Judi's Journal 03-18-2011

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Jewish ritual objects in the home

By Judi Siegal

I love visiting people in their homes. I find it fascinating to see their collections of sports memorabilia, antiques, stuffed animals or their cats or dogs. Visiting a traditional Jewish home is also rewarding especially if it is filled with Jewish ritual objects.

If you were to enter a Jewish home, the first ritual item you would see is a mezuzah. This is a cylindrical case with verses from the Shema (Jewish creed) inside. A scribe does the writing on parchment and the mezuzah is a direct action of the words, which instruct Jews to write the words of the Torah on their doorposts. The mezuzah is a form of a blessing for a Jewish home but it is not a good luck charm. To me, it identifies the home as a Jewish one and thus states that the home is consecrated to God and that those living there will conduct themselves in an ethical, moral and spiritual manner. The outside case of the mezuzah can take many forms but look for it on the right side of the door as you enter the home.

Because Shabbat, the Sabbath, comes every week, most Jewish homes have ritual objects connected with its observance. Most notably are candlesticks or a branched candelabrum. Many times these items are passed down through families across the generations. A wine cup, or Kiddush cup, is used to sanctify the Sabbath and it may be made of silver, pewter or other materials. These cups are often heirlooms too. My cup is inscribed with my husband’s and my name and was used at our wedding 40 years ago. I plan to pass it down to my children as a keepsake in our family. A challah tray (Sabbath bread) with a cloth cover complete the objects used to welcome the Sabbath.

In a special ceremony called Havdalah, separation, the Sabbath is bid farewell with wine, spices and a braided candle. The species are contained in a box-like vessel called a besamin box and this may be made of silver, wood or other materials. The braided candle has four wicks and traditionally is made of intertwined colors of blue and white. The cup for the wine is the same one used for all sanctification purposes.

The seder plate is used for the holiday of Passover. This special item has places on it for the five symbolic objects used at the Passover seder. These plates can be of any material but most usually they are made of glass or china or metal. They can be made quite decorative and many people hang them on their walls as a decorative piece during the year when not in use. Other seder items include a box to hold the matzah and cover for the loose matzah used at the seder and a dish to hold the salt water used for dipping vegetables during the seder meal.

Many Jewish homes will have a pushke or tzedakah box. This is one of the cherished traditions of Judaism, tikun olam, repairing the world. Here coins are dropped for charitable purposes, traditionally done before lighting the Sabbath lights. The tzedakah box can take many forms and children often have their own in whimsical animal shapes. The box can be made of any material from silver, other metals and even cardboard or leather.

Hanging the on the eastern wall of a traditional Jewish home is a tapestry, woodcut or picture with the word “mizrach”, east, on it. This is a reminder to the Jewish worshipper which direction is east as certain prayers are said facing the direction where the Jerusalem temple once stood. The ones I have seen had been done in elaborate tapestry but there is no set medium for the object.

Other items of note in a Jewish home include prayer books, Bibles and other books used for holy purposes. These other books could include guides for chanting the Torah, special books called benchers, blessing books for grace after meals, and haggadot, (pl. of haggadah) the book used at the Passover seder.

The most recognizable Jewish ritual object in a Jewish home I have kept for last. It is, of course, the chanukiya or menorah, used at Chanukah for lighting the festival lights (a dreidle is not a ritual item but rather a fun thing connected to the holiday). Again these can be of any material and contemporary artists have a field day with designs! Some very attractive ones are done in glass with all different themes from traditional to even Mickey Mouse!

Judaism is a home-based faith and the items connected with the various rituals enhance the spirituality and holiness of the Jewish home.