Tag Archives: jewish living

The Mezuzah: Our Reminder to Bring Peace to Our Homes

A Mezuzah at the Door

So you’ve bought a new home. Or found a new apartment. Perhaps you are moving into your own home for the very first time. Or, you are establishing a home together with your new husband, wife, partner or significant other.

Judaism has long recognized the dedication of a new home as a milestone in our personal lives. (Indeed, you can find many beautiful Jewish home dedication ceremonies online, including this one.)

Traditionally,  a Jewish home is not complete without a mezuzah on its doorpost.

You may have noticed that a mezuzah is often hanging neither vertically or horizontally, but rather is tilted at an angle. The origin of this custom can teach us about an important Jewish value: Shalom bayit, peace in the home.

The custom to hang the mezuzah at an angle began as the result of an almost one thousand year old disagreement. The great Torah scholar Rashi (1040-1105) ruled that the mezuzah should be hung vertically. He did this because in a Sephardic community, such as the one in which he lived, the Torah is held in a vertical position when it is read. On the other hand, Rashi’s grandsons lived in an Ashkenazic milieu. Because the Torah is laid in a horizontal position for reading in Ashkenazic communities, these grandsons ruled that the mezuzah should be hung horizontally.

In the spirit of compromise, the custom became to hang the mezuzah at an angle.

Put another way, at the very moment when we enter our homes, we are reminded of the importance of finding a way to live in peace with one another.

The point isn’t that we’ll always see eye to eye with the folks we live with; rather, it’s that we commit to working through our disagreements with one another.

The very first word on the mezuzah scroll is “Shema,” or listen. We make a commitment to listen to each other and to find a way to live in peace with each other.

Shalom bayit, like so many of our values, is not to be attained all at once. Rather, we make a commitment to work with our loved ones towards this goal each day, with its blessings, each day, with its challenges.

Each day, when we return to our homes, we see our mezuzah, our reminder of peace and compromise, our reminder of the type of home we would like to create, before ever we cross our threshold.


All Wrapped Up in Love: Incorporating a Tallit into Your Jewish Wedding


I have heard that many couples incorporate a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) into their wedding. What is the reason for this?

There are two main ways a couple can incorporate a tallit into their Jewish wedding ceremony:

  • they can use it as the canopy for the chuppah (marriage canopy)
  • the couple can be wrapped in the tallit for a portion of the wedding ceremony

Why do this?

When my daughter was a newborn, my beloved aunt made for her a beautiful baby blanket. The enclosed note read:”May she always be wrapped in love.”

As that small flannel blanket serves, for my daughter, as a reminder of abiding love, another four corned cloth serves, in Jewish tradition, as a reminder of an abiding, loving relationship: the tallit.

A tallit is a four cornered garment, with special knots at each of the four corners called tzitzit. Going back to the Torah, those tzitzit serve as a reminder of the sacred relationship that the Jewish people have with God and Torah. When we look at the tzitzit we are to remember the commandments and traditions of our people. (If you’d like to learn more, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman has a great explanation of tallit.)

Beyond this: if you were to ask someone who wears a tallit, or who remembers sitting next to a beloved grandparent or parent in synagogue who wrapped himself in a tallit, she might well share with you that the act of wearing (in the Hebrew, wrapping oneself) in that tallit helps her feel connected with, surrounded by, even enveloped by the loving protection of the Holy One.

A tallit can thus serve as a reminder of the Jewish home you are creating together.  Beyond this, it can be a way to consciously invite the loving Presence of the Source of Life and Love to surround you at the moment of your marriage. To be with you and guide you as you build your life together. Indeed, to help you wrap each other in love.

A Southern Springtime: Celebrating our Personal Redemption this Season of Passover

spring blossoms

Just look at what was I saw on my morning walk last week!

Growing up in Southern California, I never really understood the fuss about Spring. We didn’t have the magical week when everything, it seems, all at once blossoms, bringing forth pinks and whites and pale greens. Dusting our cars and driveways and screened-in porches with a coating of pollen.

The blossoms, the pollen, the shoots of leaves – the entire experience of a Southern Springtime – has given me a renewed understanding of Passover.

When we think of Passover, most of us tend to focus on the grand miracles of the holiday. We think of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, a story filled with signs and wonders. And, at the end of the seder when we open the door for Elijah, we express our hope for a future – one for which we work and wait – of a world redeemed, a miraculous time that will yet bring justice and peace for all.

Despite these grand miracles, Jewish tradition also places great emphasis on the miracles of the everyday. Indeed, the morning prayers are sometimes referred to not as daily blessings, but daily miracles. What are these miracles? Waking up in the morning. Opening our eyes. Going to the bathroom and finding, on good days, that everything works as it ought. Being created in the Divine Image – endowed with free will, intellect, and dignity. There is even a tradition of saying a hundred blessings a day – finding a hundred moments of gratitude and amazement.

In other words, rather than look for the miraculous outside of nature, Jewish tradition encourages us to look for the wonder embedded within the world.

