Jews are enjoined to pray daily. Formal prayer takes place three times a day, preferably with a quorum of ten men, called a minyan. In the absence of such a quorum most of the service can be carried out on one’s own. Though men and women are both required to pray daily the custom within orthodoxy is to exempt women, or make optional, those commandments and customs that are time bound. Thus, prayer with a minyan which is morning, afternoon and evening, is not incumbent on women. Nonetheless there are many women who prayer 3 times a day.
Aside from the three major services - shacharit - morning, mincha - afternoon and maariv - evening, which are conducted every single day of the year, there are additional services for special holidays and occasions. The most common one is called mussaf, the additional prayer and is in place on formal biblical holidays and all sabbaths. The mussaf, just like the regular shacharit and mincha services, hearken back to the services in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Mussaf most explicitly mentions the animal sacrifices that used to take place.
Prayers and blessings are a regular part of almost every waking hour. There are blessings before and after eating and drinking. Blessings after using the restroom - thanking God for the health of one’s body. There are blessings for fragrances, blessings on seeing natural phenomena, blessings on new clothes, blessings at births and blessings at death. This near constant consciousness raising discipline allows us to remain cognizant of our place in the universe and that which sustains us.
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The fundamental text of Judaism is the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. (In Greek the Torah is called the Pentateuch - penta meaning five.) The name Torah comes from the Hebrew root word which connotes to teach or guide.
Essentially the laws and stories in the Torah are the guide but their meaning is enriched by a vast accompanying corpus called the Torah Sh’b’al Peh, the Oral Torah. Within Orthodoxy there are differing opinions regarding the origin and authority of the Oral Torah. Some believe that it was given, verbatim, at Sinai along with the Written Torah. Others believe that it is a developmental corpus that was shaped over many years. What is certainly true for all Orthodox Jews is that though the root text is the Written Torah the accompanying Oral Law is what gives the Torah shape.
The Oral Torah gives rules for interpretation and canonizes the results of the interpretive process. It embellishes, expands as well as limits, the stories and laws in the root text. It is a rare law that is carried out precisely as it is expressed in the terse document that is the Torah.
The primary texts of the Oral Law are the Mishna, redacted c.200 CE and the Babylonian Talmud, redacted c.500 CE. Each of these texts is filled with argument and discourse on thousands of issues in Jewish law and Bible interpretation. Though they were closed texts by the 6th Century, nonetheless the process of interpreting them and the written Torah continued through all eras and is even carried out today.
Modern rabbis are empowered to examine ancient texts and to interpret them as is relevant for our times. One may not reject a text that is older, and thus considered more authoritative, but one may work to harmonize current situations with ancient interpretations. Examples of modern questions that rely upon ancient literatures: When is one considered to have died for the sake of organ harvesting? How does a microwave oven impact food laws, the system of Kashrut? And many more such questions.
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Highlights of the Week, Month and Year
As mentioned above, every day of the year has a liturgical requirement. But there are some days that are extra special. The Jewish calendar is primarily a lunar calendar but has a correcting mechanism to allow it to stay in sync with the solar calendar and the seasons of the year.
The most common holiday is the weekly Sabbath that begins on Friday evening at sundown and runs until three stars are out on Saturday night. The Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, is our holiest day and has a significant body of rules pertaining to the way we rest to commemorate God’s Creation of the Universe and God’s redeeming the Hebrews from the Egyptian enslavement.
The second most frequent holiday is the commemoration of the New Moon, known as Rosh Hodesh - the head of the month. This holiday is a minor holiday and has a slightly different liturgy but no requirement to rest.
There are a number of holidays that are mentioned in the Torah, in order of observance they are: Rosh HaShannah - the New Year, Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement, Succot - the Festival of Booths (Tabernacles), Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah - the 8th Day of Rest and the Celebration of the Torah, Pesach - the Festival of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot - the Festival of Weeks (the giving of the Torah). There are other holidays and commemorations. Purim is a holiday based on the Biblical book of Esther. Channukah is a celebration of the successful Maccabean Revolt against the Syrian Greeks, c.200 BCE. There are also five fast days - four minor and one major. The major fast day is the 9th of Av and it is a fast that lasts from sunset to sunset, 25 hours. It is a day of mourning for the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem - the first in 586 BCE and the second in 70 CE. Three of the four others fasts revolve around the destruction of the Temple and the fifth commemorates Queen Esther’s prayer and fasting prior to the redemption of Purim.
