The parchment scroll is known as a mezuzah. These are traditionally placed on the doorposts of a Jewish home. Placing this scroll on the doorpost is a divine commandment recorded in the Torah (Bible) (Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20) where Moses instructed the Jewish people: “Inscribe them on the doorposts of your home and your gates.” Inscribed in Hebrew calligraphy in each mezuzah, are two paragraphs of the Torah, one which is about accepting G-d’s sovereignty, and the other which discusses the accepting of His commandments.
The unique message of the mezuzah is that in addition to having the word of G-d inscribed in your heart and mind, and written in the volumes of your library, you should also place it on the entrance of your residence to emphasize that your home and everything that enters through its doors, are imbued with a spirit of divinity.
Some have a tradition to lightly touch the mezuzah upon entering the home and some also kiss the hand with which they tapped the mezuzah. Other traditions have the children lifted to the level of the mezuzah to kiss it before retiring for bed at night.
It is customary to place the mezuzah in a casing or cover to protect it from the elements. Many covers have artistic Judaic themes embedded on them.
Photographs by Ian Aarons
The Menorah is an ancient symbol of the Jewish faith. The first Menorah was erected by Moses (Exodus 25:31-39), and served as one of the main artifacts in the first sanctuary the Jewish people built (1311 B.C.E.). The Menorah continued to play an integral part in the daily service of the two Holy Temples later built in Jerusalem through King Solomon (811 B.C.E.) and Ezra the Scribe (352 B.C.E.). Every day in the later afternoon the high priest would fill the cups of the Menorah with the purest extra-virgin olive oil, and light them. The flames would burn all night.
The Talmud (an ancient Rabbinic text) explains that the sanctuary was otherwise well lit. Why then the need for this Menorah? There were windows in the Temple with a unique effect that served to magnify the light of the Menorah and illuminate the area surrounding the Temple. The purpose of the Menorah then, was to illuminate the outside world, to light up the night, to light up the darkness.
In the 3rd century B.C.E. the Syrian Greek rulers persecuted the Jews of Israel who practiced their religion. They desecrated the Holy Temple, and defiled all of the oil used for the Menorah. When the Jews re-entered their Temple they found one sealed jug of pure oil, enough only for one night’s use. Miraculously, it burned for eight nights. Once again, the Menorah symbolized the triumph of light over darkness, of the spiritual over the material. Today, Jews still celebrate this miracle with the 8-day holiday of Chanukah. Every evening they place and 8-branched menorah near the windows of their homes, and light them. Today, just like in the days of old, the Menorah serves to illuminate the world and light up the darkness.
Interestingly, the biblical description of the menorah is couched almost completely in botanical terms: branches, calyxes, petals and cups. Several Jewish scholars have noted the biblical menorah’s similarity to the structure of a tree.
The family and home are central to the practice of Judaism. All the festivals are celebrated in the home as well as the synagogue. On Friday night, Jewish families and their friends gather together to celebrate one of the most important Jewish holidays: Shabbat, or Sabbath. The celebration commences at sundown on Friday and extends just past sundown on Saturday evening.
According to the Jewish teachings, no work may be performed during Shabbat. For 24 hours, all computers, faxes and mobile phones are switched off and families come together to enjoy a time of rest, relaxation and spiritual renewal.
The traditional greeting for Shabbat is “Shabbat Shalom”, which means, “May you have Sabbath peace”. Preparations for Shabbat begin early in the day. The house is specially cleaned and the finest tablecloths, cutlery and plates are set on the table. Festive dishes are prepared for the Erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve) meal and family and friends gather together in an atmosphere of peace and harmony.
The meal begins with three ritual blessings. First, two candles, symbolizing the hallowed nature of the day, are lit. Then a prayer is recited praising G-d for the gift of wine which is drunk from a kiddush cup. Finally, a similar thankful blessing is recited before the sharing of braided bread called “challah”, which symbolizes the staff of life.
At the table, each member of the household is blessed and a joyous mood is created through the recitation of prayers and the singing of Hebrew songs.
Families pictured are enjoying their own special Erev Shabbat meal.
Photographs by Allen Lipschitz.
Havdalah means “separation” and refers to the ceremony which concluded our Shabbat day of rest. The Havdalah prayers acknowledge the separation between this holy day and the rest of the week, and between all that is sacred and that which is profane.
During the Havdalah ceremony, the Leader, or head of the household, lights a beautiful braided candle and hands it to the youngest person present. As the candle burns brightly, the family thanks G-d for the gift of many lights in our lives.
A family member then recites a blessing over the wine and everyone present drinks from the cup. An ornate spice box is then passed around and everyone smells its sweet fragrance so that the sweetness of Shabbat may linger with them in the week ahead.
The family sings a song heralding the coming of Elijah the prophet, whose presence in our world will mean a time of great peace and justice for all.
Finally, the braided candle is dipped into the wine cup. As the light flickers out, Shabbat officially ends and we wish one another “Shavua Tov”, which means, “have a good week”.