Messianic Jewish Worship, Beliefs, and Service Structure
By: Caroline Hood, Sterling Cannady and Caroline Bowman
Most believe that Jesus Christ is Lord do not observe today the same practices, rituals, and traditions observed by Jews before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Messianic Jews, however, are an exception. They revere Jesus and His work on the cross yet also seek to worship God in the same manner as Jews did 2000 years ago. The United States is home to 200,000 of the world’s 300,000 Messianic Jews worldwide (Anderson 2018). Unlike other evangelical movements who follow Jesus, Messianic Judaism strives to preserve the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism. In Birmingham, Alabama, the Beth Hallel Messianic Jewish Congregation is a place where those who choose to worship Jesus in this way can meet together to learn about and praise the God of Abraham.
A Visit to Beth Hallel
We visited Beth Hallel on a Saturday morning in October 2021 It was not what we expected. When we first arrived, there were fewer people there than we anticipated. The fact that Beth Hallel has both a Friday evening and Saturday morning service probably contributed to this. Beth Hallel purchased their building from Shades Mountain Bible Church, thus the entrance was similar to many Christian churches, with the sanctuary on the right when you first walk in. Even though the people were few, their passion for worship was very evident. Right away we noticed that some of the members wore more traditional Jewish apparel, including yarmulkes, other head coverings, and prayer shawls. However, not everyone dressed this way, and this was also accepted by the members. The synagogue was full of singing, clapping, dancing, and celebration. Beth Hallel’s service began with the blowing of the shofar and in response, the people clapped and celebrated. The service then continued to worship through song, both in Hebrew and in English, praising Yeshua’s (Jesus’) name. During worship, a small group of women went over to one side of the sanctuary and performed a traditional dance as a sign of their worship. Another interesting aspect we noted was that some members chose to not wear shoes, out of reverence for the Lord. This is related to Exodus 3:5 when God tells Moses to take off his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground.
Just after worship, we prayed for the children’s ministry. They called the children up to the stage and covered them with a tallit— prayer shawl—before the children went to their classrooms for children’s ministry. After this, we read three readings: two from the Old Testament in Hebrew and English, and one from the New Testament only in English. To do this, four men came up to open the ark at the front of the sanctuary. Inside were two large, decorated scrolls, and one small one. One man removed one scroll from the ark and held it while we all stood and read the Shema, a confession of faith that is a traditional part of Jewish prayer. It consists of three passages. A woman was leading us as we recited the shema. While she did this, she also held her hand over her eyes; this traditional custom enabled her to concentrate without visual distraction. Then, we entered a time of prayer and tithing, which was emphasized strongly by the rabbi. After our time of tithing, the rabbi came up once again to give a sermon about prayer based on a book the congregation had been reading. This lasted approximately one hour, making the whole service about two hours long and ended with the benediction presented by a young teenage boy.
Following the service, we talked to a couple of members of the synagogue who welcomed us and thanked us for coming. One woman we talked to was very helpful and explained her background. She was a Samford alumna and grew up Southern Baptist. After taking Hebrew at the synagogue, she decided to connect with Beth Hallel and has been there ever since, finding refuge in the Gospel while fighting breast cancer and her mother’s Alzheimer’s. She continues to read scripture daily to keep her own mind sharp.
Overall, our experience at Beth Hallel was very insightful as we could better understand what it means to be a Messianic Jew. These people desire to keep Jewish traditional practices while also recognizing Yeshua as their Savior, thus performing rituals in reverence and honor to Him.
Rituals and Practices
Messianic Jews practice their religious activities at a synagogue. A synagogue can be defined as a “sacred community of Jewish people who gather for worship, prayer, fellowship, study, celebrations, and other Jewish community activities” (Introduction to Messianic Judaism). The presence of Yeshua is what makes Messianic synagogues different from other Jewish synagogues. The practices and rituals of Messianic Jews look very similar to that of traditional Jewish rituals, however, the presence of Yeshua changes these practices because of his living presence.
Worship through dance is very common among Messianic Jews, especially in a congregational setting. Messianic Jews also show their worship through the celebration of many festivals and observances. Seth Klayman “attributes the diverse expressions of Messianic Jewish worship and prayer to the priority of the leading of the Rauch HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit)” (Introduction to Messianic Judaism).
All Messianic Jews also agree that Scripture is divinely inspired and has authority. The Torah is also given special reverence in all Messianic Jewish congregations, holding a special honor. Many rituals, practices, teachings, and observances are passed down through the Messianic Jewish tradition, each being consistent with scripture and the traditions of Messianic Jews.
Comparing Messianic Judaism to Christianity and Traditional Judaism
Messianic Judaism brings together Jews and Gentiles, as they believe in Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah, while also observing traditional Jewish practices. However there are some Christians such as Stan Telchilin, who would say that some Messianic Jewish practices are unscriptural and may even cause discomfort to Jewish believers (Telchin 2004, 27). Furthermore, the Jewish community often does not think Messianic Jews should have the right to call themselves Jews (Spielberg and Dauermann 1997, 19). While many American Jews believe that faith in Yeshua as Savior appears to be antithetical to Jewish identity and community, Messianic Jews uphold Jewish tradition but do so in a way that has Christ at the center of their faith and customs (Spielberg and Dauermann 1997, 15). They state that believing in Yeshua was originally a Jewish concept as the first believers in him were Jewish (Beth Hallel Birmingham 2019). They also explain that Yeshua himself was a Jew who lived among Jewish people and studied Jewish scriptures, which are now often known today as the Old Testament. His first followers were Jews as well. Accordingly, they believe that when a Jew does put their faith in Jesus as Messiah, they should not have to give up their Jewish identity in order to do so (Beth Hallel Birmingham 2019). Messianic Jews desire to continue to live as Jews and embrace their Jewishness while putting their faith in their Jewish Messiah.
Just as other Christian denominations, Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who being fully God and fully man, is the promised Messiah and Savior. They also believe that our only hope for redemption and salvation is by the grace of God through the atonement made by Yeshua (Beth Hallel Birmingham 2019). Because of this belief, they believe in the importance of ministering to both the Jewish community as well as the body of Christian believers. They desire that their fellow Jews may also come to have faith in Yeshua (Beth Hallel Birmingham 2019). Their hope is that believers of Jesus can come to better understand and see the Jewish roots of their faith.
Beth Hallel Messianic Jewish Congregation
Location: 2230 Sumpter Street, Birmingham, AL 35226
Moved to Current Site: 2010
Affiliation: Messianic Judaism
Anderson, Ingrid. “Why the History of Messianic Judaism is So Fraught and Complicated.” The Conversation. Last modified November 13, 2018. https://theconversation.com/why-the-history-of-messianic-judaism-is-so-fraught-and-complicated-106143.
“Beth Hallel Birmingham.” Home. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://shalombirmingham.com.
“Birmingham Messianic Jewish Congregation Buys Shades Mountain Bible Church.” Al. Last modified May 29, 2010. https://www.al.com/living-news/2010/05/birmingham_messianic_jewish_co.html.
Spielberg, Faña, and Stuart Dauermann. 1997. “Contextualization: Witness and Reflection: Messianic Jews as a Case.” Missiology 25 (1): 15–35.
Telchin, Stan. 2004. “Messianic Judaism Is Not Christianity” : A Loving Call to Unity. Chosen Books.
“10/16/2021 – Yom Shabbat.” Livestream. October 16, 2021. https://livestream.com/shalombirmingham/events/9867698/videos/226643608.
Caroline Hood ‘24, Caroline Bowman ‘24 and Sterling Cannady ‘24 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2021.
Published November 29, 2021