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Simple ways to infuse your home with Jewish meaning.
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With so many of us working and studying from home, our domestic interiors are more important than ever. Here are seven Jewish possessions no Jewish home should be without.
Giving charity – tzedakah in Hebrew – is a key component of Jewish life. The word tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word tzedek, meaning righteous. In Jewish life, giving to others is an integral part of being a righteous person.
For millennia, the tzedakah box has been a core component of every Jewish home. No matter how modest, Jewish families have filled their boxes with funds for the poor. Having a tzedakah box (called a pushke in Yiddish) on display, where all can see is a powerful reminder to donate funds to the poor. Many Jewish women put money in their family’s tzedakah box before they light Shabbat candles; some Jews place charity in their family’s pushke as a way of celebrating good moments such as weddings, bar or bat mitzvahs, or good news.
Perhaps the most visible sign of a Jewish home is the mezuzah, which is affixed to the doorpost of each room (with the exceptions of bathrooms and closets). Mezuzah, which literally means "doorpost" in Hebrew, commonly refers to a scroll of parchment containing biblical verses that the Torah commands us to affix on our doorposts. The mezuzah serves as a daily reminder – and a public declaration – of Jewish identity and faith.
The Torah instructs us to “write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9). To fulfill this mitzvah, Jews affix special hand-written parchments containing the Shema prayer to their doorways. These prayers remind us of God’s presence in our lives; in mystical Jewish thought, they’re also thought to offer protection to those who dwell inside a Jewish home.
The parchment, klaf, inside a mezuzah
The very way we hang mezuzot (the plural of mezuzah) contains a beautiful lesson. The 12th Century Jewish sage Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi, opined that the mezuzah should be hung vertically. Later rabbis contradicted Rashi, saying the mezuzah should be hung horizontally. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1269-1340), an important sage who lived in present-day Germany, proposed a compromise that’s become the custom throughout the Ashkenazi Jewish world: mezuzot are hung on a slant, facing in towards the room. Ever since, each glimpse of the mezuzah reminds us of the Jewish imperative to deal respectfully with others and to compromise where necessary.
“Like music, prayer is a natural expression of human longing,” observed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noting that the universal desire to connect with the Divine is “evidence of the image of God within us all.” While prayer can take many forms, including private impromptu thoughts, the timeless Jewish prayers of the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) offer a framework for ordering our thoughts and expressing our deepest emotions.
The Siddur gives voice to hopes and yearnings in every imaginable situation, containing prayers of thanksgiving for waking up in the morning to face another day, words of gratitude for the miraculous fact that our bodies continue to function, requests for health and livelihood, praises for the world’s beauty, celebrations of Shabbat and holidays, and a host of other expressions. The Siddur helps us put our thoughts into words and allows us to borrow the majestic language of earlier generations who penned its beautiful prayers.
The Jewish Bible is referred to as the Tanach, an acronym for Torah (the Five Books of Moses; Nach (Prophets: the works of the 19 Prophets of the Hebrew Bible); and Ketuvim (Writings, consisting of 11 books of other writings such as Psalms, Prophets, the Book of Esther, etc.).
Consider acquiring a copy of the Tanach with an easy to read Jewish commentary, explaining these key Biblical books from a Jewish perspective. A popular edition is the “Stone” Tanach by the Artscroll publishing company.
One of the most beautiful moments of the Jewish week comes just before sundown on Friday, when Jewish women light Shabbat candles, ushering in a day of rest and increased holiness. Many women make this occasion even more special by getting dressed up in formal clothes, giving money to tzedakah beforehand, and reciting prayers for their families and for others.
Whether you light hand-made candlesticks that your kids created in preschool or old candlesticks that are family heirlooms, having your own Shabbat candlesticks is a powerful reminder of this weekly ritual. If you don’t already own candlesticks to light for Shabbat (and other Jewish holidays) consider acquiring a pair. It’s traditional to light at least two candles or wicks in olive oil before Shabbat, though some families light additional ones for each child in the family.
Shabbat concludes with a short, beautiful Jewish ceremony called Havdalah. The word means “separation,” and marks the division between the special quality of Shabbat and the rest of the mundane work week.
Havdalah is a multisensory experience. We turn the lights down low and light a special candle that has more than one wick and burns very brightly. We sing, make blessings on wine, gaze at the reflection of the Havdalah candle’s glow, and smell sweet spices to signify our hope that we have a similarly sweet, fragrant new week ahead.
Havdalah candles can be purchased from Jewish bookstores and Judaica shops, or online at sites such like Artscroll.
The book of Psalms, (Tehillim in Hebrew) is a time honored tool of Jewish prayer. Written by King David and other Biblical figures, the prayers give voice to our deepest longings, our greatest hopes, and connect us with generations of Jews who’ve gone before us, who recited these same powerful words and prayers.
There are Psalms that are traditionally recited in times of sorrow; when we face danger and uncertainty; when we are preparing to make a long journey or take on a difficult task. No matter where we find ourselves, the words of Psalms can be a lifeline connecting us to the Divine. No matter how desperate or challenging our circumstances, having a book of Psalms in our homes can help us have the words to use at times when we want to cry out and do so in the phrases of generations of our ancestors.
There are many lovely editions of Psalms on the market; click here for one popular version that provides an interlinear translation of the original Hebrew into English.