How does one perform the Amidah in Synogogue?
February 17, 2017 11:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm lost during this prayer in shul. I know I'm supposed to do certain things, but not always sure when I'm supposed to do them.

I have a transliteration of the amidah so I can see the words, but it doesn't have instructions on it for movement. I'm very frustrated that after searching the internet for some time I can find NOTHING on this. There are loads of results that show Amidah commentary or very general instructions on the movements, but nothing specific. Even youtube doesn't have a single demonstration of someone performing all the movements while saying the prayer. The closest I found is this which again- doesn't really show the whole prayer or always tell exactly when something happens. I know that one bends at the knee whenever one says "Baruch" then the head "ata" then comes up again "adonai". And I know that one goes up on their toes 3 x at "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh". It took me a while of searching online to get that much.

What I need help is the following: We're supposed to take 3 steps back and 3 steps forward at the beginning... but when in the beginning? What signal do you get from the rabbi or cantor that lets you know- ok it's time to do 3 steps back/forward? Do you bow after doing this movement? Or is it just 3 steps back/3 steps forward and wait for the amidah to start? Does the prayer start start right away at "baruch ata adonai resulting in a whole choreography at the beginning of 3steps back/forward; bow at the knees/head/rise up again- all at once?

At my local synagogue there seems to be a portion of the prayer where people bow down and stay down for almost 2 whole seconds which is much longer than the tiny bows and bend at the knee (I think this happens in the amidah if I remember correctly) if so what part of the amidah does this happen?

There's a part when people bow left, right and center. What part of the amidah does this happen? The girl mentions it in the video above, but she apathetically skims by the part of the words said during this movement and I don't know what she's saying and can't see those words in my transliteration.

There's a part where the congregation turns to the back of the temple... and then turns back forward towards the bima. Does this happen during amidah also?

I've read this is supposed to be a silent prayer, but in the local synogogue it isn't silent. There is a long silent prayer where lots of people are bending their knees and bowing. Is this the same amidah being read over again, but silently this time? I don't see anyone going up on their toes (like is done during the "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" part) so I think it must be a different amidah from the non-silent one. I'm so confused and frustrated by the lack of available information on this important prayer. I only went to shul a few times as a kid and now as an adult I can't remember anything. It makes me feel like I can't go to synagogue because I can't find out how to do the things during service. Please help. :(
posted by bearam to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
>What I need help is the following: We're supposed to take 3 steps back and 3 steps forward at the beginning... but when in the beginning? What signal do you get from the rabbi or cantor that lets you know- ok it's time to do 3 steps back/forward? Do you bow after doing this movement? Or is it just 3 steps back/3 steps forward and wait for the amidah to start? Does the prayer start start right away at "baruch ata" resulting in a whole choreography at the beginning of 3steps back/forward; bow at the knees/head/rise up again- all at once?

3 steps forward/backward happens before the first "baruch ata", at the line that's translated as "Open my mouth, O Lord..."

You start doing this right away when you start praying it silently (see below), or when the cantor recites this line.

*Then* you bow. You also bow at the end of that first bit where you name the patriarchs (/matriarchs) at the second "Baruch ata". If you're Conservative you *don't* bow at the third one, unless you're in a congregation where they've changed the line slightly.

>At my local synagogue there seems to be a portion of the prayer where people bow down and stay down for almost 2 whole seconds which is much longer than the tiny bows and bend at the knee (I think this happens in the amidah if I remember correctly) if so what part of the amidah does this happen?

My guess is you're thinking of the Aleinu, which has a longer bowing section.

>There's a part when people bow left, right and center. What part of the amidah does this happen? The girl mentions it in the video above, but she apathetically skims by the part of the words said during this movement and I don't know what she's saying and can't see those words in my transliteration.

This happens in the Kedusha section, which only happens when you're chanting out loud. The left-right-center happens at "zeh el zeh v'amar", right at the very beginning. Three little jumps also happens in the Kedusha section. This section is not recited when you do it silently.

