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10 things to do during services

10 things to do during services

Friday, 7 October, 2011 - 12:27 pm

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Worried about looking like a lemon in shul? Finding the service impossible
to follow?

As the High Holidays approach, here is a handy ten-step guide to synagogue
confidence.

1. If you arrive after the start don't sit down right away, but instead open
a siddur (prayer book) near its beginning (remember we read right-to-left)
and spend 2 or 3 minutes turning slowly through the pages while mumbling
under your breath. If you recognize any of the Hebrew words, say one or two
of them a little louder so those around you can hear that you know a thing
or two.

2. Ideally, find a seat just behind someone who looks like they know what's
going on. (You can tell this person because they are likely to be mumbling
to themselves under their breath). Make sure this person is using the same
prayer book as you. Keep a note of what page they are on by casually
glancing over their shoulder every now and again.

3. When putting on the tallit (prayer shawl) wrap it around your head for a
few seconds while mumbling under your breath.

4. Sprinkle your time in shul with more barely audible mumbles as you look
intently at the pages of your siddur. Again, the odd word, phrase, or line
spoken accurately and a little louder than the rest will go down very well.

5. Don't jump up whenever the person in front does so. They may be
stretching their legs. Instead, wait a moment until a significant proportion
of the congregation are standing. In this way, even if they are all
stretching their legs you won't look conspicuous.

6. See those guys near the front that are wandering around with an air of
assurance? These are the shammosim (beadles). AVOID EYE CONTACT WITH THESE
PEOPLE or you may find yourself being asked to do something strange like
opening the doors of the Ark or, heaven forbid, say something in Hebrew out
loud to everyone.

7. The easiest way to look the part is to 'shockl' (sway back and forth). I
have met people who have won international shockling competitions without
having a clue about where in the service they were. Advanced shocklers will
even shockl when everyone else is sitting. (Of course, sometimes this may be
a disguised leg-stretch).

Shockling is an entire lesson in itself but there are two basic forms. The
"lateral swing" is usually seen in ultra-orthodox congregations. Here the
practitioner is perfectly still from the waist down (feet together,
naturally), while the top half of the body repeatedly twists at speed.

The "hammerhead" is more prevalent in mainstream orthodox shuls and, as the
name suggests, the congregant looks as if he is trying to bang a nails into
the floor with his head.

Shockling mainly takes place during a silent prayer known as the Amidah.
This is about 10 pages during which you have no idea where everyone else is.
All you do know is that there are some who would be contenders for the world
speed-reading record whilst others, the truly devout, who really read every
letter as though it were their last. You know when it starts because
everyone takes three steps back, then three steps forward, then they bow.
This is your cue to start shockling while turning the pages of your prayer
book approximately every 15 seconds. The end of the silent Amidah is
signaled by everyone taking three short steps back, bowing to the left, the
right and the centre and then looking round to see who won.

8. Is the Rabbi speaking in English and yet you can't understand what he's
going on about? If so, this is the sermon and it's your job to look alive.
Paying attention to the sermon is a skill that may take many years to master
rather in the way that one learns how to complete cryptic crosswords. The
formula for this particular puzzle is fairly simple: The narrative of Torah
portion you have just heard plus something from local or national news
equals "you should go to shul more regularly" or "your home isn't kosher
enough".

9. Feel free to talk to people near you at any time. Business, sports and
general gossip are particularly appropriate topics of conversation. Seeking
kavanah (intention to do mitzvot, good deeds) and listening to the sermon
will be regarded with suspicion in most communities.

10. If you can keep your cool until the end of the service you will be
rewarded. At last something that is familiar, and a chance to clear your
throat and give it some as you bash out Ein Kelohaynu and Adon Olam just
like you did at cheder all those years ago.


One final word of Warning. If it goes well and you feel confident enough to
go back for a second week running you will be classified as a regular. This
means there is a very good chance you will be asked to be the next President
of the shul.
Good yontiff!

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