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Accessible Published by De Gruyter 2021

Liturgy, Ritual, Worship

Ruth Langer and Clemens Leonhard
EintragsspracheEntry Language
InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents

Liturgy, Worship, and Prayer

After taking their first recognizable shape in late antiquity, Christian and Jewish liturgies developed, sometimes within the same cultural mold, sometimes independently, and sometimes with an eye on their respective other. Thus, similarities and differences connect and separate Christian and Jewish liturgies. Christianity’s Jewish roots and both religions’ emergence from a Greco-Roman milieu account for some of the similarities; the Christian need to differentiate from Judaism accounts for some of the differences. But some inner-Jewish developments likely also responded to Christian theological claims, generating specifically Jewish answers to the same questions.

In the Second Temple period, Israel officially worshipped God through the sacrifices and associated rituals of the Jerusalem Temple. Jews also gathered regularly and locally to study Scripture. As in the surrounding cultures, formal festive meals also provided contexts for ritualized behavior. Rituals also celebrated key moments in the lifecycle of individuals, functioned to bestow communal social status and public office, or offered healing. The Christian and Rabbinic Jewish liturgical systems emerged from these, assuming their characteristic shapes after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, Jews and Christians based themselves on the form and contents of worship at the Temple and its abrupt end in mutually exclusive ways.

For Jews, the biblically commanded sacrificial worship could be offered on behalf of the entire people only at the Jerusalem Temple by the hereditary priests (kohanim) and Levites. After the Temple’s destruction, the rabbis taught that their system of verbal prayer served as a temporary replacement, fulfilling God’s expectation of regular worship. Thereby, they emphasized its continuity with the Temple worship. Like the sacrificial worship, this liturgy needed to be offered properly, with its hours and frequency corresponding to the mandatory sacrificial offerings. Unlike the priestly sacrifices, however, this worship was incumbent on all and could be offered anywhere, though synagogues came to be the normal communal location. Although the texts of this statutory prayer drew upon earlier precedents, its character and contents were a product of post-destruction times. At the same time, this worship system integrated rituals from other sources, like regular (not daily) reading of Scripture. Meal-centered rituals remained important, but not as part of regular communal liturgy.

In contrast, the early Christians combined modest rites of initiation and the celebration of communal meals with readings and discussions of scriptural texts. From the fourth century on, these rites together with other forms of official daily prayer grew into a repertoire of public liturgies. Whether they celebrated highly scripted rituals or preferred to rely more on spontaneity and improvisation, these ancient models informed later Christian churches as they developed their liturgical practices.

This principle of replacement of the temple worship distinguished Jewish from Christian liturgies. As they evolved after the destruction of the Temple, Christian groups made a point of rejecting the former worship at the Temple instead of seeking continuity with it. They also fiercely rejected the Greco-Roman mode of sacrificial worship. Yet, because they understood themselves as the replacement of God’s people of the Old Testament, they began to claim that their liturgies replaced the biblical sacrificial cult and should be understood as sacrifices. Only much later, when some of its denominations turned to the Old Testament as a scriptural source for formal authority and for aspects of actual ritual performance (and its context) did elements of the Temple liturgy come to be imitated in Christian worship and in church architecture. 

The Sacred: Space, Time, Objects, and People

Liturgical Space and its Sanctity

For Jews, the holiest place on earth is the inner sanctum of the Jerusalem Temple, understood as God’s preferred earthly abode. Even after the Temple’s destruction and the building of Muslim shrines on the site, this locus was understood to retain its sanctity. The early rabbis called for all Jews to turn towards it during key prayers, symbolizing their united turning to God (tBer 3:15-16). This determines the orientation of most synagogues and the Jerusalem-facing placement of their local locus of holiness, the Torah ark. Traditionally, liturgical functionaries also face Jerusalem except to preach.

Christians have abundant holy sites but no geographical center comparable to the Jerusalem Temple. Many — but not all — church buildings are oriented towards the east, anticipating an eschatological return of Christ from that direction. Major holy sites often are associated with local events, whether biblical or later, often in conjunction with the tombs or relics of saints and martyrs. For Orthodox and Catholic Christians, church buildings are consecrated holy spaces. The locus of greatest holiness within each is the altar, both as the main place of eucharistic ritual and because it embeds relics of holy people. Orthodox Christians prohibit lay access to this holiness, setting the altar apart by a high wall ornamented with icons or a curtain. Catholic churches also make rich use of religious imagery but place a special focus on the tabernacle containing the consecrated host and hence making God present. All of these furnish church buildings with a fabric of sacredness into which congregational rituals and individual devotions are embedded. In general, Protestant denominations do not regard churches as sacred space, some even rejecting representational art.

There are other significant differences between churches and synagogues. While the buildings all reflect the aesthetics of their communities, the theological relationships of the buildings to their communities differ. While “church” may refer either to the building or to the community of Christians, “synagogue” mainly refers to the location where the community of Jews (or Israel) gathers. This reflects the broader national and ethnic aspects of Jewish identity of which religion and ritual are only a part. This difference heightens the role of the church building for Christians. This sanctified space becomes the ideal locus of essentially all calendrical and lifecycle rituals. In contrast, Judaism creates ritual space through the rituals themselves and the people gathered for them. Nothing is technically dependent on the synagogue, and many rituals have primary loci elsewhere. Nonetheless, the customary usage of the building and the presence of the Torah scroll evoke sanctity. The term “temple” has become common among liberal Jews as an affirmation that their local synagogue is their true place of worship. Nevertheless, these buildings function as synagogues and do not recreate the worship or the holiness of the Jerusalem Temple. 