>There's a part where the congregation turns to the back of the temple... and then turns back forward towards the bima. Does this happen during amidah also?

I think you're thinking of a different prayer-- this happens during L'kha Dodi during the Friday night service.

>I've read this is supposed to be a silent prayer, but in the local synogogue it isn't silent. There is a long silent prayer where lots of people are bending their knees and bowing. Is this the same amidah being read over again, but silently this time? I don't see anyone going up on their toes (like is done during the "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" part) so I think it must be a different amidah from the non-silent one. I'm so confused and frustrated by the lack of available information on this important prayer. I only went to shul a few times as a kid and now as an adult I can't remember anything. It makes me feel like I can't go to synagogue because I can't find out how to do the things during service. Please help. :(

What's happening is the congregation does the Amidah silently first, and then recites it out loud. Most e.g., Conservative synagogues will announce this: "We will now do the silent reading of the Amidah on pages X- Y, followed by the recitation, beginning on page X".

The Kedusha is omitted when you're doing it silently, which is why you don't see anyone going up on their toes. The other movements are the same, though.
posted by damayanti at 11:55 AM on February 17, 2017 [7 favorites]


Also, more importantly, don't be nervous! I promise, nobody is looking at you and going "Geez, look at bearam, they're not doing it right". They're either deep into the prayer or (more likely, at least in my experience) thinking about what's going to be at the kiddush after services.
posted by damayanti at 11:58 AM on February 17, 2017 [7 favorites]


Have you seen this recent video? It offers (to me) a very good explanation/demo of the prayer.
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:06 PM on February 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'm assuming this isn't what your community uses or you'd know, but if you can get ahold of the Conservative movement's newly published Siddur Lev Shalom I'm pretty sure it has margin notes for prompts. Or at least I listened to an interview that Tablet did with one of the editors where they talk about why they put those in-- for exactly the reasons you're asking.

FWIW I never get the choreography right either and nobody has ever asked me about it.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:17 PM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


At my local synagogue there seems to be a portion of the prayer where people bow down and stay down for almost 2 whole seconds which is much longer than the tiny bows and bend at the knee (I think this happens in the amidah if I remember correctly) if so what part of the amidah does this happen?

I agree with damayanti that you're probably thinking of the part in the Aleinu where you slowly & extendedly say/sing "Va'anachnu kor`im, umishtachavim umodim" -- you "bounce" or bend your knees while bending over and stay down until "lifnei melech..."

I'm not observant anymore, but when I grew up in Conservative temple, that was my favorite part of the service. Thanks for the reminder.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 12:23 PM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I never learned any of the davening motions either, and I went to services regularly as a kid---and I'm even leading a service this evening (at our very small, mostly lay-led synagogue). I just stand still and read the amidah, in english. So I'm super-interested in the answers you get, but in general, don't worry!
posted by leahwrenn at 1:35 PM on February 17, 2017


There is a custom of bowing a little longer during the silent reading on the word "modim" in the phrase "modim anachnu lach" which is towards the end of the silent reading. Could this be what you are thinking of?
Agreed that there are very confusing dance steps here. Also agreed that this is by nature the most private and personal prayer we've got - no one, no one at all, is judging you on when you do or don't bounce or bow. And hopefully people should also be nice or helpful if you have questions. Memail me if you have more! :)
posted by bookgirl18 at 1:42 PM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Okay. This is a really hard question to answer in writing - you've already gotten a lot of great answers, but if it's still confusing, definitely give a call to your synagogue (or any local synagogue) -- the rabbi or a member of the ritual committee will be glad to walk you through it, if you make a time to drop by. Chabad loves helping with this sort of thing in particular, but you don't need to go there if you already have a place you're comfortable with.

Anyhow, a lot of this is going to vary since it's a personal, silent prayer, and all of the movements associated with it are traditional rather than law. And traditions can vary. That's why there aren't a lot of resources - it's tradition, not required.

