Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


WORSHIP, service rendered to God and comprehending both the attitude of reverence and love toward the Deity and the activity – in conduct as well as ritual – in which the homage finds expression.


The biblical vocabulary of worship is extensive and varied. The following are the principal terms employed:

1. hishtaḥawah, "to prostrate oneself," is the most frequently used (86 times);

2. ʿavad, "to serve";

3. yare', "to revere";

4. sheret, "to minister," especially in a cultic sense;

5. darash, "to seek, inquire";

6. sagad (Heb.), seged (Aram.) (both in Daniel), "to bow."

There are also other terms used to express various liturgical acts and the feelings of joy awakened by worship.

Ideological Basis

The earlier version of this entry hewed closely to the position of Yehezkel *Kaufmann whose work, though ingenious, overstated the contrasts between Israel and its neighbors. In addition, as was true of his contemporaries, Kaufmann equated the religion of ancient Israel with the religion of the Bible. The present revised entry concentrates on the biblical view of worship, namely that Israelites must worship Yahweh alone, without equating that view with the actual patterns of worship in ancient Israel, which require separate investigation. For all its distinctiveness, Israelite religion fit neatly into ancient Near Eastern patterns. Like their neighbors, the Hebrews had no concept of nature or its immutable laws. As such, they believed that it was possible to influence the powers that be in human favor by acts of ritual and worship. God might sometimes be spoken of as beyond human understanding (Isa. 40:28; 55:9; Ps. 145:3; Job 5:9) but is accessible nonetheless. Humans turn to the divine, sometimes out of a sense of wonderment and awe, of reverence and gratitude, of joy and trust, which call forth a desire for adoration and thanksgiving. At other times distress and danger impel people to seek God's help, for He is the ultimate source of salvation (Isa. 43:11; Hos. 13:4). God is perceived as both near (Ps. 145:18) and far (Ps. 22:12). Sin estranges humans from God. In biblical thinking rebellion against the Divine will, revealed in His commandments, and the breaching of His eternal covenant, creates a gulf between divinity and humanity, which only atonement can bridge. Penitents seek expiation for their transgressions through confession and sacrifice (Lev. 4 and 16). There are times when the acts of an inscrutable providence result in human challenge and protest (Gen. 18:24; Jer. 12:1ff.; Job, passim). Biblical worship had room for all these human reactions.

Israel's contemporaries had forms of worship analogous to those of Israel; Hebrews and their neighbors shared the notion that it was possible for humans to have some control over their destinies. Both Yahweh and his divine contemporaries demanded the service of the clean of hand and pure of heart (Ps. 24:4; Egyptian Book of the Dead, chapter 125).

Humans have always been conscious of a certain duality in divine worship. In a Hittite inscription designated Instructions for Temple Officials it is stated:

Are the minds of men and of the gods generally different? No! …When a servant is to stand before his master, he is bathed and clothed in clean [garments]; he either gives him his food, or he gives him his beverage. And because he, his master, eats [and] drinks, he is relaxed in spirit and feels one with him. But if he [the servant] is ever remiss, [if] he is inattentive, his mind is alien to him. And if a slave causes his master's anger, they will either kill him… (ANET, Pritchard, Texts, p. 207).

The author discerns a twofold approach to the deity:

(a) the avoidance of uncleanness and whatever else may vex the divinity;

(b) the provision of offerings.

The same negative and positive approaches to God are reflected in the positive precepts and prohibitions of the Torah. The two aspects are found, for example, in the ritual laws of purification and the ceremonial observances, respectively. They are likewise discerned on the higher level of ethical conduct: wrongdoing is to be eschewed and righteousness is to be pursued in the service of God (Isa. 1:16–17). For worship is not solely or even primarily a matter of ritual. It is of supreme significance that in Micah's formulation of the fundamentals of religion two of the three requirements ("to do justly and to love loving kindness") concern human relationships, and only the third ("to walk humbly with thy God") refers to the Deity (6:8). The Hittites and the Hebrews depicted their gods in human imagery. Both required just and ethical conduct along with ritual, as did the Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods.