Sacred Time

Judaism and Christianity both organize liturgical time according to biblical precedents. Both Judaism and Christianity recommend prayer at particular times of the day. In the Jerusalem Temple, the perpetual (tamid) sacrifices were offered morning and afternoon, with an additional offering on festive days. The Rabbinic texts structure their liturgical system of daily prayers according to these offerings and their schedule, adding only a lesser evening service. Apparently independent from this Temple worship, Christians in Late Antiquity developed similar structures of daily prayer. In urban centers, Christians were invited to gather for collective prayer at specific times. Monks and nuns simultaneously developed other forms of both individual and communal continuous or at least frequent prayer. Today, a variegated repertoire of texts and rules guides Christians, individuals or groups, in their practice of prayer. 

Both Jews and Christians structure time according to Genesis’ seven-day week, setting one day apart. For Jews, days begin with evening (cf. Gen 1:5); the seventh day, the Sabbath, beginning Friday evening, is a day of rest, prayer, and Torah study. Already in the second century, Christians adapted this week, perhaps as an anti-Jewish measure, moving its liturgical focus to the first instead of the last day, interpreting it as the weekly anniversary of Christ’s resurrection, and gathering then to celebrate the Eucharist.

The Jewish year follows the biblical lunar calendar, adjusted to the solar seasons by means of intercalated months. Its festivals fall on fixed dates according to this lunisolar year. The dates of Christian festivals are fixed on the solar calendar. However, its oldest festival, Easter (together with the seasons dependent upon it) falls on a Sunday after the spring new moon and is hence dependent upon the lunar cycle. Western and Eastern churches calculate the date of Easter differently. As a consequence, Passover and the Christian observances of Jesus’ passion and resurrection at Passover can be observed on dates spread over as much as five weeks.

Even though religious laws in Judaism and certain jubilees in Christian denominations celebrate larger periods than the year, these periods hardly influence liturgical structure. Popes may announce sacred years (after at least 25 years) for Catholics. Religious Jews observe the seventh year agricultural sabbatical (shemittah) in Israel.

While the Jewish and Christian liturgical calendars contain points of clear historical relationship (Sabbath/Sunday; Passover/Easter; Shavuot/Pentecost) and both rely on some similar biblical texts, the sacred histories associated with these calendars are fundamentally different. The rabbis interpreted the biblical cycle of pilgrimage festivals to refer to God’s salvific acts as exemplified in the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, Passover retains its biblical meaning, but Shavuot (Weeks, Pentecost) becomes the anniversary of God’s revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai, and Sukkot (Booths) is interpreted as a reenactment of the experience of dwelling in the wilderness. Central to this narrative is hope for future redemption. This message pervades traditional prayers for the entire year: the Sabbath itself is a foretaste of the world to come. The Torah-reading cycle consists of a seriatim reading of its story of redemption, from creation through the Exodus to Moses’ death as the Israelites are on the verge of entering Canaan, ending their exile. The Christian calendar also narrates a tale of redemption, but a different one. It moves from anticipating Christ as the Messiah during Advent through his birth at Christmas, to Christ’s passion and resurrection at Easter and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Liturgical Actors

While there is some overlap in the terminology used for ritual actors in Jewish and Christian contexts, the meaning underlying the words is quite different. The Bible designates the tribe of Levi as specifically dedicated to the service of God. Among these Levites, a single family, descended from Aaron, served as priests (kohanim), authorized to perform the complex sacrificial worship of the Jerusalem Temple. All others were simply “Israelites.” They provided offerings and participated in certain sacrificial meals, but had no cultic roles.

The Rabbinic synagogue developed a distinct set of ritual roles determined by ability, not descent. Any adult male participant in a prayer quorum of ten (minyan) may lead prayers, proclaim Scripture, or teach. From the 1970s, liberal contexts extended these roles to women too. A cantor (chazzan) has enhanced musical or poetic skills, and a rabbi greater training and authority in Torah. The rabbi provides local guidance on liturgical decisions; while certain rabbis and their writings gain wider charismatic authority, there is no Rabbinic hierarchy. However, while both may enhance synagogue life, neither rabbi nor cantor plays a liturgically necessary role. Some rituals must be omitted or diminished if no quorum is present, but the ultimate obligation to perform the rite lies with each individual. Those of priestly and levitical descent retain a few privileges, including being called first to the Torah and offering the priestly benediction, but they are otherwise ritually indistinguishable and their presence is not required.

Premodern Christianity developed diverse clerical functions. Performing certain forms of prayer and roles in congregational worship requires ordination. This establishes highly differentiated obligations and abilities in the performance of liturgies, dependent on status. “Priest” designates those men authorized to perform central sacramental rituals, especially the Eucharist. Many Protestant denominations now ordain women, and some others seek to include women in clerical roles traditionally limited to men. 

