A visit to a Jewish Temple for the First Time
I have been always fascinated about the Jewish tradition and religious practices. It was one of my greatest aspirations to visit a Jewish temple and learn about its culture. Since I am brought up in a family that does not believe in religion, I have been quite curious to see the religious practices in places of worship since my childhood. Fortunately, I got an awesome chance to visit the Jewish temple Chabad of Palmetto Bay Located at 16721 SW 78 Ct Palmetto FL recently. My visit to this beautiful Jewish temple and my participation in various religious practices there was a refreshing experience to me.
The day before going to this Jewish temple, I collected some basic information about the customs and traditions of Jews from the internet. It seems relevant to note a few important things regarding Judaism in this context. As per the details I collected mainly from the website of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (n.d.), Judaism is one of the oldest religion or way of life. It follows a monotheistic faith, which gives more emphasis to action than belief. Jews live according to the guidelines contained in the torah that includes the bible’s first five books. Judaism teaches that there is a single eternal God (Yahweh) who wants people to follow and live a merciful life. People are the image of God and must be treated with respect. Presence of God is there in every individual’s life whether they believe in God or not.
Jewish temples are also known in the name ‘Synagogue’ that is a Greek word meaning leading together. Americans usually call a synagogue as Jewish Temple. It is also known as ‘shul’ in Yiddish which means ‘school’ and ‘Bet HaMidrash’ in Hebrew that means ‘House of study’. The word meaning synagogue itself indicate that it is a place of learning, worship and socializing. The synagogue is also a teaching school for Jewish children, where children get religious education regarding Hebrew faith and language. It also has a well stocked library rich in Jewish sacred texts. Synagogue is also a house of prayer or a ‘beit tefilah ‘where community prayer takes place and Judaism teaches that there is more benefit in praying together as group than praying alone. There will be a social hall in synagogues where people discuss community matters. It also works as a social welfare agency which provides money and items for poor and needy in the community by collecting money from others willing to donate.
I reached the Chabad of Palmetto Bay on a Saturday morning along with one of my friends who is also a non-Jew. I saw a beautiful tall building which looks similar to a church with the Star of David and a board stating name of the temple namely Chabad of palmetto. I was quite a bit nervous as well as excited at the same time, because being a non-Jew it was my first time experience visiting a Jewish temple. I was not familiar with the customs and religious practices of the Jews. As we reached in the temple, there was a small gathering of people and a table with some booklets kept. A man staying near the table greeted us and asked us about our whereabouts. Since we belong to a different race, it was easy for everyone to understand from our appearance that we are non-Jews. The man handed us the booklet which has all the details regarding the religious practices to follow, about Jewish religion and Sabbath services. He explained us about the temple and religious practices and joined with us.
There were two separate entrances for men and women to reach inside. All male individuals have to wear a kippah or yarmulke which can cover a major portion of their head before entering inside. I found kippahs kept outside for supply. Married women also should cover their head completely with a veil, but unmarried girls can keep their head uncovered. The guy told us that one covers the head to show humility before God. We entered the sanctuary and found that seating is also separate for men and women. The reason behind separate seating is that both men and women should give full attention to prayers rather than over the opposite gender (as cited in chabad.org, n.d.). There is a partition between the seating called ‘Mechitzah’ which is normally an opaque partition and men and women will not be able to see each other. All the prayer services are conducted within the sanctuary. As we entered, we noticed the Holy Arc or Aron kodesh where the Torah scrolls are placed. On the wall there was the Holy Arc, and it faced the direction of Jerusalem. Arc has a door as well as curtain or ‘parochet’ which hangs outside. Near the Arc, we found a lamp. The man told us that the lamp is burning all the time; this lamp is called ‘Ner tamid’ which means everlasting light. The idea behind the Ner tamid is to remind the worshipers that god is with them all the time. Then we found ‘Bimah’, an elevated platform at the center of the sanctuary in which they read torah scrolls. There is a table in which they keep the torahs, and everyone can see it very well. We noticed a memorial board where they lit the plaques of the departed community members. We could not see any paintings or pictures. When I asked the man about this, he told that it was to avoid distraction during prayers.
We found two rabbis who are the teachers of Torah as well as the directors and spiritual leaders of Chabad of Palmetto Bay .The guy took us near them and they introduced themselves as Rabbi Zalman and Chani Gansburg. They were husband and wife, and they greeted us and told us to get seated and also talked about the Shabbat ceremony. Rabbi zalman handed us a prayer book which could be read from right to left. It has the readings in Torah in printed form called ‘chumash’ meaning five, and that refers to the five books of torah. This book also has the English translations of the Hebrew prayers printed on it. Torah reading was going on at the temple, and they asked us to follow the readings in English. It was hard at first to pick up the page read, but later we identified it. Since the prayer was in Hebrew language, it was hard for us to understand anything. Occasionally during the prayer, worshipers say ‘amein’ after some recitations which means true. They insisted us to stand up when Arc is open, when the priest carry torah scrolls to room and while reading certain sections. I followed what other worshippers were doing.
Since my visit to the Jewish temple was on a Saturday, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Shabbat ceremony. Shabbat rituals are on the 7th day of the week that is the day of rest as commanded by Yahweh. According to the belief, God created the world in six days, and he took rest on the seventh day. According to Judaism, people should not work on Shabbat day unless it is some serious unavoidable jobs. Shabbat day begins with Friday evening after the sunset and ends in Saturday eve after one hour from candle lighting. The guy with us told that Shabbat includes ceremonies like candle lighting on Friday eve, Kiddush which is reciting of a blessing on a glass of wine or grape juice, lechem mishna which is blessing recited on two loaves of bread followed by meal, and Havdallah which marks the end of Shabbat with reciting blessings on wine, and candle lighting and fragrant spice. In the Jewish temple, there were ceremonies from the early morning itself like songs, prayers and torah reading. After these celebrations, Kiddush ceremony was started in the temple. There was wine, cake, chollah etc which are normally donated by people or an individual for the congregation in the temple. Rabbi recited Kiddush over the wine and after reciting, the congregation answered ‘amen’. After that, rabbi began to drink wine which followed us to have a sip of wine and a chollah piece. We had a great time there, and it gave us an opportunity to mingle with other people in the congregation. All were behaving very well with us and were very much willing to help us in knowing about various religious practices. After the Kiddush ceremony was over, everyone was heading to their home for lunch. The rabbi Chani Gansburg was noticing us and headed towards us. She was looking to arrange Shabbat meals for us from any nearby family. So she soon contacted women who was staying near the temple and arranged Shabbat meals for us from that nearby family. The meals started with lechem mishna which is the blessing over two loaves of bread and meal was served which was very delicious with soup, fish, meat and various side dishes. We thanked the family for such a warm welcome and such a delicious dish, and returned to Chabad of palmetto.
Since we had a busy schedule, we have to leave the temple after the noon, and we went to meet the rabbis to thank them. Both of them talked us about the various aspects of Judaism, and it was an inspiring spiritual talk. Rabbi zalman also insisted us to stay till havdalla, the end of Shabbat ceremony, but when we told him about our tight schedule he agreed with us. We also went near the guy who helped us to thank him, and returned from Chabad of palmetto back to our homes. Overall, it was such a wonderful experience for me to take part in the awesome Shabbat ceremony and to enjoy the traditions and rituals of Jews.
Chabad.org. separation in the synagogue. Retrieved from http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/160962/jewish/Separation-in-the-Synagogue.htm
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About the Jewish religion. Retrieved from http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/aboutisrael/spotlight/pages/about%20the%20jewish%20religion.aspx