Emphasis is often given to the antithesis between cultic observances and righteous conduct. The former is deemed to belong to the priestly conception of religion, whereas the prophets, it is held, rejected ritual and stressed the spiritual approach to God. To some extent this is true. The fact that prophets often railed against the mechanical potency of ritual proves that the concept had deep roots, encouraged of course by the priesthood (Lev. 16:30, 34), whose income depended on it (Hos. 4:8). Yet, the Bible does not show a hard and fast dichotomy. Priests could also be prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel); prophets, when necessary, emphasized the importance of ritual requirements (Ezek. 40–48; Haggai 1:2ff.; Mal. 1:8, 12–14). The Torah ordains cultic regulations in juxtaposition to its formulation of ethical principles (e.g., Ex. 20:8–14; Lev. 19:15–22), or synthesizes them into a single law (e.g., Deut. 16:14). Late prophetic teaching lent support to this view (Mal. 3:4–5). The attempt to interpret liturgical and ethical requirements as diametrical opposites serves to compartmentalize the life of the worshiper; the Bible seeks to make it whole. It points to the ultimate purpose of religion in key passages like these: "And thou shalt love the Lord, thy God…" (Deut. 6:5); "And thou shalt love thy fellow as thyself" (Lev. 19:18); "For I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice…" (Hos. 6:6). Worship unites in itself both outward forms and religious inwardness. At the same time some of Israel's religious teachers realized that there was a tension between the observance of the external rites and the inner content of religion in which lurked the danger of formalism and hypocrisy. The prophets inveighed against these tendencies. They denounced corrupting wealth and callous indifference to the needs of the poor (Amos 3:12, 15; 4:1ff.; 5:11; 6:4–6); sacrifices and celebrations that were rooted in unrighteousness and insincerity (Amos 5:21ff.; Isa. 1:11ff.); and taking advantage of religious festivals to engage in illicit sexual behavior (Amos 2:7; Hos. 4:13ff.); whoring after the Baals (Hos. 2ff.; Jer. 3:1ff.); the intemperance and evildoing of priests and false prophets (Isa. 28:7ff.; Hos. 4:4–10); and the horror of sacrificing children to Moloch/Baal (Jer. 7:31; 32:35; cf. Lev. 18:21; Deut. 18:10). Even the Temple was not spared when it ceased to be a center of holiness (Jer. 7:11ff.; Micah 3:12). The prophets did not hesitate to condemn practices that were inherently good but had become vitiated by dishonorable conduct and iniquitous living (Amos 5:21–24; Isa. 1:11ff.; Jer. 6:20). The prophets did not disapprove of sacrifices if offered in sincerity and truth (Mal. 3:4). It was to falsehood and evil that they were opposed. They demanded loyal obedience to the will of God instead of the sacrilege of a cult that was no more than blasphemous hypocrisy (Hos. 6:6; Jer. 7:21–23; Micah 6:6–8; cf. Ps. 51:16ff.). Righteous living was fundamental to true worship. But in a different constellation of circumstances the later prophets, in particular, urged earnest devotion to the forms of organized religion as vital to the survival of the faith and the nation.

The Elements of Biblical Worship

The fabric of Israel's worship was woven of many strands. These may be summarized as acts of purification; dietary laws; sacrifices, tithes, and other offerings; the observance of the Sabbath, festivals, and fast-days; and prayer understood in its broadest sense.

The laws of defilement and purity – largely in Leviticus (e.g., 14:9; 15:11; 17:15–16), Numbers (ch. 19), and Deuteronomy (e.g., 21:1–9) – and the dietary regulations (Lev. 11; Deut. 12:16; 14:4ff.), irrespective of their conjectured origin, form in the Bible part of the law of holiness (Lev. 11:44). "I shall wash my hands in innocence" (Ps. 26:6; cf. 73:13; 24:4).

In a sense, the sacrifices – both public and private – the firstlings, the first fruits, as well as the tithes and other priestly and levitical dues (Ex. 13:11ff.; Lev. 1–7; 27:30–33; Num. 5:9ff.; 15:18ff.; 18:8ff.; Deut. 12:17ff.; 14:22–29; 15:19ff.; 24:19–21; 26:1–14) are comparable to taxes, rents, and fines (R.H. Pfeiffer). Yet as was true in other ancient religious systems, the sacrificial system was a dramatic approach to the divine, an act of homage and thanksgiving (Ps. 24:1; I Chron. 29:14), or of expiation (in His grace God accepts the oblation instead of the sacrificer's life). Hence when the true significance of the offerings was forgotten it was said that God actually revoked them (Isa. 1:11; Ps. 50:8ff.).