Christian denominations that favor standardized liturgies established clerical offices as sources for guidance. Thus, official Roman Catholic liturgies are regulated by a hierarchy of jurisdiction and competence with the pope and the bishops as ultimate sources of authority. Churches that hail from the Reformation typically have less centralized structures of authority and require officeholders to respect biblical precedence before introducing liturgical changes. Consequently, changes often generate conflicts requiring complex negotiations.

A Roman Catholic priest may perform liturgies without other participants. Unlike in Eastern and reformed churches, laypersons might attend clerical liturgies for their own benefit but are, technically, unnecessary to them. Over the centuries, the populace organized many extra-liturgical rituals. In the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, formal liturgies held at the behest of the clergy and attended by laypersons became the normative ideal.

The Liturgies Themselves

Scripture in Liturgy

Jewish liturgical language develops from precedents found in the rhetorical patterns and phraseology of the Hebrew Bible, especially Psalms and other prayer texts. Prayers most frequently only allude to their biblical model, although many also embed explicit quotations. Some later prayers, though, consist only of biblical verses. This is the dominant Karaite model. Some early liturgical elements are themselves biblical passages, like the shema (Deut 6:4-9, 11:13-21, Num 15:37-41) or the priestly benediction (Num 6:24-26). Similarly, Christian prayer texts (including hymns) may draw their inspiration and even language from biblical texts. Only in rare cases do complete biblical texts become established prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer and (parts of the) Hail Mary.

Psalms play an important role in daily statutory prayers. Ordered recitation of the entire Psalter became a pillar of Christian monastic daily prayer. The origins of — and reasons for — the Christian choice of these texts is obscure. Historically, their use in Christianity precedes their entry into Jewish daily prayer, where fixed selections of Psalms came to introduce especially the morning service. The recitation of Psalms 113-118 (the Hallel) follows festive morning services and may be a pre-Rabbinic custom as it is also included in the evening celebration of Passover. Psalms play an important role in Karaism whose liturgy is (ideally) only made up of biblical texts. Some pious Jews and Christians seek a life of constant meditation or prayer. Psalms play an important but not exclusive role in this practice. 

An early function of the synagogue was communal reading and teaching of Scripture on Sabbaths and market days (Monday, Thursday). The rabbis prefaced to it their primary liturgical elements. Rabbinic liturgy proclaimed the entire Pentateuch in order, gradually developing standardized cycles of one or approximately three years. Today, all Jews conclude Deuteronomy and begin Genesis annually on Simchat Torah, the final day of the fall holidays. This cycle is interrupted on holidays with readings appropriate to the day. On the Sabbath morning and festivals, a thematically appropriate prophetic reading (haftarah) follows the Torah reading. The only regular reading from the Writings is from five shorter books (megillot) on holidays (Song of Songs/Passover; Ruth/Shavuot; Lamentations/Ninth of Av; Kohelet/Sukkot; Esther/Purim). Only the readings of Esther and Lamentations are pre-medieval.

This basic pattern of a main scripture reading accompanied by other readings also came to form one of the pillars of Christian official worship, the Liturgy of the Word, placed before the Eucharist. Where the choice of the reading is not at the sole discretion of local leaders, churches developed elaborate reading cycles. Although never universal, a common lectionary pattern begins with an Old Testament reading, may include a second reading from a non-Gospel New Testament book, more or less fitting to the contents of the Gospel reading that follows. Mostly, preaching on these readings follows. 

Both communities also have traditions of reverencing the biblical text itself. In liturgical contexts, Jews read Torah from a parchment scroll, handwritten in Hebrew with no punctuation, suggesting its original form. Commonly, when the Torah is processed through the congregation, all stand, and many reach to kiss the scroll. The scroll itself is clad in a decorative cover, often accompanied by silver ornaments imitating those of the biblical high priest. Similarly, many churches process and venerate a sometimes elaborately decorated Gospel book in codex form.

Thus, there are deep formal similarities in the Jewish and Christian liturgical uses of scripture. It is highly plausible though not demonstrable that these similarities derive from common origins and shared presumptions about what worship should entail, and/or from imitation. In both cases, the services nonverbally highlight hierarchies of the texts within their canons, through the gestures, the treatment of the books as liturgical objects, and the personnel that is allowed and invited to perform the reading.

Liturgical Texts

Although both liturgies originally transmitted their liturgical texts and customs orally, Christianity and Judaism have long used written texts. Christians were early adopters of the newly invented codex, our form of the book. Early Christian texts were probably never recorded on the more cumbersome scrolls. As the codex developed, it allowed the construction of highly complicated rites and the collection and discussion of variants. In late antiquity, Christian synods discussed the use and dissemination of booklets containing liturgical texts. However, clear evidence for widespread use of liturgical books begins only in the early Middle Ages when, at roughly the same time, European Jews and Christians ask religious authorities abroad for liturgical guidance. The ensuing correspondence leads to the first full-fledged prayer books, including the first written records of Rabbinic Jewish prayers. Based on these books, a vast and quickly diversifying literature of prayer books emerged. Even reforms of the liturgy retained the primary features of these original prayer books. Initially, these books remained primarily in the domain of those leading the liturgy, while others prayed from memory or listened and responded appropriately. This led, from the thirteenth century on, to the creation of elaborately decorated huge texts designed for communal use. Affordable printing led to the ubiquity of personal volumes, especially among Jews and Protestants (including Bibles and hymnals), while Catholics and Orthodox Christian laity continued to rely on the clerically performed liturgy based on manuals.

