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Guide to the Synagogue Sanctuary, From Ark to Yad

Posted on October 16th, 2017

An introduction to the parts that make up a synagogue sanctuary.

The Ark

Looking around the synagogue you will see the eastern wall, where the aron ha-kodesh (the holy ark) is located. The ark is the repository for the Torah scrolls when they are not in use. It also serves as the focus for one’s prayers. Above the ark is located the ner tamid–the eternal light — recalling the eternal light in the Temple (Exodus 27:20–21).

Arks can be decorated in innumerable ways and come in many different sizes, shapes, and materials. The central part of the ark is a cabinet that contains the Torah scrolls. This usually has a parochet  — curtain — covering it. (Many Sephardic  shul s do not have a parochet.) The parochet is often elaborately designed with many embellishments; some shuls have a special white parochet used only for the High Holidays. Because the parochet is considered holy, it is treated like any holy object–e.g., books, Torah scrolls, etc.–and is never discarded. [Instead, it is buried when no longer used.]

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Celebrating Shabbat in Many Ways

Posted on October 9th, 2017

Contemporary Jews have adapted traditional Shabbat practices in non-traditional and sometimes surprising ways.


Technically, the laws of Shabbat [can seem] draconian. There are thirty-nine official “don’ts,” and they each have subcategories that add hundreds more. One cannot mow the lawn, hunt for food, light a fire, plant a seed, cook food, boil water, sew on a button, erect a tent, use a hammer, bake a cake, or gather kindling.

Derived from these ancient laws, a host of modern restrictions has been added by scholars, so now it is forbidden [according to Orthodox interpretation of the law] to turn on a computer, drive a car, flick on a light switch, talk on the phone, replace a battery, or watch television. The list is a long one. Conservative rabbis prohibit many of these same activities, but the level of observance among the Conservative laity is not as widespread as it is among the Orthodox. Reform rabbis, for the most part, say that these ancient restrictions are no longer binding, but they increasingly add that if people find meaning in the restrictions, they should incorporate them into their religious lives.

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The Intermediate Days of Sukkot

Posted on October 2nd, 2017
This year Shabbat falls during Chol Hamoed (the Intermediary days) Sukkot. To learn more, read our Sukkot & Simchat Torah Guide. 
By MLJ Staff

Called hol hamoed, the intermediate days are observed differently than the beginning and final ones.

Sukkot is a holiday made up of both a beginning yom tov (holiday) and subsequent days of hol hamoed (intermediate festival days). This means that the opening of the holiday (the yom tov) is observed similarly to how one would observe a Sabbath (with certain differences). The ensuing or intermediate days of the holiday still form part of the festival, but are observed differently. It is traditional to decrease one’s amount of work on the intermediate days, though the prohibition of labor for the intermediate days is not as encompassing as Shabbat or yom tov.

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Avinu Malkeinu When Yom Kippur Falls Out on Shabbat

Posted on September 25th, 2017
Rav Daniel Mann for Eretz Hemdah


Question:  I understand that this year, with Yom Kippur falling out on Shabbat, we will not be saying Avinu Malkeinu, except at Ne’ila. What makes Avinu Malkeinu fitting, among all the tefillot of Yom Kippur, to be eliminated, and why is Ne’ila an exception?
Answer:  First, we imagine you are Ashkenazi, as most Sephardic communities do recite Avinu Malkeinu on Yom Kippur that falls out on Shabbat, although many leave out the passages that mention sinning (see Yechaveh Da’at I, 54 and Mikraei Kodesh (Harari), Yom Kippur 5:12). Many Sephardim even say Avinu Malkeinu on Rosh Hashana that falls out on Shabbat and on Shabbat Shuva (ibid.).

Indeed, almost all Ashkenazim and some Sephardim omit Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbat even on Yom Kippur. The reason is that one is not allowed to make requests on Shabbat (Rama, Orach Chayim 584:1 and Mishna Berura ad loc. 4). It is true that we do recite passages that contain special requests (e.g., Zachreinu l’chayim …) on Shabbat, and the justification is that since they are written in the plural, it is considered the needs of the community, which is permitted (see Tosafot, Berachot 34a). However, the fact that Avinu Malkeinu originated as a special prayer for fast days (Ta’anit 25b) is part of the reason that it is treated as a particularly plaintive prayer that is inappropriate for Shabbat.

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What Is Shabbat Shuvah?

Posted on September 18th, 2017

Shabbat Shuvah is celebrated this year on September 23

The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur emphasizes themes of return and repentance.

The Shabbat that falls during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, or the Sabbath of Return, but Shabbat Shuvah is also a pun. Shuvah, sounds very much like teshuva, or repentance, another core concept of the High Holidays.

With Yom Kippur , and the Book of Life foremost on everyone’s minds, the services this Shabbat and the atmosphere are solemn and focused. The Haftarah portion is made up of selections from two books of Prophets — Hosea, and either Micah or Joel, depending on whether the community is Sephardic or Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi Jews read Hosea 14:2-10 and Joel 2:15-27. Sephardim read Hosea 14:2-10 and Micah 7:18-20. The selection from Hosea focuses on a universal call for repentance, and an assurance that those who return to God will benefit from Divine healing and restoration. The selection from Joel imagines a blow of the shofar that will unite the people for fasting and supplication. Hosea focuses on Divine forgiveness, and how great it is in comparison to the forgiveness of man. Other than the special Haftarah, the service on Shabbat Shuvah is not any different from a regular Shabbat service.

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