Saturday 7 August 2010

Davening with the best of them

This week I have been meeting each day with a group of Hasidic Jews.

In our brief discussions I have asked questions such about the greatest of God’s commandments and how we escape the curse promised to those who do not confirm the commandments by keeping them (Deuteronomy 27:26).

During the week I was asked if I would join them at synagogue today, the Jewish Sabbath and I happily agreed. The community the men belong to is on holiday so synagogue is a makeshift affair in a tent. It was good I had a yarmulke (skullcap) with me otherwise I doubt that I would have been allowed to take part.

This was the first time I had visited a Hasidic shul and everyone, especially the kids, were looking at me in wonderment. What’s a Goy doing here? The couple of men who talked to me wished me “Good Shabbos” and although I was not quite sure what to expect, if I had been thinking of a Psalm/Prayer sandwich service with a sermon at the end I would have been totally confused. The tent was filled with trestle tables at each of which were men poring over copies of Talmud and Prayer Books while at the same time others were intoning prayers.

I saw the man who had invited me here and I waved to him. He looked genuinely pleased to see me and led me to a table where a man in a shtreimel (a large fur hat worn by some Hasidic married men) and a tallit (prayer shawl) sat hunched over a book. This, Abraham informed me, was the rabbi and I could ask him questions. Without introducing us, he told me to sit down and promptly left me on my own. With the rabbi!

Maybe it’s just me but at the moment my head was not exactly filled with burning questions I wanted to ask. After a few moments the rabbi looked up. He was the leader of one of the groups I had been speaking to during the week! He looked at me and I wished him “Good Shabbos”, after which he returned to his book.

Abraham returned. “Did you ask the rabbi your questions?”

I told him I had asked him some questions during the week.

“We will say Kaddish and then you can go home,” he announced.

The Kaddish is a prayer for the magnification and sanctification of the name of God, the opening words of which are inspired by Ezekiel 38:23: “Thus I will magnify Myself and sanctify Myself, and I will be known in the eyes of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the LORD”. The central line of the Kaddish is the congregation's response: “May His great name be blessed for ever, and to all eternity”, to which I was very happy to add my Amen.

“OK”, said Abraham. “It’s time for you to go.”

As we walked to the door I told him it had been an honour to be there.

“Of course it’s an honour”, he replied.

Don’t expect false modesty from Hasidic Jews!

It had been an honour to be invited to share in their service and it was fascinated to watch what went on. But I came out of that tent depressed and in need of some strong coffee. Thankfully, in the town where I’m staying there is no shortage of establishments willing and able to cater to that need.

Tomorrow morning I plan to talk to my friend about Messiah. I’ll let you know how I get on.