Prayerbook Fun

How do you make “Jewish spiritual wisdom” available to 12-year olds, as they prepare for bar and bat mitzvah?

Last Sunday, I explored some of the treasures of the Siddur (prayerbook) with Or Shalom’s bnei mitzvah class.

We sang the Siddur’s opening line: Ma tovu, ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.

Yes, Ya’akov and Yisrael are two names for the same person. Contemporary Jews are his great, great, great, great, great…great-grandchildren. We pooled our knowledge to retell Ya’akov’s story.

I asked: “Why would you welcome people to synagogue with a song that says, ‘Your tents are good, and so are your God-places?'”

Maya had an answer:  “Many years ago, tents were people’s homes. The song says: Your home is a nice place, and so is our synagogue. Thank you for leaving home and joining us here.”

We sang a line from Psalm 150: Kol haneshamah tihallel Yah, Halleluyah! (Let everything that breathes praise God!)

“Who breathes?” I asked. Daniel W. answered: “Everything!”

The author of this psalm imagines a world wide symphony, where people and animals of all species pause and sing praise in lovely harmony.

We selected percussion instruments: wood blocks, tambourines, and mini-drums. We drummed to the Halleluyah beat as we sang Psalm 150 again.

Then we put aside the singing, and Kai set the beat for a short drumming circle. One by one, we joined in and experimented with rhythm. We sounded like a mini table-wide symphony. We revisited the words of the psalm, “Praise God with drums and circle dances,” and realized we were doing exactly what the poet had in mind.

We looked at the Morning Blessings in the siddur: short formulas of gratitude to say when we hear the rooster, throw off our covers, wash our face, put on our shoes early in the morning.

“Would you say these every day?” I asked. Daniel S. spoke for the group: “It’s a good idea, but I wouldn’t remember.”

We set out to write some prayers we would remember. We broke into pairs for the “Wake-up questionnaire,” interviewing one another about our thoughts and activities when we first wake up in the morning.

We laid the completed questionnaires side by side on an empty table. After reviewing them, we each wrote three blessings of gratitude and three blessings of request.

For the gratitude prayers, we each chose three positive morning experiences and wrote short blessings thanking God for them.

For the request prayers, we each chose three negative morning experiences, imagined them turned into positives, and  thanked God in advance for fixing them.

Then we sang them in the traditional nusach (musical mode) for Shabbat morning blessings.

Baruch atah….melech ha’olam, for showers, hot water, and a house with a washroom.
Baruch atah…melech ha’olam, for cats and dogs, pets and animals.
Baruch atah…melech ha’olam, for friends and family, good news and a good day.
Baruch atah…melech ha’olam, for servants, no school, and a chance to sleep in. (This, in case you couldn’t tell, was a prayer of request.)


Lots of morning bacon jokes were made, so we took a short detour into the laws of Kashrut. Students posed the usual fun questions. “Are giraffes kosher? What about grasshoppers? Why not pigs – is their intelligence too close to ours?”

The discussion made me hungry, so I called for break time. The continuing students gave the new class member a tour of the sanctuary. We ate some delicious chocolate cookies provided by the office manager.

When we regrouped, I asked one student to choose any paragraph with good imagery from the Siddur, so we could make a group drawing. Daniel S. chose:

In another vision, You were a crown of truth,
on hair that’s black and curly as in days of youth.
Such splendour and glory we delight to see,
may our delight, Your pleasure be.


Daniel did not know that the author of this prayer  (Shir Hakavod by Rabbi Yehuda the Hasid of Regensburg) was describing God. And that the point of the prayer is to say that no single image can adequately express God’s nature.

But I did not ask Daniel to select another prayer, nor did I explain the poet’s teaching. Even though we were hovering on the border of making images of God, I had faith in the learning process and let everyone draw.

As we drew, we discussed the meaning of the prayer’s words.

“What,” I asked, “might the poet mean by a ‘crown of truth'”? Answers:

  • It doesn’t lie.
  • Only the most worthy can wear it.
  • Only the true King can wear it.
  • It’s the Crown of Immortality.

“Why,” I asked, “would the poet imagine God with curly black hair?'” Answers:

  • Maybe the poet is in love with someone who has curly black hair.
  • Maybe he thinks curly hair is messy, and is trying to say that God isn’t concerned about appearance.
  • What about all other kinds of hair, aren’t they worthy?

Class conclusion, articulated by Daniel S: “Maybe we should not make any images of God. No one person should have the right to say what God is like, and impose that on everyone else.”

When we were done, we analyzed the drawings. We noticed that some of the figures combined images male & female, vegetable & human, animal & mineral. One was multi-ethnic. Though we knew we weren’t drawing pictures of God, we knew we were drawing to stimulate our thinking about God. So we (in words only) drew a conclusion: God is a god for all creatures.

This brought us back full circle to  Psalm 150’s line about “everything that breathes.”

As we cleaned up, discussion continued. Kai challenged us to list as many religious traditions as we could name, and then asked what we thought a flamingo religion would be like. Daniel W. showed us his original animated videos on his youtube channel. Maya continued drawing, Daniel S. philosophized, and soon parents came to whisk everyone away to dinner.

Images: Tent:; Songbird: logo from the music-syncing app, which is how I imagine Daniel W might draw a songbird if asked; Tambourines:; Rooster:; Cat and dog:; Cookies:; Translation of Shir Hakavod from Sidder Eit Ratzon by Joseph G. Rosenstein; Class drawings: work by Daniel S, Daniel W, Kai, Maya, photo montage by reblaura 
  1. Wow, it sounds like everyone had so much to contribute to the session! Thanks Reb Laura for facilitating and to Maya, Kai, Daniel W, and, last but not least Daniel S. for participating. It sounds like everyone learned something.

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