As a shorthand, if you're okay with Orthodox liturgy, I'd suggest this siddur - it has all the prayers with movements written in. If you follow Conservative or Reform liturgy, there are some really slight differences in the prayers - especially if you're just starting out, you might not even notice them - but you can use the Artscroll one for the annotations of where the motions go, and stick with the text you prefer. This video actually uses the one I'm talking about, so if the camera stays on the page the whole way through you can save the money on buying it ;) - sorry I didn't watch it the whole way through, but from what I saw, it looks like a good resource.

For the morning, afternoon, and additional morning services on holidays, the Amidah is said silently first individually, then repeated aloud by the cantor / rabbi / service leader with some additions. In the evening service it is said silently and then some sections are repeated (not very many). The knee-bending, bowing, and stepping forward and back pretty much only apply to the silent section.

During the repetition of the Amidah, they do the Kedushah section (you don't read this when you pray individually). People rise on their toes for "kadosh kadosh kadosh" - some try to rise higher each time, as it's saying "holy holy holy," so they want to rise higher. In some congregations they also rise on the first word of each line of the kedushah that is repeated by the congregation. The kedushah is said to be mimicking how angels praise G-d*, so the movements are raising yourself up to be more like the angels. That's also why you say the Amidah and the kedushah with your feet together the entire time - according to tradition, angels only have one foot. :)

The video you linked to is good, but part of the problem with it is that there are different versions of the Amidah for different services - a shacharit (morning) one on a Tuesday will be different from the musaf (morning additional service) on shabbat. Not completely different, but with enough differences to keep you on your toes. Wikipedia actually has a really good overview of the changes, if you're interested.

So in your video, she's doing the one that starts with "Ad-nai s'fatai tiftach u-phi yagid tefilatecha", which is what you'll see on weekday mornings and evenings. It's at the top of the page in the video I just linked. The afternoon and musaf services start with a line before that - "ki shem Ad-nai..." you can see it here at the top. Either way, you take three steps back, and then three steps forward while saying one, or both lines. (Some people just take the steps and skip the lines altogether - they're personal meditations). The idea is that you are backing up to acknowledge you're entering a sacred space / royal chamber (however you like to define approaching someone you're appealing to), then stepping forward to approach the throne. You can take slow steps so it fits all the words, or step normally and just time it so you start at the start and finish at the finish, with a pause in between to say the rest - that's up to you. It's just a physical way to get yourself into the mindspace you are hoping to be in.* The rabbi won't give a signal, you just realize it's that part of the service when everyone else is doing it (generally at the end of a Kaddish), and do it too.

When you get to the main service - the first paragraph, starting with "Baruch", you bend your knees at Baruch and bow, so that you're upright by the end of G-d's name, Adonai. - again, this is your pace, and that's what people traditionally do, but if it gives you more meaning to stay down until "ha-olam" to finish the phrase, then go for it. No one is judging anyone on how or when they bow. This is the case for pretty much every time a blessing starts "baruch atah Ad-nai" in the entire Amidah. Bend the knees at baruch atah (acknowledging you are making the blessing), bow at the "Ad-dnai" (G-d's name -- just like the tradition of bowing / curtseying for a monarch when acknwoledging them).

There's one other place you bow in the Amidah - at "modim anachnu lach." Again, bend at "modim," bow and up by G-d's name. This is the slightly longer, deeper bow you may have noticed during the Amidah. During the repetition of the prayer by the chazan, in some congregations people stand up and bow again at this point while reading the congregation's version of it (it should be on the same page as a sidebar), while in other congregations people simply bow their heads while remaining seated - do what everyone else does and you'll be fine.

The turning to the back of the congregation, bowing, and turning forward and bowing again is part of Lecha Dodi on Friday night, as damayanti mentioned. And there's another knee-bend and bow in Aleinu later in the service, as already covered.

Some people rock back and forth as they pray (Yiddish term for that is shukeling). They feel it helps them concentrate. Or keeps their knees from locking. It's not necessary, and again, no one should be watching or judging.

