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Keeping a Jewish Home

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.

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.

a family lights the menorah on the third night of Hanukkah

Two blessings are chanted or recited every night of Hanukkah. The first is a blessing over the candles themselves. The second blessing expresses thanks for the miracle of deliverance. A third blessing—the Shehecheyanu prayer, marking all joyous occasions in Jewish life—is chanted or recited only on the first night.

Any member or members of the family may chant or recite the blessings. One person lights and holds the shamash (helper candle), the blessings are pronounced, and then the candles are lit. The shamash is used to light the others, and one candle is lit for each night. The candle for the first night is put on the right side of the eight-branched menorah. 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(helper) candle is used to light the others.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

The best way to begin observing Shabbat is by starting small and adding to your Shabbat observance as you grow more comfortable. If you are interested in ritual, try learning the blessings of the Shabbat table.  Begin with one blessing, such as the blessing over the candles and work your way up to the blessing over the wine. If spending time with family and friends is meaningful, host a Shabbat dinner. Preparing traditional Shabbat foods can be an enjoyable family activity. If worship will enhance your Shabbat, find a nearby congregation, or even join in from the comfort of your own home. In our hectic lives, Shabbat offers the opportunity to relax and spend some time with family. You may want to take it a step further and study the weekly Torah portion

In essence, Shabbat can be a time to set aside everything in order to take care of yourself, and spend time with loved ones and friends. Observing Shabbat can include spending time reading for pleasure, playing games with your kids, taking a nap, and enjoying activities that feed and nurture your soul.

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 Appell

The canopy under which Jewish couples stand when they are married is called a chuppah. The chuppah represents the new home a couple establishes through their marriage. It also represents the sheltering presence of God and the wish for God's blessing over the couple. A chuppah can be as simple as a tallit (prayer shawl) attached to four poles supported by members of the wedding party or a large piece of decorative fabric attached to four stationary poles. Some wedding venues have structures that can serve as a chuppah and be decorated by a florist. The openness and temporal nature of the chuppah remind us that couples need to feel free to openly express their feelings to each other, and that new marriages require the support of friends and family.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

In a celebrated Talmudic dispute, two great Jewish teachers, Hillel and Shammai, argued whether we should begin by lighting eight candles and gradually decrease to one (Shammai), or begin with one candle and add an additional one each night, thus continuously increasing the light and joy of the holiday (Hillel). The majority ruled with Hillel. Thus, on the first night of Hanukkah, we recite or chant the blessings and light one candle with the shamash, two on the second night, and so on. Customarily, the candles are placed in the menorah from right to left but lit from left to right.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
Quinoa during the Jewish Holiday of Passover or Pesach

Once again, the debate over quinoa, the darling of health-conscious Jews, has risen to the top of our "Is it kosher for Passover?" list of questions. Just Google this question, and you will see that everyone is talking about quinoa!

Quinoa, a grain-like crop grown in South America, is not one of the grains considered chametz (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, or their derivatives). Some medieval Ashkenazi rabbis ruled that kitniyot (legumes) could not be eaten during Passover because they could be confused with chametz products. Some authorities consider quinoa to be kitniyot, while others do not.

But there's more. In order for quinoa to be Kosher for Passover, it seems to hinge on how the quinoa is grown. Some authorities have expressed concern because quinoa is processed in factories along with grains that are not kosher for Passover. In addition, kashrut authorities have learned that some farmers use barley or oats as a protective covering over their quinoa crops to prevent birds from eating it. According to an article in the New York Times, the debate is not likely to be resolved until one of the major kashrut certification companies can send a rabbi to the mountain region of Bolivia to inspect some of these factories.

Even Chabad does not have a definite answer and recommends consulting your community rabbi. So what is a Reform Jew to do? If you are going to eat quinoa this Passover, make sure the package says it is Kosher for Passover; there are several brands available. And though Gourmet Magazine is no longer published, be sure to check their online archive to some great quinoa recipes.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Ramie Arian

Is it permissible for someone who is below average height to affix a mezuzah lower than the norm, in order that they may be able to touch it and "interact" with it as they enter and exit their home, so that it may not be merely a "decorative" element?

First, regarding the height at which a mezuzah should properly be affixed, the halacha is clear on this matter, and all authorities are in agreement. The mezuzah should be affixed in the upper third of the doorpost, but not less than one handsbreath from the lintel. (See, for example, Ganzfreid's Code of Jewish Law). An average exterior door is typically between six feet six inches (78 inches) and seven feet (84 inches) in height. Thus a mezuzah may be hung 52 - 56 inches high (4'4" - 4'8", depending on the height of the door). A typical person's reach is at least twenty percent above her height. Thus, if the door is seven feet tall, the mezuzah may be hung at a height of four feet eight inches, and should be easily accessible to a person under four feet tall. So, unless someone has a truly unusual door, or they are exceptionally short in stature, they should have no trouble at all complying with the letter of the halacha.

Second, regarding the usage of the mezuzah. Maimonides (Code, Book 2, Laws of Mezzuzah, Chapter 6:13) exhorts readers to be scrupulous in observing the mitzvah of having a mezuzah since "whenever one enters or leaves a home with a mezuzah on the doorpost, he will see it and be confronted with the declaration of God's unity.....This thought will immeditely restore him to his right senses and he will walk in the paths of righteousness." According to Maimonides, the essence of the mitzvah of mezuzah is to see it -- it is not necessary to touch it. Further, Maimonides explicitly warns against those who misuse the mezuzah, presuming it to be an amulet (loc. cit. 5:4). In other words, even if it were not possible for someone to hang their mezuzah within reach, they can fulfill both the letter and the spirit of the halacha by hanging it within sight.

Third, regarding the touching of the mezuzah. The custom appears to have originated with the MaHaRil (Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Boellin, 1360-1427), who based it on a story in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11a) in which Onkelos b. Kalonymous the Proselyte touched his mezuzuah in order to be afforded protection against Roman soldiers who were arresting him. So there is some rabbinic precedent to the custom.

The desire to observe this custom, and thereby to mark the separation between the private, sanctified space within and the public, ordinary space outside, appears to be a good example of a positive application of the Reform Jewish principle of seeking renewed meaning to traditional customs and observances. On this ground, I might be inclined to support it, even in the unlikely circumstance that the door is so high, or the people so short, that they cannot possibly reach the mezuzah within the rather broad halachic guidelines above. However, even in that instance, one must consider the principle of Marit Ayin (appearance to others) -- and be concerned that acquaintances, possessed of less intense Jewish identity and literacy, might see the lower-than-usual mezuzah and conclude that that is the normal, appropriate height at which to hang it. This might then mislead their own practice, even if there were no need to do so.

In conclusion -- depending on the height of the door, it seems likely that the mezuzah can be hung at a height which fulfills the halacha and can still be within reach. If not, the mitzvah of mezuzah can still be fulfilled if it is within sight, even if not within reach. I would counsel against hanging it lower, since:

  1. to do so is not halachically permissible;
  2. to do so is not necessary, either to fulfill the letter or the spirit of the halacha, even if your friends are exceedingly short; 
  3. the custom of touching the mezuzah is of relatively late origin, is a custom (not a law) and might be construed to lean towards making the mezuzah an amulet; and
  4. hanging the mezuzah too low might give an erroneous impression to others, who have not researched the question carefully.
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