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Jewish Rituals and Symbols

Haggadah on a blue table

The Passover seder is a service, over a dinner meal, that tells the story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt through a prescribed order of symbolic foods, stories, songs, and prayers. The Hebrew word Haggadah means “telling,” and it refers to the service or script for the Passover seder table ritual. The Haggadah provides the order and script of the service with step-by-step instructions.

Curious about the history of the Haggadah? Rabbi Barry Shainker shares some of the background. Suffice it to say, though, that today, thousands of different Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) exist, written in many languages and available both in stores and online. Though their content, layout, artwork and language may vary, their overall structure remains the same – and Passover’s themes of liberation and ending oppression even inspired many Haggadot that reflect on these ideas in contemporary contexts.

If you’re invited to attend a friend’s seder or will be attending one at your local synagogue, a Haggadah will likely be provided for you. If, however, you’re asked to bring your own, or you’re hosting a seder for other, try visiting your local bookstore or visiting Reform Jewish publisher CCAR Press online. We highly recommend their Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family and The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah.

Star of David on a pew bench

How wonderful that you will be experiencing the Jewish High Holidays at a synagogue this year! (And if you’re reading this but haven’t yet found a synagogue to call home, check out our Find a Congregation tool before the High Holidays arrive.)

You will not be expected to give money during the Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur services. In fact, it is customary to not exchange money on Shabbat or major Jewish holidays.

However, if you would like to make a donation to the synagogue in the days before or following the service, the congregation would surely be grateful, as most synagogues support themselves with membership dues and donations. 

Prior to visiting, you might want to check with the congregation you will be visiting to see if they will be collecting non-perishable foods for the community food pantry during the time you’ll be there. Because Yom Kippur is a fast day, many congregations either encourage worshiper to donate the equivalent dollar amount of what they would have spent on groceries for that day, and they organize a non-perishable food collection to stock the local food pantries. 

Finally, please also note that many North American Reform synagogues require tickets for High Holidays services – even for members – to ensure that there are enough seats for everyone who wishes to worship. There may be a fee for these tickets, or not, depending on the congregation; your local synagogue will be happy to outline for you its ticket policies.

May you find the High Holiday services to be meaningful. 

Answer By: 
Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

When the grandmother of the Bat Mitzvah was wheeled to the door of the sanctuary in her wheelchair, she wanted to kiss the mezuzah. She was so overjoyed at the occasion, she wanted to show her gratitude in that moment by reaching up, touching the mezuzah, and bringing her fingers to her lips. But the traditional mezuzah was well beyond her reach affixed in its traditional spot, one third from the top of the doorway.

A mezuzah is a small, usually decorative box that has a rolled-up piece of parchment inside. On the parchment are the words of belief in one God, Shema Yisrael, and included are the instructions: You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:8-9) The purpose of the mezuzah is to be a reminder that a dwelling place is a miniature sanctuary and a home for holiness. When you cross the threshold, remember God is everywhere, including right here.

Traditionally, the mezuzah must be hung on the upper third of the doorpost. This is, according to Rabbi Yosi in the Talmud, because the mezuzah is like tefillin, the “sign on your hand.” Just as the hand-tefillin is worn on the upper arm near the heart, so the mezuzah should be on the upper part of the door. It also must be placed near the outside of a deep doorway so that “so that people might encounter [Heb. vayifga] the mezuzah immediately” (Menachot 33a-b). This became Jewish law.

The Talmud’s words allude to a story in the Torah. When Jacob arrives at Beit El (“the House of God”), we read, vayifga hamakom - “he encountered the place” (Genesis 28:11). When Jacob has a vision of a ladder and angels connecting heaven and earth and exclaims, “How awe-inspiring this place is! Certainly, this is the house of God and the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17). The lesson here is: When you come into a home, you should be like Jacob, seeing this place as a house of God.

But what happens if you cannot “encounter” the mezuzah because it is way above your head, out of your natural sight-line and out of reach? How do we enable a person who uses a wheelchair to show their reverence and gratitude by kissing the mezuzah and show their feelings like Jacob?

In many synagogues, the custom has become to place a second mezuzah lower down in addition to the traditional one. This innovation enables all of us to “encounter” the place.

There is a precedent for this modification. Rabbi Avraham ben David (1125-1198 C.E., France, called “the Rava’ad”) commented that for very tall doorways, such as a grand archway, one puts the mezuzah at shoulder height (Siftei Cohen 289:4). Rather than measure from the lintel, one measures from the person. In addition, in preschools, a second, lower mezuzah is now often found for educational purposes, to get the children used to seeing a mezuzah by having it catch their eye at the appropriate height as they enter their classroom.

Being inclusive of people with disabilities and people at all heights is part of how we create holy space and are worthy of the awe that Jacob felt. Isaiah taught us, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7). “All people” means all of us together. Then we not only encounter God in our physical places but also in the divine image in each other.

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Julie Zupan
Hanukkah menorah with donuts, dreidels and gelt

I want to make a menorah as a gift for a good friend of mine. If, due to design constraints, I cannot make the candle holders vertically uniform, would that be an issue?

What a special gift!

There are two types of menorahs. The first is a seven-branched menorah that hearkens back to the candelabrum described in the Bible that was lit in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. That menorah is the national symbol of the modern State of Israel. The second type of menorah is a hanukkiyah, the special lamp lit nightly during Hanukkah. It has space for eight lights plus a ninth “helper” light (shamash), which is used to light the candles or oil in the other eight holders.

We surmise that you’re referring to the hanukkiyah. According to Jewish law (halakhah), the lights of the Hanukkah menorah should be vertically uniform and in a straight line. However, there are many commercially produced Hanukkah menorahs that do not conform to these rules. Please send us a photo of the finished product – regardless of the design choices you make!

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 listen to memories that the mourner wishes to share, or 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.

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