These first liturgical books were all written in languages other than the vernacular — Hebrew for Jews, Latin for western Christians, various other languages in the east. These volumes also presumed liturgical expertise, serving more as reminders than useful page by page instructions, often presenting repeated prayers only once in a volume.

Unlike the Christian East, where translations were common, vernacular prayer entered Western Christianity with the Reformation. Most Catholic and some Orthodox churches adopted translations of the official liturgies into modern languages only recently. Translation techniques created stylized forms of religious language. Vernaculars entered Jewish prayer books first in instructions, commentaries, and translations, especially for women. Only with the Reform movement in the nineteenth century did liberal Jews, modeling themselves on Christian Reformers, introduce public vernacular prayer widely. 

Statutory Liturgy

Although their various employments of Scripture are the greatest points of overlap between Jewish and Christian liturgy, there are others. The ritual elements of the earliest descriptions of the Eucharist can be vaguely understood as characteristic of a Jewish meal of the time, including the idea of giving thanks for food after the meal (birkat hamazon, grace after meals). Furthermore, the interpretation of the Eucharist as sacrifice also parallels the Rabbinic understanding of their central prayer, the amidah, as corresponding to and substituting for Temple sacrifices. Some explanations of the recitation of shema understand it, especially its first verse, as a creedal statement of faith, meaning that it fulfills some of the same functions as the formal recitation of a creed in Christian liturgies. However, these similarities are superficial compared to the fundamental differences in these liturgical elements.

Petitions and Intercessions

In several liturgies, the church community together recites intercessions, petitioning God for current needs, including specific individuals’ wellbeing. While these have set rhetorical patterns and are often scripted, extemporaneous petitions are also common. In Judaism and Christianity, prayers for specific individuals or needs may also occur in private contexts.

The central Jewish prayer, the amidah, contains a series of thirteen petitions on weekdays. Rabbinic tradition guides individuals to personalize the petitions for health and economic welfare as needed and to include other needs in the final petition or at the conclusion of the prayer itself. In addition, the presence of the Torah scroll creates other opportunities for prayers for those called to the Torah, for healing of specific individuals, as well as intercessory prayers for the synagogue community, the local governments, soldiers, and the State of Israel. Intercessions may be connected to recitation of Psalms or study of other religious texts. In general, the traditional intercessory prayers, with the exception of the prayer for the government, do not include non-Jews. Non-orthodox Jewish liturgies often adjust the language to be more inclusive.

Eating and Fasting

Jews and Christians mark important occasions with festive meals, although the specific foods reflect local customs. Christians do not regard the meal itself as sacred, especially in contrast to the highly stylized Eucharistic meal which in many Christian denominations is the most important liturgical act. Rabbinic Judaism, in contrast, understands feasting to be a central ritual act of every Sabbath, festival, and lifecycle celebration (modified for funerals), introduced by prayers over wine and bread and followed by a liturgy, the Grace after Meals (birkat hamazon). Symbolic foods and acts accompany many of these meals, like unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs (maror) at the Passover seder, or eating in an outdoor booth at Sukkot.

Abstention from food also plays a ritual role in both religions. The Hebrew Bible knows fasting as a mark of penitence (e.g., Isa 58:3-7). Levitcus 16:29f. calls for practicing self-denial to seek forgiveness for sins on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), understood as a day-long total fast from any food or drink. The fast of the Ninth of Av (midsummer) mourns the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as many later disasters up through the Shoah. Four more minor fasts from dawn to dark (see Zech 8:19) also populate the calendar, several related to the fall of the First Temple. One, on the tenth of Tevet, has become a day for reciting the kaddish memorial prayer for those who died without living descendants, primarily victims of the Shoah.

Christians also perform fasts, although the detailed restrictions on eating and drinking, their duration and their frequency vary widely between denominations and across history. Periods of total abstention from food are rare. Christian customs instead restrict types or quantities of food. Fasting also entered Christian penitential practice. Thus, fasting can serve as a preparatory ritual before liturgical performances like receiving the Eucharist or preceding festivals, like the Lenten period before Easter.

Lifecycle Celebrations

While sharing the biological reality of the human lifecycle, Jews and Christians have quite distinct ways of marking its stages. Catholic and Orthodox Christian lifecycle rituals tend to be Eucharist-centered and hence ideally performed in a church. Many Jewish lifecycle celebrations are also meal-centered, with prayers recited over a cup of wine and then a full meal following. These are occasions where Jewish and Christian acquaintances today are most likely to experience each other’s religious realities.

