuary look like?
Photo Gallery of Bimas and Arks
Jonah's picture of the ark