Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

Our banner is based on BEKI’s stained glass, designed in 2008 by Cynthia Beth Rubin. For information on this and other of Cynthia’s work, go to: <a href="" target="_blank"></a>. Artisan Fabrication by JC Glass of Branford, CT

Prayer & Synagogue Ritual

Dear Rabbi,

What determines which sefer Torah [Torah scroll] is taken from the ark?

Better Sefer than Sorry

Dear Safer,

It is common to have more than one sefer Torah in the ark, which is the case at BEKI. All of the Torah scrolls are identical inside, with respect to the letters, words and spaces, although exact layout (number of words in a line and number of lines in a column) may vary, as will the quality of the materials and calligraphy.

We take out the particular scroll or scroll that is set to the portion that we are reading on the given occasion. The weekly reading goes in sequence, so each shabbat we begin reading from the spot we left of the previous week. But on festivals and other occasions we may read from another place, and so to prevent tirha de’tsibbur (imposition on the congregation) we do not roll the scrolls while everyone waits but instead set them before the service.

As a matter of our own convention, at BEKI we usually try to make sure the scroll we are using is in a particular position. That way no matter who is taking out the scroll from the ark during the service, they will be able to find the correct one.


Dear Rabbi,

How can children lead services before their bar– or bat-mitzva?

Signed, Davening to Know

Dear Davening,

At BEKI minors (pre-benei-mitzva youth) are allowed, indeed encouraged, to read Torah (with some exceptions and reservations). This is not the case in most communities because generally children do not know how to read Torah or because it is an honor reserved for adults, not as a matter of law but as social etiquette. There is no legal barrier to minors reading Torah or having an aliya (again, with certain restrictions). Minors may not lead the shaharit morning service or musaf additional service. However, any Jewish child who has reached the age of bar-mitzva (13 for boys) or bat-mitzva (12 for girls), whether or not they have celebrated a “bar- or bat-mitzva” ceremony, are adults for this purpose by virtue of their age and may lead all services.

Dear Reader,

Dear Rabbi has a few questions of his own and would be happy to receive written answers.

1. When someone posts a “Vote For Candidate X” bumper sticker on a “Stop” sign, do they intend to promote or to “stop” that candidate?

2. When one shampoo bottle says “for shiny manageable hair” and the second says “for dry damaged hair,” who buys the one that makes their hair dry and damaged?

3. When the orange juice carton advertises “squeezed orange juice,” how else might they have gotten the juice out?

4. When one person will not come to services if there is already a minyan as they are “not needed,” and another will not come unless they are sure there will be a minyan, how should we answer the question, “will there be a minyan?”


Dear Rabbi,

The siddur (prayer book) instructions say that the Shema [p. 100-103 in Sim Shalom] should be recited silently except for the first line. But sometimes we sing it out loud. Why is that?

Signed, Can Hear O Israel

Dear Can Hear,

The Shema is, ideally, recited out loud, at least loud enough for the reciter to hear him- or herself. The instruction “silently” refers only to the one line “barukh shem…, praised be…,” which is not part of the Shema but is, rather, an inserted meditation. The choice of reciting the Shema aloud together (usually according to the trope) is usually made by the reader (i.e. the person leading services) based on their aesthetic preference.


Dear Rabbi,

Why did the cantor hop during services on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur?

Signed, Not Jumping to Conclusions

Dear Not Jumping,

During the recitation of the Amida prayer, it is customary for the worshiper to stand with feet and legs together such that it would appear that the worshiper were standing on one leg. On the High Holy Days, the cantor bows and prostrates during the middle of the Amida. In order to bow and bend without hitting his head on the table in front of him, our Hazan (cantor) moves back a few inches, all the while keeping his legs and feet together. Hence, the “hazan’s hop” (or “kefatz hashatz” in Hebrew).


Dear Rabbi,

In Birkat Ha-Mazon, there is a line that says: “Anahnu modim lakh, u-mevarkhim otakh.” Isn’t this a feminine grammatical construction, while the rest of the prayer is in the masculine or plural? To whom or what do “lakh” and “otakh” refer?

