Most, maybe all of us, have gone to “services.”

In this context, “Service” means “communal worship.”

But why?

In Hebrew, “Service” is “avodah/עבודה.” All Hebrew nouns come from 3-letter root verbs. “Avodah” comes from a root (עבד – possibly transliterated as A-B/V-D) meaning “to work.” For example: “Avadim hayinu” — “We were slaves (forced workers) [in Egypt].”

But “avodah” also referred to the “work” of the Kohanim and L’vi’im in the Mishkan and Temple. It’s often translated as “service,” because the “work” was devotional in nature. We were “serving” G-d by worship, by the performance of very specific actions (based in and around the sacrifices).

The Orthodox, Hasidic, and Conservative Jewish liturgy for Yom Kippur includes a section called “Avodah,” recounting the special procedures followed by the Kohen Gadol/High Priest on Atonement Day.

So, “service” became more or less synonymous with “worship.”

This passed into Christian tradition, as well. Outside almost any church building, you’ll see the “services” listed as such, indicated by time and day.

Less known to most of us is that the same word passed into Muslim tradition, too (transliterated as “ibadah” or “ebadah”):

“The Arabic word ibadah (عبادة) … (usually translated “worship”) is connected with related words literally meaning ‘slavery,’ and has connotations of obedience, submission, and humility. The word linguistically means ‘obedience with submission.’
In terms of Islam, ibadah is the obedience, submission, and devotion to Allah (G-d) along with the ultimate love for Him…
Ibadah consequently means following Islamic beliefs and practices – its [prayers], commands, prohibitions, the halal, and the haram. For Muslims, ibadah is also something that comes from the heart, or sincerity, as a result of belief in Islam…” [1]

Today, Jews might say, “I’m going to services in temple,” understood as: “I’m going to say prayers in synagogue.” Yet — look at the words themselves. Even in English, they show their origin!

If in Torah, “worship” originally meant [at least] “sacrifice,” for the rabbis of the Talmud, its original meaning was studying Torah, not praying. In fact, prayer was mostly an option.  “Prayer” here mostly meant “petitionary prayer;” the kind of prayer in which we ask G-d for things. It was in Torah-study that we surrendered our will and heart to G-d.

In the Temple, the main “service” of the day was the communal burnt offering done in the morning and evening. The kohahim/priests prepared themselves mentally and spiritually for this by reciting the Shema and the 10 Commandments. [2] They then proceeded to perform the “Olah Tamid” — the daily burnt offering.

As said, Jewish worship began to evolve from Torah-study. When Ezra led the return from exile, he instituted the public reading of Torah on Monday, Thursday and Shabbat mornings. As it evolved, it incorporated recitation of the Shema and 10 Commandments. The latter were later removed from the formal service, in reaction to those who interpreted “Torah” as those 10 commands alone, rather than the “613” commandments of Torah in its entirety. The petitionary aspect of the “Olah Tamid” was incorporated into the quiet reciting of the “Amidah” — the prayer that’s said while standing, preceded by the recitation of the Shema — just as the priests had done in the Temple. Then, on Monday and Thursday, a section from Torah would be read and taught. On Shabbat, Torah requires a “musaf” — an additional offering (i.e. two burnt offerings rather than one). This became represented by the “Musaf” prayer (another term originating in Temple practice that became included in synagogue/liturgical usage).  However, the “musaf” sacrifice would have followed immediately after the preliminary daily sacrifice. If the same sequence were done in synagogue, the Torah reading wouldn’t occur until almost 2/3 of the service was completed. Perhaps the rabbis felt that by this time, people’s attention would be tiring, so the reading of Torah is inserted between the first Amidah and its (later) Musaf.

So, the progression of a Jewish service becomes clear: Shema (contemplation of G-d’s One-ness and our interaction with that Oneness, including love, reward/punishment and submission), Amidah (surrender of our needs and wants to G-d) and, finally, the submission of our actual wills and hearts in Torah-study.

Saying the Shema, it’s as if we stand at the entrance to the courtyard of the Mishkan or Temple. Saying the Amidah, it’s as if we’ve entered the courtyard or even the heichal — the outer room of the Mishkan/Temple. Learning Torah, it’s as if we enter the Holy of Holies itself.



see also:

you can also google “ebadah.”

[2] Mishnah Tamid 5:1. Actually, the animal was slaughtered, flayed and salted before the Shema was read, but it wasn’t offered in fire until afterwards. This allowed for an unbroken flow of attention on the procedure and devotion by the kohanim, rather than requiring them to pause and wait while the slaughtering was done.