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Keeping a Jewish Home

Sunset on the water

The reason many Jewish holidays and celebrations begin in the evening is rooted in the biblical story of Creation, which teaches that God created night and then day; night came before day.

On the Jewish calendar, holidays begin in the evening, at sundown, and they continue through the next day. For example, the weekly holiday of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) begins at sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday night.

For many Jewish families, it is customary to begin the holiday just a bit before sundown and to extend the holiday a bit after sundown the following night.

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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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 BiShvat is the “New Year of the Trees," and it's 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 BiShvat be the impetus to reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • A Tu BiShvat seder is a traditional, fun and easy way to celebrate the holiday.
  • Going to a Tu BiShvat seder? Bring a delicious dish incorporating the traditional foods of Tu BiShvat.
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.

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.

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