There are many things I do and wonder why I do them. For example, when I study social studies I think, I will never have to know these facts. Why should I learn about Alexander the Great? I wonder if I will ever use this information in the future. Yet, it is interesting to learn and I enjoy it. I feel the same way about studying Judaism. It is hard to know now, at 13, how I will use all the information I’m learning. But, I know that somewhere in my mind it all registers.
My paper is about “Why?” Why, as Jews, do we do what we do? These “whys” have been passed down from generation to generation. Not only do I not know why I do these “whys,” but I wonder if many Jews in the community wonder why as well. So where did these “whys” come from? And, as Jewish people, why do we do them? Soon you will know the answers to some of our cultural traditions. Little do you know, they are simpler than you think.
My first “Why?” is "Why do we name a baby after someone who has passed away?" Jews from different parts of the world have different traditions. It is a common Ashkenazi tradition to name a new child after a deceased relative that has lived a long and fulfilling life. To name a child after someone who has died is an honor to his or her memory. In contrast, a Sephardic Jew often names a newborn after living relatives. When we honor a person by using their name, we can do that in different ways. Some people use the relative’s name, while others take the first letter of that name and pick a name which begins with that letter. Others find a name of similar sound. Take my name, for instance. I was named after my mother’s grandmother, Elsie, and my great aunt, Rebecca. My name, Alyson, sounds similar to Elsie… at least according to my mother! My middle name is Rebecca. I was told that both women were warm and loving people, devoted to the family, and showed inner strength. My parents wanted the same for me.
Almost everyone knows what a Mezuzah is, but if you don’t, I will tell you. A Mezuzah is a small scroll rolled inside a decorated case. Literally, it means “doorpost.” My second “Why?” is “Why do we put a Mezuzah on the doorpost, and what does it mean?”
Since the Jews left Egypt thousands of years ago, it has been a tradition to mark a Jewish home by placing a marking on the doorpost. This ritual easily identifies a Jewish home. The scroll inside the Mezuzah contains a special prayer showing our devotion to only one G-d. It is meant to be a daily reminder of our Jewish faith and identity.
A Mezuzah is handwritten on genuine skin of a kosher animal. A specially trained scribe, known as a sofer, carefully writes the words using special black ink and a quill pen. The letters must be written according to Jewish Law and every letter must be perfect! Many Jewish families place a Mezuzah on the front door while others have Mezuzahs on many doors within the home. In Israel, all public buildings have Mezuzahs. When moving into a new house, it is customary to place a Mezuzah as quickly as possible. When moving out of a house, it is often tradition to not remove it as it may be seen as disrespectful. Even the placement of a Mezuzah is specific. It should be placed on the right side of a doorpost, about shoulder height, at a slight angle with the top half pointing toward the room to be entered.
To me, the symbol of a Mezuzah embraces my connection to Judaism. Having it placed as I enter my home shows that within my home, the traditions are remembered and honored. It is also a symbol from the story of Passover. As the tenth plague was allowed to pass over the Jewish homes thousands of years ago, by placing a Mezuzah on our doorposts, we hope that negative influences from our world may pass over our house as well.
My third “Why?” asks the question, “Why is there a ritual of breaking glass at the end of a Jewish wedding?" Most people may not know that this ritual dates back to when the Talmud was written. There have been many explanations given for this common practice. So here goes … the main reason for the breaking of the glass is to make a loud noise. But, why is this important? First, it is said to be a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. We are to always remember that even at a time of great joy, like a wedding celebration, we are to never forget our terrible loss. More current understanding includes all losses suffered by the Jewish people over all of these thousands of years. And, as Jews, we are always reminded of them!
Second, it was an ancient belief that evil spirits would be frightened off by the loud noise and leave the beautiful and happy couple in peace.
Another explanation for the breaking of the glass is to symbolize the fragility of a relationship. Just like a broken glass cannot be mended, once a couple is married they are forever changed. Both can be easily shattered.
I think that the breaking of glass should not be a reminder of our pain and sorrow, but instead, Tikkun Olam, the need to repair and heal the world. I think that it is a good reminder that life and our world are fragile and we should not simply focus on what has broken but instead focus on what we can do to make it better. We can treat each other with kindness and sensitivity and not be harsh. We can do our part in taking care of our planet and not destroy it carelessly.
I have wondered why women are always shown to light the Sabbath candles. I thought that the answer was because women traditionally take care of the home and make the meals. This is my fourth “Why?” — "Why is it tradition for women to light the Sabbath candles?" The roots of this answer seem to come from the Talmud. As the story goes, Eve, in the Garden of Eden, was tempted by the snake to not listen to G-d and eat the apple. It was explained that because of this act, it was Eve who was responsible for causing darkness in the world. In the Talmud it says that it is women’s obligation to light the Sabbath candles and bring back light.
I think lighting the Sabbath candles is a beautiful tradition. But, to think our enjoyment and commitment came from a “punishment” doesn’t sit well with me. Women do many good things every day, both in the world and in their homes. To me, this is a good example of how a cultural tradition needs to be explained and understood differently. I think the answer to my question should be:
Women light the Sabbath candles because:
- It is a tribute to all the Jewish women, generation after generation, who raised their children and took care of their homes.
- Lighting the Sabbath candles brings light and warmth, and I hope to be able to do the same in my home. Or…
- Women never sit down and relax anyway, so why not add one more thing for them to do!
My fifth and final “Why?” is about our rituals around death. I have noticed that Jewish people perform customs that are very different from other religions. Why do we perform these traditions? The answer seems to be based on two main principles in Jewish Law. The first one, kevod ha-met, relates to treating the deceased person with respect. The second principle, kevod he-chai, concerns the well being of the loved ones still living. It is a very important belief in Judaism that the feelings of the survivors of the deceased be considered. Many of our rituals try to strike a balance between showing respect to the one who has died and sensitivity to the ones who remain.
Traditionally, we bury a loved one within 3 days after death. Part of why this is so is to ease the grief and anxieties of the family members. It is customary to not adorn the wooden coffin and grave to show that both rich and poor are equal in death. Maybe this is why it has become such a custom to place a simple rock on a tombstone. This symbolic act, just coming from the earth itself, is our way of showing that our loved one has not been forgotten.
There is a Torah story where G-d tells Moses to sacrifice a young red cow, mix its ashes in pure spring water and sprinkle this mixture on anyone who has been in the presence of a dead body. According to the Torah, this is the only avenue to being cleansed and spiritually pure. There are so many statements in the Torah that we have read and adapted to our current lives. This story is no exception. Thousands of years have passed since Moses sacrificed the Red Cow and the ritual has been “watered-down” to this familiar custom: after a Jewish funeral, a pitcher of water is often left at the front door so that all of the people who attended may wash their hands before entering the home.
In our Jewish culture, each person is seen as sacred and this belief does not end with death. During the 7-day period of mourning, known as Shiva, it is tradition to light a candle, which is meant to symbolize the body and spirit. The flame is said to represent the person’s soul being guided upward. Mirrors are covered to allow the mourning family time to not be concerned about their appearance. Visitors come with food. The family uses small short stools to sit as close to the earth as possible. This custom is meant to symbolize that without the loved one, life is no longer the same.
Here at Peretz and working on this paper, I have learned the answers to many “Whys?” These Jewish customs and stories have traveled over so many generations.
I expect to do my part in passing them on as well.