I think we benefit from this encouragement. So often it can seem that our human nature – even without the added distraction of smart phones, texting, Facebook, and the like – causes us to be distracted and to forget to take note of the wonder that surrounds us.

The seder plate literally bring the signs of springtime into our homes and onto our dinner table. Pay attention to what’s right outside your window, it would seem to say.

For the signs of spring – the new growth, blossoms, sprouts – are not only miracles within nature. They point us to an another aspect of redemption: the potential – in all of life – to begin again, to grow anew, to branch out in a different direction, indeed, to transform our lives.

Even as we celebrate our ancestor’s redemption from slavery, even as we are called to work for the repair of the world, the season of Passover reminds us that we are also able to plant the seeds of change and rebirth in our own lives. This too, I believe, is a redemption worthy of celebration!

A Good Enough Passover

Stack of Matzoth from kosherstock; www.kosherstock.com

Perhaps no holiday in the Jewish calendar comes with as much preparation. Cleaning. Shopping. Getting rid of certain foods. Stocking up on certain foods. Suddenly so many foods and products are off limits.

For some folks, a strict Passover celebration is a cherished tradition. If this describes you, there are many resources in print and online to help guide you through the steps to a joyful, and fully kosher, Passover.

However, there are others for whom an intense focus on the rules is either overwhelming, or, quite frankly, off-putting. If you find yourself in this camp, I encourage you to take a different path to your Passover celebration.

Remember the meaning behind the foodways: The special ways we eat at Passover are tangible reminders of the message of the holiday itself: the story of how we were redeemed from slavery in Egypt by a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm, an eternal story of the need to bring an end to injustice and oppression.

The two main Passover food traditions – eating matzah and avoiding (and getting rid) of chametz (food with leavening) can both be tied directly to this story of liberation.  Remembering the reason why we celebrate can help keep things in perspective.

Matzah, called the “bread of affliction,” reminds us of the oppression our ancestors endured as slaves in Egypt.  It also connects us to the night our ancestors left Egypt in such haste they did not have time for the bread to rise. Now that we eat matzah in freedom, it can even be seen as a symbol of liberation.

Similarly, avoiding chametz (food with leavening) has a spiritual meaning. In his post Rabbi Eric Berk describes it this way:

“Have you ever watched dough rise in the oven, or have you ever just seen bread? Dough rises, and what results is ‘puffed-up,’ bigger than before. Full of air – or perhaps full of itself. That is exactly what chametz has come to symbolize. Philo, a Greek-Jewish philosopher, described chametz as ‘pride,’ because leavened bread is ‘puffed-up.’ Removing chametz on Passover from our homes, our lives, our families, is a struggle between who we really are now and who we can be once we strip away all the trappings of self-importance.”

(His article also does a great job of clarifying the complicated question of what, exactly, constitutes chametz.)

Take a few steps into Passover at a time: Passover need not be an all or nothing proposition. Instead, choose a few practices that you feel comfortable trying out this year.

You might start by eating matzah at seder or by having matzah available throughout the holiday. You might choose to remove all chametz from your kitchen, or you might decide to simply avoid foods like bread and pastries that are obviously leavened. You might experiment with matzah sandwiches at lunchtime. Or there might be another Passover food practice you’d like to try out.

Above all, create traditions that you cherish: For most of us, the connections that matter aren’t found in scholarly writings. We remember Passover not because it is an intellectual idea, but because it is a lived experience. Finding your own Passover foodways can be a powerful way for you and your family to connect with the foundational story of our people.

Mishloach Manot: Packaged Purim Love

Summer camp was a blast. Friends. Swimming Pool. Freedom. And yet… what was one of the most anticipated moments of the day?  Mail time! The counselors would go to the main office and return to the cabin, hopefully with a letter, or better yet, a care package from home. Yes, I might be far away from home.  But I was not forgotten.  Someone cared for me enough, missed me enough, to put together an entire package, box it up, and send it to me.

One of the best parts of Purim is the opportunity to send all the love of a summer camp care package, right in the middle of the year.

All ready to go! These beautiful mishloach manot baskets are for a congregational project run by my friend Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg. What a great idea to build community connection!

All ready to go! These beautiful mishloach manot baskets are for a congregational project run by my friend Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg. What a great idea to build community connection!

These packages are called mishloach manot, which literally means “sending of portions.” Mishloach manot go all the way back to the Bible.  The Book of Esther, which tells the story of Purim, commands the Jewish people to observe the days of Purim “as days of feasting and gladness, and sending portions of food to one another, and gifts to the poor” (9:22).  The idea behind mishloach manot is to (a) make sure that everyone has something special to eat for Purim and (b) increase the love and connections amongst the members of the community.

Many people enjoy baking special Purim treats for their mishloach manot packages. But this is not required.  Chocolate bars, snack food and other pre-packaged treats are fine too.

You can send mishloach manot to friends in town. Or they can be a great way to reconnect with family and friends across the country. All that is required is your love, care and thoughtfulness!