Ritual immersion for purifications of various sorts was widespread in the Second Temple world. Nevertheless, the origins of Christian baptism in its specific form and function as initiation into the Christian community are obscure. While earlier liturgies of baptism would understand it as symbolic rebirth (Jn 3), purification from sin, and entry into the church, fourth century texts begin to interpret it as a symbolic death and resurrection with Christ (Rom 6:1-11). In its solemn form, the immersion in water was preceded and/or followed by chrismation with oil. Baptism is required for entry into the church, whether for an infant or a convert. 

In contrast, any baby born to a Jewish mother (liberal Jews add, or father) is automatically a Jew. Male circumcision on the eighth day (brit milah), accompanied by announcing the baby’s name, fulfills a covenantal commandment (Gen 17:9-14). Although often performed during a regular synagogue service, this is fundamentally a home ritual associated with a festive meal. However, neither it nor the naming of a girl, generally in synagogue, changes the child’s status. Christian presumptions that circumcision has the transformative nature of baptism have raised questions over the centuries and even generated a folk tradition that the ritual creates a Jew. Conversion to Judaism does require male circumcision and ritual immersion.

Participation in the Eucharist begins immediately after baptism in Orthodox churches — even if the newly baptized is an infant — but is delayed until a variously defined “age of discernment” for Catholics, or until Protestant confirmation. When the early medieval Roman church decided that the final chrismation of baptism could only be administered by a bishop, it initiated the creation of a new sacrament, confirmation. Over the centuries, confirmation became a celebration of ritual adulthood. The Reformation fiercely rejected Catholic confirmation. Thus, Protestant confirmation emerged later and independently from its Catholic namesake, celebrating entry into full congregational membership.

Judaism marks adulthood at the beginning of puberty (twelve for girls traditionally, thirteen for boys) by recognizing that the child is now responsible for his or her own religious behavior. A boy historically would mark his becoming bar mitzvah (son of the commandment) by performing some small adult role in a minyan. Today, girls also celebrate becoming bat mitzvah. Both often lead prayers, read Torah, and speak on Sabbath morning, followed by a festive meal. Reform Judaism considered early puberty too young for ritual adulthood and introduced Confirmation, often on Shavuot, to mark the end of formal religious education and personal acceptance of Torah.

By the medieval period, marriage between Christians could be celebrated in conjunction with the Eucharist in the church. Declaring marriage a sacrament, the Roman Catholic Church melded civil, legal and religious functions. Protestants rejected as non-biblical this understanding of marriage as a sacrament, but continued to prefer the church setting for its celebration. 

The space of a Jewish wedding is defined by the wedding canopy (ḥuppah), an open-sided tent that can be erected anywhere, including the public space of a synagogue or outdoors. The ceremony itself melds two older ceremonies of betrothal and marriage, each recited over its own cup of wine. The festive meal following is integral to the wedding itself and ends with a repetition of the marriage blessings. Similarities in these ceremonies are incidental, in the traditions of special clothing, the need to get the bride and groom to and from the ceremony in processions, and all the accoutrements generated by the contemporary wedding industry.

Death rituals are perhaps where Jews and Christians differ the most. Christianity’s focus on the afterlife and salvation means that death rituals inhabit a tension between grieving and celebrating the deceased’s salvation and new life in the divine presence. Generally, rituals of mourning occur before the funeral, varying widely by culture. The funeral and committal end this period and are characterized by elements of celebration, in many churches in the context of a Eucharist.

Jewish tradition calls for burial as soon as possible, and for the deceased’s relatives to focus entirely on preparing for this. The funeral itself is generally not in a synagogue and never connected to another ritual. It consists primarily of eulogies. Formal mourning begins after burial as the family returns home to a ritual meal of consolation provided by the community. Mourning periods of a week (shiva) and a month follow for close relatives, and a year by children. The prayers accompanying the funeral, burial, and mourning (including kaddish) emerged in the medieval and early modern periods, likely significantly in imitation of Christian emphases on death and the afterlife. 

Praying About and for the Other 

Jews and Judaism in Christian Liturgies

Until the 20th cent., Jews appeared in Christian liturgical texts most frequently as Old or New Testament biblical figures. This continued the early Christian theological approach that regarded Jesus’ death as the endpoint of Judaism and the Church as the (only or only legitimate) continuation of Biblical Israel and heir to Israel’s status as the “people of God.” This deprived subsequent Judaism of legitimacy and created a continuing challenge for liturgical integration of the post-Shoah repair of relations. Christian moves to expand the role of the Old Testament in their liturgies cannot alone generate a positive response to contemporary Jews and Judaism without addressing this issue explicitly.

This issue is not confined to any one season of the year; however, Holy Week liturgies include some of the most toxic examples. In the Western churches, the normative intercessions for Good Friday contained a prayer for the conversion of contemporary “faithless Jews.” After the Second Vatican Council, Catholics (and after them, some Protestants with similar liturgies) revised the prayer to petition that Jews remain faithful to Judaism. The intercession now implicitly renounces any mission to the Jews. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI permitted liturgies according to the pre-conciliar missal, including the old form of the intercession. Harsh public protests forced him to neutralize much of its conversionary language.