Baffled Bentsher

Dear Befuddled Blesser,

No, this is not a case of a transgendered God. In classical (Biblical) Hebrew (and other Semitic languages), short vowels are often lengthened (changed into “long” vowels) when they are “in pause,” i.e. at the end of a phrase or verse, and final vowels are often dropped when the phrase or verse ends in a open syllable. This is for phonetic reasons.

Thus, the sheva (English: Shewa) represented by “e” in “lekha” becomes a long vowel, the qamatz represented by “a” in “lakh,” and the long vowel “a” at the end of “lekha” drops off altogether. “Lakh” and “otakh” are thus masculine singular forms, as we know from the rest of the sentence.



Dear Rabbi,
Is the prayer “ya`ale ve-yavo” added to Birkat HaMazon during Hol HaMoed?
Signed, Prayerful

Dear Prayerful,

Yes. According to the early law code `Arba Turim (“The Tur”), O.H. 188, “…[O]n Rosh Hodesh and Hol HaMoed we say in it [birkat hamazon] ‘ya`ale veyavo’ and if Rosh Hodesh or Hol HaMoed falls on Shabbat we say ‘retsei vehaHalitsenu’ and afterwards ‘ya`ale veyavo.’ We do not mention Shabbat in ‘yaele veyavo’ nor Hol HaMoed or Rosh Hodesh in ‘retsei vehaHalitsenu.’

Rabbi Yosef Karo in Beit Yosef comments that there seems to be a scribal error and the Tur should have said “on Rosh Hodesh, Hol HaMoed and on Yom Tov.”

There is some disagreement as to whether and how to rectify an ommision of “ya`ale veyavo,” but by now it is certainly too late by all opinions!


Dear Rabbi,
Why do some Jews sway while they pray?
Signed, Dizzy Davener

Dear Dizzy,

The Zohar, a twelfth-century book of mysticism, suggests that the soul of a Jew is attached to Torah as a candle is attached to a flame (3:218b). When a Jew studies Torah, or prays, his or her body reflects the soul’s essence. Rabbi Moshe Isserles quoted Abudraham’s description of it in the sixteenth century: “Those who tried to be precise would sway when they read Torah, just as people trembled when the Torah was first given, and likewise when they pray, so that all one’s body will praise God” (Magen Avot OH 48:1.) In our day, the Hafetz Hayim commented on the statement of Isserles:

There are some Posqim (legal decisors) who disagree, and say that during the Amida one should not sway; but during Pesuqei DeZimra [introductory morning Psalms], the blessings before the Shema` and during study (including Oral Law) the practice is to sway. The Magen Avraham wrote concerning this, “To each his own.” It should be according to the individual. If one’s kavana [concentration and sincerity] is enhanced by swaying, then one should sway; if not, one should stand upright. The point is that one should pray with kavana.


Dear Rabbi,

Why can’t we chew gum and eat candy during services? Does the Torah forbid that, too?

Signed,  Bazooka Yosi.

Dear Bazooka Yosi,

I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but the Torah does forbid you from chewing gum and eating during services. As the Good Book says, “My mouth shall be filled with praises of the Lord.” Now, if your mouth is stuffed with gum, candy, or other illicit substances, it could not possibly be completely filled with praises of the Lord. Therefore we are forbidden to chew gum or eat during prayer.

You might point out that during certain parts of the service, such as during the Haftara and, yes, the Rabbi’s sermon, your mouth, from the halakhic point of view, is in idle, that is, it is not uttering praises. And you might assume that during that time you ought to be able to chew your gum and eat your candy. To that I can only say, you’re right. God presumably — and Jewish law — would not object if you chew gum during the Rabbi’s sermon. But I can tell you that if you blow bubbles during the Rabbi’s sermon, the Rabbi might blow bubbles during your Haftara.

A candidate for President would not chew gum during a televised debate. An attorney would not suck candy while arguing a case before the Supreme Court. A singer would not lick a lollipop during an opera. And so a Jew does not chew, suck or lick while praising or petitioning God.

So be patient, wait for the Qiddush after services, leave your gum at home, and wag your jaw in Praise of the Lord.


Dear Rabbi,

How does the repetition of the Amida work? It seems to be different each time I’m at services.

