Synagogue Worship Services

When Israel gathers to pray, they do not pray together as one, but each and every synagogue prays by itself: first this synagogue and then the next one. And when all the congregations have finished all their prayers, the angel responsible for prayer takes all the prayers from all the synagogues and makes of them crowns to place upon the head of the Holy One, Blessed be God.

[Midrash Shemot Rabbah, Parashat Beshallach]


A quorum, called a minyan, is required for a complete religious service. Ten adults (aged 13 years plus a day) are constitute a minyan. In the absense of a minyan, the Barechu and Kaddish are not recited aloud, and the Torah is not read from the scroll.

Daily Services

There are three daily services prescribed by tradition: Ma'ariv, Shacharit, and Minchah. Musaf is an additional service for Shabbat and holidays, though it is not included at all synagogues:

Service When Major Elements


Evening after sundown

Includes preliminary prayers, Shema and its Blessings, Amidah, and Concluding prayers.



Includes preliminary prayers, Shema and its Blessings, Amidah, and Concluding prayer. Includes Torah reading on Shabbat, holidays, Monday, and Thursday


Additional service following Shacharit (there is no Musaf in most Reform congregations and many Reconstructionist congregations)

Amidah and Ein Keloheinu



Preliminary prayers and Amidah. Includes Torah reading only on Shabbat and Yom Kippur

There are multiple reasons for there being three daily prayer services but the usual explanation is that each one of the three was initiated by one of our patriarchs: Abraham (Genesis 22:3 -- "Abraham arose early in the morning"), Isaac (Genesis 24:63 -- "Isaac went out meditating in the field toward evening"), and Jacob (Genesis 28:11 "He came to that place and stopped there for the night"). In fact, the prayer services are also substitutes for the sacrifices made in the Temple in Jerusalem prior to its destruction in 69/70 C.E. The morning prayers (Shacharit) and afternoon prayers (Minchah) correspond to the morning (Tamid offering) and afternoon sacrifices (the second Tamid). The evening service, Ma'ariv, is not associated with a sacrifice. Rather, it derives from the obligation to say the Shema in the evening (the prayer itself says "you shall recite these words when you lie down at night and when you rise up in the morning") hence the Shema is said in the evening and morning, but not in the afternoon. There is also a tradition that Daniel prayed thrice daily. There was a time in Jewish history when Ma'ariv was an optional service; today, it is often appended to the Minchah service.

In addition, there are special services which occur in connection with certain holidays:


When Major Elements

Kabbalat Shabbat

Friday evening at sundown Welcome Shabbat with a series of psalms and songs

Kol Nidre

Yom Kippur eve Includes Kol Nidre prayer and special inclusions for Yom Kippur


Yom Kippur day Recounts the service of the High Priest in the sanctuary on Yom Kippur when the Temple stood


Yom Kippur day Recounts the deaths of ten rabbis and sages martyred during the Roman period


Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot Memorial service for those who have died

Megillah reading

Purim Within the context of a traditional service, the Book of Esther is read from a scroll, to the exuberant and demonstrative efforts of the congregation to drown out the name of Haman

Basic Structure of the Synagogue Worship Service

While there is great variety in the prayers, moods, and liturgies of the various Jewish worship services, there are also structural commonalities which mark them as distinctly Jewish. All Ma'ariv and Shacharit services follow this basic structure:

1. Warm-up Prayers (These vary depending upon the time of day and occasion. Kabbalat Shabbat is an example of warm-up prayers for the Shabbat evening service.)

2. Shema and its Blessings (Beginning with the Barechu, the Call to Worship, and including prayers on the themes of Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. These prayers establish the common ground of belief and identity of the congregation: We are creatures created by God, Who created the universe; God gave our people the Torah, which was revealed at Mount Sinai and which serves as our guide; and we look forward to a future redemption -- the messianic age -- which we understand from our past experience of redemption from slavery in Egypt, and which we expect will encompass the world with peace and justice.)

3. Amidah (Also known as Ha-Tefillah or Shemona Esrei, the Amidah is the worshiper's opportunity to approach God in private prayer, reciting both the words in the siddur as well as whatever prayers his/her heart may prompt. Because the recitation of this prayer is a central religious obligation, and has always been public by nature, it is often repeated in full by the chazzan after the congregation has been given time to recite the prayer privately. The weekday version of the Amidah is considerably longer than the Shabbat/holy day version. Both have a tripartite structure: (1) praises of God; (2) petitions on weekdays, and sanctification of the day on holy days; (3) prayers of thanksgiving. The model for this tripartite structure is how one would approach a powerful ruler -- since God is the sovereign of the universe. On Shabbat, we live as if the messianic age has arrived and we have no need to petition God; therefore, we eliminate the petitions and replace them with prayers sanctifying the holy day.)

Torah Service (There is a Torah service only on those occasions when Torah is read: Shabbat and festival mornings, Shabbat and Yom Kippur afternoon. The liturgy surrounding the Torah emphasizes God's sovereignty and the Torah as an extension of God's rule in our lives. This is the time in the service for other public business, as well. Prayers for the sick and those who have died are said while the Torah is open, following the reading a d'var Torah -- explication of the Torah portion -- may be delivered, and other announcements are made.)

Musaf (Musaf, which is a substitute for the additional sacrifice made on Shabbat and other holy days, follows the Torah reading in those communities which retain the musaf service.)

4. Concluding Prayers (The concluding prayers begin with Aleinu, and include Kaddish and a song on Shabbat -- usually Yigdal in the evening and Adon Olam in the morning -- at the end of the service. The Aleinu bespeaks a time when idolatry will have vanished from our world and hence God will be acknowledged by all humanity, sometimes considered a prelude to the messianic age. Kaddish is a prayer which expresses the desire for, and belief in, such a time and is recited in memory of those who have died.)

For an excellent collection of textual sources (biblical and rabbinic) relating to the prayers and themes of the services, click here to read Rabbi Glenn M. Jacob's wonderful resource.

What Else Happens in a Synagogue?

In addition to prayer services, some of the other important function which take place in a synagogue include:

Who's Who
What's What and Some Hows
Books Used in the Synagogue
Liturgical (Prayer) Tunes
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?
How to Have an Aliyah to the Torah
Visiting a Synagogue
What Does the Sanctuary Look Like?
Photo Gallery of Bimas and Arks
Jonah's Picture of the Ark
Click-Me Tour of the Synagogue