The Improperia (in the Western churches and similar compositions in Eastern churches), recited at the same service, offer a series of rebukes to “God’s people” for their involvement in the crucifixion of Christ. Many understood the villains of this and similar texts as not only the historical participants in Jerusalem, but also and especially their own Jewish neighbors. All Jews for all time were self-implicated in the cry narrated in Matthew 27:25, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” The Good Friday reading of John’s passion with its reiterated accusations of “the Jews” enhanced this understanding. No wonder numerous communities conducted riots against local Jews following this service. Modern theological understandings seek to correct this, teaching that the “people of God” includes all humanity. Thus, the people responsible for the crucifixion and rebuked in the Improperia begin with the Christians attending the liturgy. This move has had mixed success in deflecting this liturgy’s difficulty. Today, many omit the Improperia.

Several Christian Churches have also introduced regular or occasional elements into their liturgies which acknowledge Judaism and emphasize its especially close relationship to Christianity. Some ritually perform public, collective confessions for the centuries of atrocities culminating in the Shoah. Others are still seeking the path to appropriate liturgical acknowledgment, and still others question whether liturgy is the correct venue for this. Pope John Paul II’s confession on March 3, 2000, exemplifies this complexity. He apologized for the behavior of individual Christians who caused Jews to suffer, but Catholic theology of the sinless nature of the Church itself apparently prevented him from acknowledging any corporate complicity.

Christians and Christianity in Jewish Liturgies

While Jews were omnipresent in Jesus’ own world and thus in the earliest Christian texts, much of Rabbinic liturgy achieved its structure and message before Christianity was a significant presence. Thus, Jewish liturgy makes very limited overt reference to Christians and Christianity, always critically. For Jews living under Christian governments, especially in situations of persecution, even these were dangerous, and medieval Jews sometimes removed them. Late medieval Christian consciousness of them led to organized Church censorship. Early Hebrew printers soon omitted anything Christians found offensive or blasphemous from all Jewish books, including prayer books. Because most early Hebrew printers lived in Christendom, this censorship affected even Jews living in Arab lands. Consequently, almost all references and allusions to Jesus and Christianity disappeared from Jewish liturgy; anti-Christian intent no longer shapes the understandings of the worshipers.

This censorship affected an obligatory prayer, the birkat haminim (“the curse of sectarians”), a petition in the weekday amidah that asks God to destroy the human elements that prevent realizing the messianic state. Although it probably was not originally anti-Christian, fifth-century Christians knew that it referred to them explicitly. Jewish manuscripts from Arab lands c. 1000 verify this. However, no manuscripts from Christian Europe contain this mention of Christians. Nevertheless, the allusions remained and became subject to Christian critique. Censorship forced the replacement of the object of every phrase, ultimately transforming the prayer to a curse of abstract evil. There is strong evidence that by the 18th cent., as personal prayer books became ubiquitous, most had forgotten the original language.

Another prayer to receive much Christian attention, aleynu, began to function in the High Middle Ages as a concluding prayer for every service, spreading from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. This poetic composition may predate the fourth-century legalization of Christianity. The tendentious line contrasts Jewish worship of God with that of other nations, who “bow down to nothingness and emptiness, and pray to a god that does not save.” Curiously, the second half of this line never created issues. More important was the medieval recognition that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters for “and emptiness” and “Jesus” is the same. Consequently, Jews subsequently recited it with this intent. This blasphemy led to Christian censorship of the line. Because this prayer was not obligatory, Jews did not need to generate new language. Printers continued to indicate the omission and knowledge of the original was transmitted orally, together with derogatory gestures. Pressure from the 18th-cent. Prussian government led to communal performance of the prayer without this line, and it widely disappeared. It reappeared in Orthodox settings, first in Jewish-majority contemporary Israel, but largely without knowledge or acceptance of its medieval interpretation.

Piyyut (liturgical poetry) was another major locus of explicit anti-Christian statements. The genre flourished first among poets reacting to Christian rule in Byzantine Palestine. This often difficult and allusive poetry became the model for additional works crafted in medieval Christian Europe. Although the poetic additions for most of the year were largely abandoned in modernity, it still is central to orthodox Ashkenazi liturgies for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Ninth of Av. (Sephardi liturgies have their own heritage of piyyut.) The censorship of this literature is largely unstudied, but any perusal of manuscripts makes it obvious. Examples include: a poem that originally contrasted God’s qualities with those of human kings, where all but one stanza about human kings disappeared; the removal of the final stanza from the most popular Hanukkah hymn, Ma’oz Tsur, that calls for God to avenge Israel by causing the immediate downfall of “the evil nation” using literary allusions to Rome and the cross. In both cases, modern scholarship has retrieved the original language. Few if any have reinstated their performance.

Censors more rarely objected to biblical language used liturgically, even if its intent was to respond to persecutions. The Ashkenazi memorial prayer, Av Harachamim, recited following Sabbath Torah readings, responded originally to the Crusader massacres of Jews in the Rhineland. Its second half, sometimes censored, consists of a series of verses invoking divine vengeance. Similarly, a concatenation of biblical verses was introduced into the Passover seder after the meal in the same period, calling on God to “Pour out Your wrath on the nations […].”

