- Ruth LangerRuth LangerCollege of Arts and Sciences, Boston College
Jewish liturgy is a complex phenomenon, manifesting change over time and place as well as some significant diversity today. Today’s prayers emerged from the rituals of the rabbis of the early centuries of the Common Era, compensating for the loss of the Jewish ritual center, the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce. Little is known for certain about how rabbinic prayers spread and became universally normative, but by the High Middle Ages, they were.
The received rabbinic worship is highly structured and scripted. There are three services every day, with a fourth on festive days. The key structural elements combined in these services are the recitation of shema῾ and its blessings, the multi-blessing ῾amidah, and the reading of Torah. To these, other elements have aggregated, like introductory prayers, Psalms, and supplicatory prayers. Meals also require short blessings before eating and a longer grace afterwards. The Passover seder extends this meal ritual with narrative, Psalms, and songs. Variation among medieval regional rites and their modern heirs manifests itself within this structure not only in small differences of wording, but also in more significant dissimilarities in modes of performance. In modernity, liberal movements abbreviated, translated, and otherwise rewrote many prayers.
The messages of Jewish liturgy are embedded within this structure as well as in the themes of the liturgical year, expressed primarily through scripture readings. The annual Torah cycle tells the Jewish story from creation up to the Israelites’ entry into their land. The primary festival cycle and the blessings surrounding the shema῾ highlight the key elements of this narrative: God’s work of creation, redemption, and revelation. Permeating the liturgy, though, is the expectation of future messianic redemption.