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Jewish Rituals and Symbols

Three sufganiyot on a white plate

Sufganiyot are donuts, usually jelly-filled, that commemorate the miracle associated with the oil that burned for eight days in the Hanukkah story. Foods cooked in oil are traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

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A pile of gelt, or chocolate coins in gold colored wrapping

Gelt are chocolate coins given to Jewish children on the festival of Hanukkah. They are usually wrapped in gold foil, and their history can be traced back to the decision of the Hasmoneans to mint their own nation’s coins after their military victory over the Greek Syrians. Gelt are often used to gamble with in the game of dreidel.

Latkes with sour cream and apple sauce

A latke is a potato pancake fried in oil, and is a traditional food eaten to celebrate the miracle of the oil in the story of Hanukkah. Foods cooked in oil serve as a symbol of the legend of the jar of oil that lasted for eight days.

child playing with dreidel

The word dreidel derives from a German word meaning “spinning top,” and is the toy used in a Hanukkah game adapted from an old German gambling game. Hanukkah was one of the few times of the year when rabbis permitted games of chance. The four sides of the top bear four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. Players begin by putting into a central pot or “kitty” a certain number of coins, chocolate money known as gelt, nuts, buttons or other small objects. Each player in turn spins the dreidel and proceeds as follows:

  • nun – take nothing;
  • gimel – take everything;
  • hei – take half;
  • shin – put one in.

Over time, the letters on the dreidel were reinterpreted to stand for the first letter of each word in the Hebrew statement “Neis gadol hayah sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there” and refers to the defeat of the Syrian army and the re-dedication of the Temple.  In Israel, one letter on the dreidel differs from those used in the rest of the world. The shin has been replaced with a pey, transforming the Hebrew statement into Neis gadol hayah po, which means, “A great miracle happened here. has a new spin on playing dreidel, with fun rules to keep your family playing all eight nights of Hanukkah.

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A menorah with all candles lit

A menorah is a candelabra, and can be used for Hanukkah if it has nine stems. Another word for a Hanukkah menorah is hanukkiyah. A hanukkiyah has one stem for each of the eight days of Hanukkah, and one for the shamash, or “the helper candle” that is used to light the other candles. Candles are added each night from right to left and they are lit from left to right.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

Shiva is a time when we reminisce, remember, recapture memories of a loved one. As such, what we usually do during a condolence call is to listen to those memories that the mourner wishes to share or to talk about other subjects initiated by the mourner that may have nothing to do with his or her loss.

It is traditional to not knock or ring but rather just to enter a house of mourning, so as not to bother the mourners. Many Reform Jews do not observe this custom today, but it is a good idea to keep it in mind and try the door before you ring the bell when paying a shiva call.

As you enter the house of mourning, a member or friend of the family may meet you and usher you into the living room. It is customary to wait to speak until after the mourner speaks. But, once you are acknowledged, all you need say is “I’m sorry.” That simple phrase, a touch, a hug will mean more to the mourner than you can ever know. Usually, you need not stay more than thirty to forty-five minutes. During your visit, supporting, listening, and responding to the mourner should be your primary goal.

Except for food, it is not customary to bring anything with you to the house of mourning. Again, your presence is the main thing. If you wish to “do something,” make a contribution to the deceased’s favorite charity or synagogue fund. A particularly meaningful gesture for many Jews is to plant trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund.

Source: Rabbi Daniel B. SymeThe Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (URJ Press, 2004)

See also: Preparing for a Jewish Funeral: A Checklist, The "New" Jewish Funeral, What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral, Preparing for a Jewish Funeral: A Guide.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

Many have incorporated new rituals as part of the Passover  seder. Many seder plates include an orange, which is attributed to Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. Heschel included an orange in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews, and others who are marginalized in the Jewish community. In her ritual, each person takes a segment of the orange, and before eating it, says a blessing over the fruit. The seeds are spit out as a rejection of homophobia.

Urban legend, while including Heschel in the story, has radically altered it. The story that many have heard is that Heschel, while lecturing in Florida, was denounced by a man who said a woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.

Not only had the ritual been attributed to a man, but the inclusion of gays and lesbians was erased from the story. While there are now many female rabbis, and Reform Judaism has made inclusion of the LGBTQ community a priority, this story reminds us that there is still much work to be done so that the stories of both women and gays and lesbians are told and heard. Indeed, an orange still belongs on a seder plate.

See also: 
Do We Still Need an Orange on the Seder Plate?
Yes, We Still Need an Orange on Our Seder Plate
7 Modern Additions to the Seder Plate

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

Tu BiSh’vat is the “New Year of the Trees.” It is a wonderful holiday to celebrate at home. Treat your home to a new plant or two. Children enjoy planting seeds and watching new plants grow. At bedtime, read a book about trees with your children. Start a window-sill herb garden or counter-top composter. Let Tu BiSh’vat be the impetus to reduce, reuse, recycle. A Tu BiSh’vat Seder is a traditional, fun and easy way to celebrate the holiday. Going to a seder? Bring a delicious dish incorporating the traditional foods of Tu BiSh’vat.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

The custom of covering one’s head is based on custom, a minhag, that first appeared during the Rabbinic Period (roughly, from the beginning of the Common Era to 500 C.E.). While there are no references to this in the Torah and no explicit statements in Jewish legal sources about covering the head, among some Jews this custom has taken on the force of religious law. Among Orthodox Jews, men commonly wear a kippah (yarmulke in Yiddish) or cover their heads at all times.

While this practice was at one time discouraged among Reform Jews, it is no longer unusual to see Reform Jews covering their heads when praying.  Many reform synagogues keep a supply of kippot (plural of kippah) on hand for worshippers. In keeping with the Reform Jewish doctrine of personal religious autonomy, those Jews who find meaning in wearing a kippah should feel free to do so. And in keeping with Reform Judaism’s commitment to equality, both women and men may participate in this observance. 

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

A menorah refers to a candelabrum, usually one with seven branches. A hanukiyyah is a menorah used specifically on Hanukkah, which includes eight branches, one for each day of the holiday, and one extra branch for the shamash (servant) candle that is used to light the other candles.

Blessings are recited over lighting the candles. One candle is lit for each night. The candle for the first night is put on the right side of hanukiyyah. On each subsequent night, an additional candle is placed to the immediate left of the previous night’s candle, and the candles are lit from left to right, so that the kindling begins with the newest light. Since these lights are holy, it is forbidden to make practical use of them; therefore, a special shamash (servant) candle is used to light the others. Watch our how-to video and enjoy lighting our virtual hanukkiyah.

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