The established traditions of mourning over the destruction of the First and Second Temples on the Ninth of Av took on some anti-Christian overtones in the Byzantine period as the genre of kinot (elegies) emerged for the day. Eventually, the day’s collections of kinot came to recall the suffering of Jewish communities through history, including the Rhineland Crusades, the burning of the Talmud in Paris (1242), and ultimately the Shoah. This collection was extensively censored. The victims of the Shoah are also commonly specifically remembered the four times during the year when yizkor, the memorial service for all the deceased, is recited. The Israeli government has established 27 Nisan as “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”. While the day now includes customary civil rituals of remembrance, like lighting six lights for the six million victims or a national minute of silence in Israel, its effective liturgical integration remains a work in process. In the United States, this has often been an occasion for interfaith observances.

In the 19th cent., Jewish reformers sought a liturgy worthy of their new citizenship in western society. They made aesthetic changes, largely in imitation of Protestant worship, calling for enhanced instrumental and choral music, shorter services, decorum, and vernacular preaching and prayer. Vernacular prayer also created accessible content, defensible both to Jews and to gentiles. Changes included removal of language critical of non-Jewish neighbors. These changes remain characteristic of Reform liturgy today. Thus, among Reform Jews, liturgical changes long predated the theological changes to teachings about Jews and Judaism that opened the door to Christian liturgical changes. However, more traditional Jewish movements voluntarily alter only translations and commentaries, not the Hebrew liturgy.

Borrowing From and Imitating Each Other’s Worship

Once Christianity was licit and a majority religion, it worked to distinguish itself from Judaism, not imitate it. Christian persecutions of Jews and the Jewish teachings that Christian worship and its iconography were idolatrous for Jews gave Jews little incentive to imitate Christian liturgy. Nevertheless, some cross influence did occur.

Jewish adaptations of Christian Rituals

Most deliberate Jewish imitations of Christian worship emerged as modern western Jews sought to make themselves less strange in Christian eyes. Synagogue architecture, however, historically echoes that of its surroundings. For example, synagogues like the Altneuschul in Prague (1270) or Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia, USA (1876) are small gothic structures. This echoing can also express deliberate differentiation, like the adoption of deliberately Moorish features to evoke the mythic medieval Golden Age of convivencia in Spain when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in harmony (Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest [1854-59]; Plum Street Synagogue, Cincinnati [1866]). Internally, the orientation of people in synagogues also came to imitate churches, with forward facing pews and clergy facing the congregation.

Jewish liturgical music similarly lives in a tension between imitation and differentiation. Jews sometimes have adopted secular or even church melodies and “sanctified” them, especially for communal singing. The creedal hymn “Adon Olam” (Master of the Universe) fits well to “Silent Night” or “When the Saints Come Marching In.” The mystic hymn “Anim Zemirot” (Let me sing songs) is frequently sung to a Cossack marching melody. The best known melody for Hanukkah’s “Ma’oz Tsur” is a German drinking song. Others simply adopted western tonalities. Yet, Jewish liturgical music has its own native modes, only sometimes influenced by local aesthetics. In the 18th cent., some European Jews introduced formal choral music accompanied by organ, albeit not on the Sabbath and festivals proper when instrumental music was prohibited. Reform congregations from the 19th cent. made such music the norm for all services. Liberal Jews also participated in the social revolutions of the 1960s-70s, introducing less formal modes of instrumentation and singing. Many new melodies spread to more traditional settings as well.

Little of the verbal content of Jewish liturgy can be attributed with certainty to Christian influence. Israel Yuval posits that various elements of the Passover Haggadah respond to Christianity. No Jewish liturgical manuscripts survive from before the very end of the first millennium. A late medieval addition to the Haggadah does reflect the Eucharistic liturgy of the Western Church in Ashkenaz. At the beginning of the Seder the unleavened bread is lifted up and the presider says: “This is the bread of affliction.” Yuval observes that several manuscripts add “like” before “this.” The (ungrammatical) single letter addition may be reminiscent of fierce contemporary inner-Christian debates about the character of the Eucharistic bread (that is also lifted up during the liturgy, with a declaration “this is […]”). Similarly, Jews began regularly displaying the opened Torah scroll, reciting “This is the Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel.”

Hanukkah and Christmas are historically unrelated. However, their celebration near the winter solstice and their ritualized use of lights tends to emphasize similarities and to deemphasize their differences. As Christmas became a non-religious component of Western culture in the 19th cent., some Jews celebrated it with or without integrating Hanukkah customs. The terms Weihnukka and Chrismukkah point ironically to the popular appropriations of festival elements that cross religious boundaries in a shared cultural environment. 

Christian Adaptations of Jewish Rituals

Christ’s passion and resurrection happened during the Passover season, making it natural that Christianity’s first and most important festival, Pascha/Easter would be tied to Passover and its dependence on the lunar calendar. Only in the fourth century did bishops meeting at Nicaea decree an independent formula for determining this date so that they would no longer need to rely on Jewish practice.

2nd-cent. Christians established Pentecost as a fifty-day period after Easter, derived from the Old Testament’s dating of the Feast of Weeks. In the 4th cent., they reshaped Pentecost into a celebration of the fiftieth day. Christians also transformed the biblical Sabbath, eventually moving it to Sunday. Although Yom Kippur plays an important role in Christian texts and ancient theologies, it was never appropriated as a holy day. No other Jewish festivals entered early Christian practice.