Signed, Amida Amida

Dear Amida,
The Amida or shemona esrei prayer, a part of each service, is repeated in the presence of a minyan (quorum) during shaharit (morning), musaf (additional) and minha (afternoon) services, but not during maariv (evening) service.

There are two ways this can be done, at the discretion of the officiant or shaliah tsibur (reader or leader). First, when the congregation reaches the Amida, each person (including the shaliah tsibur) recites it individually in a whisper, omitting the Qedusha section. Then, the shaliah tsibur recites the entire Amida aloud, with the Qedusha section recited responsively with the congregation leading and the shaliah tsibur following. At the end of the Qedusha section the shaliah tsibur continues reciting aloud to the end of the Amida.

The second way this can be done will vary slightly by service. For shaharit, when the congregation reaches the Amida, all begin reciting it in unison aloud. Qedusha is recited as described above. After Qedusha, each person, including the shaliah tsibur, continues with their individual whispered prayer from the point immediately after Qedusha. For musaf and minha, the shaliah tsibur begins reciting the Amida aloud alone, and then the Qedusha is recited as described above. After Qedusha, the shaliah tsibur continues reciting the Amida in a whisper from the point immediately after Qedusha. But the congregation goes back to the beginning of the Amida and recites it in its entirety individually in a whisper, omitting the Qedusha.


Dear Rabbi,

I saw the Pope on television and noticed that he wears a yarmulke. No offense meant, but is the Pope Jewish?

Signed, Bareheaded in Beaver Hill.

Dear Bareheaded,

No, the Pope is not Jewish. The correct word for the Pope’s skullcap is a zucchetto, which is an Italian word that basically means “beanie.” Zucchettos are color-coded skullcaps worn by Catholic clergy: priests wear black, bishops wear purple, cardinals wear red, and the Pope wears white.

The Jewish practice of covering the head dates back to ancient times when the kohanim in the Temple wore special headdresses.

The morning blessing “oter Yisrael betifara – who crowns Israel with beauty,” was originally said before putting on the turban. The Talmud states that a man should not take four steps without his head being covered. We can keep our heads covered by wearing any sort of hat or turban. One choice is the kippa, which in Yiddish is called Yarmulke, in English, skullcap, or in Italian Zucchetto. The kippa has no religious significance in and of itself — it is merely one type of hat. It is nothing more than a beanie.

Today, we follow a moderate path and make a point to keep our heads covered during prayer, study, meals and other religious acts, such as playing baseball.

Although he wears a kippa, the Pope is not Jewish. And although we wear Zucchettos, we are not the Pope. Once again we see that you don’t have to be Jewish to be Jewish, but it helps.


Dear Rabbi,

When should a young Jewish man approaching bar mitzva age begin putting on tefillin?

Signed, Men in Black

Dear Men in Black Leather,

The Talmud (Sukka 42a) records a statement from the Mishnaic period: “A minor who knows how to wave the lulav is obligated to wave; to wrap in fringes (tsitsit) is obligated with respect to fringes; to care for tefillin, his father should buy him tefillin.”

In general, we encourage pre-benei mitzva to begin performing mitzvot (religious obligations) as soon as they are “age appropriate,” even though minors are not technically obligated until they reach the age of majority. For some mitzvot, such as marriage and raising children, we generally encourage people to wait until after their teenage years. In the days of the Temple, kohanim did not serve in certain capacities, and men were not subject to military conscription, until age 20.

Jewish youths should begin wearing tefillin when they are able to treat tefillin with care and reverence. Tefillin contain parchments on which are written Biblical passages, much like a Torah scroll. A basic pair might cost over $300. Tefillin are not child’s play.

The time of becoming a bar- or bat-mitzva is special and should be marked by taking on new mitzvot, privileges and responsibilities. If tefillin are already part of a youth’s religious life, there are many other mitzvot available to serve as “special” ones associated with becoming a bar- or bat-mitzva.

If a minor youth wears tefillin, it is possible that a gabbai or shamash (ritual director or service organizer) will mistakenly assume that the youth is an adult who should be counted toward the Minyan (quorum). A minor wearing tefillin, therefore, should make a point of informing the person responsible for a service that they are indeed a minor.

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