The Sabbath and the other holy days of Israel's calendar have played an immeasurable role in developing and ennobling Israel's worship. The attempt to find the origin of the Sabbath in the Babylonian šapattu has proved abortive. Whatever its origin, the idea of the Sabbath in the scriptural context is a unique institution, meant to articulate divine sovereignty over time, just as the sabbatical year articulates divine sovereignty over territory. From one point of view, it was Israel's answer to the Egyptian bondage; any human being, even a slave, needs rest. Not only humans, but also animals require recuperation from toil (Ex. 23:12; Deut. 5:12–15). In the Exodus version of the Decalogue, the Sabbath assumes cosmic significance; it becomes a memorial to the story of Creation (Ex. 20:8–11; cf. Gen. 2:1–4). Nor were the prophets less emphatic in stressing the hallowed character of the day (Isa. 58:13–14; Ezek. 20:20), and Nehemiah took stern measures to enforce its observance. An extension of the Sabbath idea is to be seen in the sabbatical year (Ex. 23:10ff.; Deut. 15) and in the year of jubilee (Lev. 25).

Like the Sabbath, the festivals were designed to bring the worshiper nearer to God. They were occasions of deep religious joy (Deut. 16:15; Neh. 8:10ff.). Biblical religion, while deploring all forms of intemperance and overindulgence, nevertheless looked askance at asceticism. Wine was created to gladden the human heart (Ps. 104:15). The Lord was to be served in gladness (Ps. 100:2; cf. Shab. 30b). Modern research has conjectured that certain biblical festivals are derived from earlier lunar and solar celebrations in antiquity, or are related to Canaanite agricultural feasts, which have been adapted to Israelite thinking. Without entering into the validity of these theories, it must be stressed that the religious significance of these observances is not in their supposed origin, but in their scriptural presentation. The paschal offering and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex. 12; Deut. 16:5–6; Ezek. 45:21), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) or of Ingathering (Ex. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:34ff.; Num. 29:12–39; Deut. 16:13–15; 31:10–13) mark respectively the barley harvest and vintage time. As such they had a thanksgiving character; they gave expression to the Israelite's gratitude to God for the earth's bounty. But to the agricultural aspect a historical element was added: Passover calls to mind the deliverance from Egyptian bondage (Ex. 12–13; 23:15; Deut. 16:1–8) and Tabernacles is a reminder of the Lord's care for Israel during their desert wanderings (Lev. 23:43). Israel found God not only in the phenomena of the world, but also in the providential course of events. This historical insight plays an important role in Israel's worship, both in its ceremonial and in its prayers (e.g. Ps. 136; I Chron. 16:8ff.). The Feast of Weeks (Ex. 34:22; Deut. 16:10 – also called the Feast of the Grain Harvest (Ex. 23:16) and the Day of First Fruits (Num. 28:26) – is in its biblical setting a purely agricultural celebration, but in rabbinic times it evolved into the festival of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Characteristically, too, when farmers brought their first fruits before the Lord, they expressed gratitude in a succinct historical review (Deut. 26:5–10). Minor celebrations, such as Purim (Est.) and Ḥanukkah (the Festival of Dedication; see I *Macc. and II *Macc.) based on Hellenistic models, obviously have a historical motif. The same is true of the fast days of the fifth and seventh months (Zech. 7:3–5), recalling the fall of Jerusalem. But the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) is entirely religious in character; and the Day of Blowing the Horn, called New Year – Rosh Ha-Shanah – in rabbinic literature (Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1), and the New Moon (Num. 28:11ff.; I Sam. 20:5ff.; II Kings 4:23, etc.) and the Feast of the Wood Offering (Neh. 10:35; 13:31) were likewise unrelated to historical events. It should also be noted that the special sacrifices (Num. 28–29) which marked all the major celebrations served to emphasize the religious nature of these occasions; and the inwardness of these observances was illuminated by prophetic teaching (Isa. 1:11ff.; 58:3ff.; Joel 2:13).