Hope that was helpful - I'm getting ready for shabbat and won't be online much again before tomorrow night but feel free to memail me if you have more questions I could help with.

* This is the spiritual / chassidic way of looking at it -- if you're a Litvak it's just stuff you do because you're supposed to... what is all this emotional meaning touchy-feely nonsense? Litvaks look at Judaism a little like Spock.
posted by Mchelly at 1:55 PM on February 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


Just realized I left out the ending. At the end of the Amidah, you will see (often in small type) "oseh shalom bimromav..." When you get there, you back up three steps and bow to the left, the right, and center as you're saying the prayer, then take three steps forward -- you're backing away from the presence of the ruler, making obeisance, then stepping forward to rejoin the world. Some people add another "kadosh kadosh kadosh" triple toe-rise here, but it's not in the siddur.


Shabbat shalom, all!
posted by Mchelly at 2:00 PM on February 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


bearam, I'm a Reform Jew (who has on occasion belonged to some Conservative congregations). I don't daven at all during the amidah, but I know some people do it a lot because it brings them into the prayer or because it is appropriate to their silent prayer or because it is part of their tradition.

To me, what really matters during the amidah is the silent personal part. Sometimes I talk to God in my head, sometimes I pray, and sometimes I read the commentary or prayers in the prayer book. I like that period of detachment from the congregation and the community in the service, which allows for some personal spiritual space.
posted by bearwife at 2:52 PM on February 17, 2017


Good responses here, but I also want to mention that NONE OF THIS IS REQUIRED. I do the bows but don't do the steps forward or back because I didn't grow up with it and it was just never a part of the prayer process for me. As long as you stand up, if you don't do the "choreography," people won't think you're clueless, they'll just figure it wasn't done in the synagogue where you grew up or it's not your personal practice.
posted by ostro at 6:25 PM on February 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


At my synagogue (Conservative) we do the silent Amidah, followed immediately by the spoken Amidah. We now sit down after we finish the silent Amidah and wait for the spoken Amidah to stand up again, but that's only been within the last few years. (Before, we just stood up the whole time)

Ostro is right that none of the "choreography" is required. I've never heard of taking the steps forward or bowing to the left, right, and center. I do the bows at "Baruch ata Adonai" and the standing on tiptoe for "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh," but not everybody does. Really, as long as you stand up when the congregation stands up and sit down when the congregation sits, you'll be fine. : )
posted by SisterHavana at 6:45 PM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Very interesting. Thank you!
posted by james33 at 9:01 AM on February 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


Mchelly's answer is excellent; I have nothing erudite to add - only that a) the silent amidah is a time for personal prayer, so absolutely no one is paying attention to you. At my shul (Reform but a bit ye olde), half the people are doing traditional choreography, the other half aren't (and some of them might be doing yogic meditation instead of the words of the Prayerbook).

But if anyone does say anything, you could always just tell them, "I have a different minhag" (custom).
posted by jb at 5:56 PM on February 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


Coming back one last time just to say that if the Hebrew is part of the problem, there are plenty of opinions that it's just as good to read in English instead, if that's more comfortable. Some even prefer that you understand what you're saying. Other opinions say it's fine to do in Hebrew even if you don't understand it, if the mindlessness of following the syllables gets you to a place of mindfulness that makes prayer itself more meaningful for you.

Also, if you look at the text, you'll notice that the prayers are all in the plural: "we thank you / give us health / Give us peace," etc. But at the very end of the prayer is a last paragraph beginning (“Elohai N’tzor...", "G-d, guard my tongue from evil…") where for the first time the prayer is in the first person. This is where a lot of people pause and make time to talk one on one with G-d about their own personal needs and struggles, in addition to the text. If you look around when people are praying Amidah, you'll notice that even when everyone starts at the same time, most people don't finish at the same time. Some rush through and some take their time, and some people add their own. It's not an indication of their being better or worse at it, or more or less religious. You genuinely can't judge someone on how they do it, because it is - and is meant to be - so personal.
posted by Mchelly at 6:23 PM on February 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


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