20th-cent. Christian historical theology identified Jewish meal customs as the origin of the late antique and medieval Mass/Divine Liturgy/Eucharist. Consequently, the Catholic Church’s 1970 revision of the liturgy appropriated and adapted the Rabbinic blessings over wine and bread, replacing some prayers of the Eucharist’s Offertory. Both Judaism and Christianity did preserve, change, and ritualize aspects of Greco-Roman banqueting, but in terms of neither their ritual function nor their modes of performance are Christian Eucharistic prayers and Jewish mealtime blessings related to each other.

Even though the Passover Haggadah was known to some medieval Christian scholars, it was only in the later 20th cent. that Christian groups appropriated parts of the Seder ritual, added typically Christian topics to its performance, and began to celebrate this new kind of Seder in Christian groups. This move was motivated not only by genuine interest in Judaism but also by the mistaken presumption that today’s Seder ritual was normative practice in the 1st cent. CE. Appropriating aspects of the Seder was hence regarded as a ritualized return to authentic Christian roots. However, contemporary scholars understand that the Seder ritual emerged after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE when the paschal lamb could no longer be offered. Apart from the fact that the historical motivation to appropriate the Seder ritual in Christianity is mistaken, many Jews regard its performance as offensive. 

Interreligious Worship

Christianity began as a Jewish movement whose adherents participated in communal synagogues. Archaeological and literary evidence suggests that Jews in late antiquity welcomed participation from outside their community, including acknowledging non-Jewish donors. Early Christianity attracted these “God-fearers” when it welcomed them into the community without requiring them to become Jews bound to full halakhic observance. With the victory of gentile Christianity, its ever more successful mission, and the partings of the ways, interreligious participation between these two communities became more and more restricted, to the point that Rabbinic Judaism taught that Christian worship was idolatrous and hence forbidden to Jews, and Church teachings forbade Christians from entering synagogues. “Judaizing” was a mark of heresy. While conversion across these boundaries remained possible, and especially by Christians, invited, no deliberate joining of these two communities in worship was conceivable. 

Seeds of change appear first in late 19th-cent. America. Some churches and synagogues began joint services to add a religious dimension to the new civic holiday of Thanksgiving and some leading Reform rabbis participated in pulpit exchanges with Protestant churches. Nostra Aetate later opened opportunities for Catholic participation as well. Interreligious worship has emerged in at least two dimensions: visits as guests to the other’s worship services; and joint responses to a common occasion or need.

In general, both Jews and Christians accept the presence of guests in all services, but not all permit guests’ full participation. Guests’ exclusion from certain ritual elements expresses communal identity. Thus, synagogues generally would not call gentiles up to the reading of the Torah (with some exceptions for family members in liberal settings). While guests are generally expected to show respect by following the synagogue’s norms for head covering, non-Jews do not don other ritual garb. Guests are welcome, though, to join in the recitation of prayers. Most Christian churches and congregations regard baptism as a prerequisite for the reception of the Eucharistic bread and wine, excluding unbaptized guests from participation, though some invite them to receive a blessing instead. Neither Judaism nor Christianity has developed a special status for the other in their liturgies.

The greater challenge is when Jews and Christians (and others) seek to construct a joint observance, where the worship will be jointly owned and equally effective for all participants. Two models, not necessarily exclusive, exist. One incorporates only secular or shared liturgical elements like Scripture, comfortable for all. Thus, Christians must pray without reference to Jesus or the Trinity; theological concepts must be held in common. This requires a self-awareness that generally grows out of dialogue and a consciousness of where differences lie. The second model allows each community to contribute to the event out of its own particularity, not expecting the other’s active participation. Participants may cycle in and out of guest and host roles or pray in parallel for a common purpose, each in their own way. In both models, the planners also need to be conscious of imposing certain expectations of liturgical patterning that the other does not share. This affects such things as the use of processions and vestments, involvement of clergy, the placement of readings and speakers, the use of intercessory prayers, invocations, benedictions, and the time of the day and season. At the same time, planners need to be conscious that these are precisely the sorts of elements that signal that this is a time of prayer and not of entertainment.


For most of the history of Jews and Christians, Islam has been a major interlocutor too. Christians and especially Jews were influenced by aspects of Islamic ritual and liturgy in ways parallel to those discussed here. With the increasing integration of Muslims into Europe and America, with the renewal of Jewish life in Israel, new models of interreligious understanding that go beyond the Jewish-Christian dyad become necessary. Integration of Islam into this discussion is only one missing dimension, though. The last century and more has opened a global dialogue in which Asian traditions too play a significant role. 

As we have seen, liturgical and ritual behavior is a complex and ever shifting aspect of human society. While ostensibly guided by relatively timeless theological and legal norms, these are frequently in dialogue with customary behavior, adapting the theory to the needs of time and place. Sometimes, this dialogue results in updates to the official teachings; frequently, customary behavior continues in spite of theoretical objections to it. Actual performance often does not defer to official teachings, but expresses instead its own independent set of meanings.

This article has distilled many dimensions of two thousand years of liturgical and ritual interactions between Jews and Christians. The future is likely to bring continuity with the past, but also unanticipated discontinuities as human society responds to new realities.


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