Finally it should be observed that biblical worship might be individual and collective. Examples of personal worship abound throughout the Bible: the Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, Hannah, and Hezekiah, among others. Without doubt David composed a number of prayers (cf. II Sam. 7:18–29) and some of his compositions are certainly in the Book of Psalms. But apart from this, the Book of Psalms contains a variety of prayers and hymns that voice the personal supplications, hope, faith, and joy of the authors. These may have been subsequently adapted to national or congregational use, but their individual significance was not wholly lost. To the same category of worship belong also the private sacrifices brought to the Temple, although the ritual formed part of the general priestly ministrations.

At the same time the Bible ordains and illustrates various forms of public worship. Of this aspect of worship the Bible likewise furnished innumerable examples (the public sacrifices; the Temple choral services; the statutory assembly prescribed in Deut. 31:10ff.; and historic occasions like those described in I Kings 8:1ff.; Neh. 8:1ff., etc.). The synagogue services of a later period continued the tradition of congregational prayer and study, without excluding opportunities for personal religious meditation.

Developments in Israel's Worship

Biblical religious rites clearly underwent a continuous process of development. The biblical account of worship in the patriarchal age reflects practices originating in different times and places. Altars were built and the name of YHWH proclaimed (Gen. 12:7–8; 13:4). Tithes were given (Gen. 14:20) and sacrifices offered (Gen. 22:13; cf. 4:3–4; 8:20). The Lord entered into a covenant with Abraham, the accompanying ritual being reminiscent of *Mari customs (Gen. 15; cf. Jer. 34:18). Prayer (Gen. 24:12ff.) and acts of purification (35:2ff.) are mentioned. The Patriarchs blessed their children (27:27–29, 39–40; 49:3ff.) and Jacob made a vow (28:20ff.). The Lord blessed the Patriarchs, assured them of His salvation, and promised the land of Canaan to their children (12:2ff.; 26:3–5; 24; 28:13–15, etc.). In some cases the patriarchal tales reflect family religion that persisted through time in ancient Israel, without an elaborate priesthood or sanctuary; the theophany granted a family elder could determine the site of worship.

The *Tabernacle and its cult (Ex. 25–31; 35–40) reflect worship in monarchic as well as exilic and post-exilic Israel. Prophets like Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah held that the wilderness period determined the basic character of Israel's authentic worship (Amos 5:25; Hos. 2:16–17; Jer. 7:21–23).

At times, syncretism was rife; the prohibitions against taking over Canaanite sacred sites and practices (Deut. 12:2–3; 30–31) prove that such was the case. At times YHWH was worshiped under the guise of Baal; or along with him (I Kings 18; II Kings 21:3). Saul, Samuel, and David were zealous advocates of the worship of Yahweh alone to exclusion of all other gods, while other kings like *Solomon (see I Kings 11:4), *Ahab, and *Manasseh worshiped other gods alongside Yahweh. David united the nation and chose a central site for worship at the new capital, Jerusalem. He assembled the material for the future Temple and reorganized the priesthood (II Sam. 8:7–12; 17–18). He is said to have enriched Israel's psalmody and introduced instrumental music into public worship (Amos 6:5; I Chron. 15, 16, and 25). He also organized a processional ceremony in which the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem, perhaps on one of the great festivals (II Sam. 6; cf Ps. 24 and 132). Solomon built the central Temple in Zion, where worship was strongly ecclesiastical – mediated by the priests and levites – and markedly national, with universal tones appearing in Second Temple writings (Isa. 56:6–7; 66:23; Zech. 14:16–19).


Y. Kaufmann, Toledot; W.O.E. Oesterly, The Jewish Background of the Christian Liturgy (1925); I. Elbogen, Der juedische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (19313); N.H. Snaith, in: H.W. Robinson (ed.), Record and Revelation (1938); H.J. Kraus, Gottesdienst in Israel (1954); D.R. Ap-Thomas, in: VT, 6 (1956), 225–41. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: R. Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, 2 vols. (1994); K. van der Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel (1995); M. Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel (1995); S. Geller, in: A. Berlin and M. Brettler (eds.), The Jewish Study Bible (2004), 2021–40.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.