Each holiday is worthy of extensive explication. The above is a list of the major events that are commonly celebrated. There are other fasts that are optional and days of minor celebration that are not mentioned in the Bible.
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The Biblical Exodus account culminates with the Revelation at Sinai. In that story there is a protracted account of a massive expression of God’s descent onto the camp of the Israelites. In that revelation all, or part, (there are differing opinions), of the Ten Commandments were spoken by God to the Israelites.
Subsequent to this direct revelation to the people God continues by revealing the Torah to Moses, the greatest prophet of the Jewish People. There are varying opinions as to what Moses received at the Revelation at Sinai. Some say all the Five Books of the Torah, even those events that had yet to transpire. Others say that Moses received part of the Five Books and he had an ongoing revelatory experience during the Forty Years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. Still others say that Moses received no only the written word of God but an accompanying oral tradition (see above).
As with much of Jewish thought and theology there is a vast spectrum of opinions on what actually transpired. The fundamental points that should be gleaned from the Sinaitic revelation are: God revealed the Divine word to the Israelites, there was a theophany and God operates in the human world, there is an oral law that is divinely inspired and is licensed to humans to create or interpret, Moses is the greatest prophet of the Jewish people.
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Clergy and Denominational Structure
Within orthodoxy the most common clergy are Rabbis. Rabbis are a cross between lawyers, counselors, theologians, and many other disciplines. Not every rabbi is a great decisor of law (lawyer) and not every rabbi is the warmest person (counselor). Rabbis are individuals, men, who have been ordained based on the fact that they have completed exams in a number of Jewish legal disciplines.
There are a few major orthodox seminaries but this is a relatively modern development. Until the late 19th century ordination was based on one rabbi believing that the disciple in question had achieved a sufficient mastery of the skills required to answer questions of Jewish law.
In the 20th century larger institutions began to open and formalize the exams and qualifications for ordination. Thus there are some seminaries, called Yeshivot in Hebrew, that now require classes in Jewish history or counseling or synagogue management, but this is very modern.
There are other clergy, cantors, individuals with exceptional voices who are either formally or informally trained to lead prayer and to sing sacred music.
Gabbaim are laypeople who organize the services in the synagogue.
There is, in some communities, a semi-formal expectation that a rabbi’s wife will take on a role in the community but this is generally unpaid and informal.
In recent years there has been an attempt by a small number of orthodox Jews to get women ordained. Orthodoxy remains the only denomination of Judaism that does not ordain women and does not accept full egalitarian rights and obligations in the fulfillment of religious duties. (This is a much larger subject.)
There is no denominational structure per se. Some orthodox communities are affiliated with national or international movements, political or religious, but in general across orthodoxy there are myriad communities that have their own hierarchies. Most hierarchies are based on a meritocracy - the wisest and most able rabbis become leaders. Rabbis are empowered and entrusted to answer questions in their local communities and at times may seek consultation with other rabbis who are more learned or greater experts in a particular area.
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Language and Geography
Israel and Jerusalem are the center of the Jewish universe. God granted us the Land of Israel and Jerusalem is and has been documented as the Holy City of the Jews for over 3000 years.
Orthodox Jews require community to establish prayer quorums, institutions of Jewish life such as schools and ritual baths. Communities assemble a number of times a day for prayer and consistently, if not constantly, for study.
An orthodox Jew can function anywhere in the world, with or without community, but will only be fulfilled in an environment with coreligionists. The community assembles around the synagogue or house of study and celebrates births and supports in times of death. When someone passes, their family will spend a week in mourning and will receive visitors and community support throughout the week.
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The Name "Orthodox"
Orthodox Judaism is an interesting name. Ortho means straight, or normative and dox means opinion. So an orthodox Jew is so named because they are somehow of normative or regular belief.
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Rabbi Mordechai Rackover
Mordechai Rackover, a Montreal native, is a graduate of McGill University and Alumnus of a number of Seminaries in Israel. He is an ordained Orthodox Rabbi. Mordechai serves as the Associate University Chaplain for the Jewish Community of Brown University and as the Rabbi of the Brown RISD Hillel Foundation.