Domestic Observances: Jewish Practices

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Besides the synagogue, the home has traditionally been a main focus of religiosity both for the Jewish family as a unit and especially for women. Women were traditionally excluded from the duty of Torah study, which for men was, and to some extent remains, a major focus of spirituality. Moreover, women were not obligated to observe many of the religious practices that bound men. In particular, their place in public synagogue ritual was minimal. Consequently, domestic rituals, and especially those governed by women, are important focuses of their spirituality. For all Jews, certain ritual customs (minhagim ) and rabbinic laws (halakhot ) actually require a domestic setting. These rituals may be divided into those that are held on specific occasions of the Jewish calendar and those that are a constant presence in daily life.

Periodic Domestic Observances

The annual festival cycle begins in the spring with Passover, which focuses on two major domestic activities: the thorough cleaning of the home to remove leavened food, and then the Seder, the Passover eve feast, which has traditionally been led by the father and requires the participation of the children. Shavuʿot, in early summer, is accompanied by only minor domestic customs, such as decorating the home with greenery and partaking of dairy foods. The period of mourning for the destroyed Temple, which follows in midsummer, affects the home in a fashion opposite to that of the festivals: enjoyment of music, food, new clothing, and vacations, and joyfulness in general, are restricted. The fall holy days start with Ro'sh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, which are primarily synagogue-centered occasions but which include secondary domestic activities. On Ro'sh ha-Shanah, foods symbolizing good fortune are served at the family meal, and on Yom Kippur, family elders bless the young. During the weeklong Sukkot festival the domestic focus is again pronounced. Temporary booths or huts (sukkot ) are erected near or adjacent to each family home. Meals are eaten there, and some males follow the rabbinic tradition of sleeping in the booths at night. People entertain guests and generally pass time in the family sukkah. anukkah, in early winter, is focused domestically as well. Lights are ritually kindled in the home, and special holiday foods are prepared. anukkah also has indoor child-centered activities (gift-giving and living-room games). In late winter, Purim requires a formal feast at home, and women and children become particularly involved in the traditional sending of gifts of food to friends.

Perennial Domestic Observances

Besides seasonal events, the Jewish home also has perennial ritual activities, primarily on the Sabbath, when the routine of the home is transformed. Domestic rituals are observed on the Sabbath: candles are lit by the housewife on Sabbath eve; the Qiddush ("sanctification of the day") is chanted at the first of the three mandatory festive meals; families sing Sabbath songs (zemirot ) and sometimes study Torah together. Of these customs, candle-lighting is a major rite for women, a virtual symbol of female religious identity. In recent times, with the attenuation of many more-burdensome Jewish customs, candle-lighting has remained vital and thus has become more prominent. According to some traditions, parents formally bless their children on Sabbath eve, and Sabbath night is a preferred time for conjugal relations. In the home the Sabbath ends with the ceremony of havdalah ("separation" of the Sabbath from the week), which involves the use of wine, spices, and a special braided candle, and at which a new fire is lit. Another perennial domestic ritual element is the display of religious artifacts. Foremost of these is the mandatory mezuzah inscription of biblical verses, encased on all doorposts. Brass or silver candelabra, wine goblets, and collections of Judaica books are common in the more prosperous homes. It is a custom to leave a section of wall in the home (about one square foot) unpainted, as a symbol of pain over the destruction of ancient Jerusalem (zekher le-urban ).

The celebration of rites of passage spills over into the home through the holding of festive meals. Domestically, the most marked rites of passage are mourning rites, which restrict the bereaved to their homes and require them to receive condolence visits. Memorial candles for the dead are lit at home. In the past, marriages in Mediterranean countries were patrilocal and some marriage observances paralleled mourning rites. The bridal couple were restricted to their new home for seven days of festivity, and daily rites were held in the presence of visitors. In our time, owing to the attenuation of patrilocality, the practice among many young Orthodox bridal couples, both in Israel and elsewhere, is to travel distances to visit their kin, and to be hosted in different homes where rites are held for the duration of seven days.

In Orthodox and traditionally observant families, the home is the scene of innumerable daily acts of individual piety: the ritual washing of hands upon arising, before meals and after voiding; the uttering of grace after meals, and of shorter benedictions before and after the partaking of any food. Prayers are recited upon waking and upon retiring at night, and three daily prayer services (shaarit, in the morning, minah, in the afternoon, maʿariv, in the evening) are required of all adult males. In recent times, because of the weaker hold of the community, weekday prayers are frequently said at home rather than at the synagogue; hence, the role of the home in daily prayer has increased.

The most pervasive home observances are those that concern food and conjugal relations. Observance of the rules of kashrut (maintaining a ritually pure, kosher kitchen), is dependent upon the foods introduced into the home, and on the separation of various categories of foods in the kitchen and dining area. Kashrut also requires the services of extra-domestic agents, such as a shoet (ritual slaughterer), and of manufacturers of kosher foods. The maintenance of "family purity" (aharat ha-mishpaah ) depends to a greater extent on the privacy of domestic practice. Family purity consists of the maintenance of a monthly schedule of conjugal separation and reunion based on the menstrual cycle, and on the woman's periodic immersion in a miqveh (ritual bath). While the availability of an external agent, the miqveh, is required here as well, the element of domestic autonomy in this area of intimacy is nonetheless very strong. The autonomy of the home in this area was curtailed in traditional times (in Northern Europe roughly until the mid-nineteenth century, in Mediterranean lands until close to the mid-twentieth century). Decisions concerning the proper timing of immersion were not handled exclusively by the woman then, but rather in conjunction with a circle of elder females, family and neighbors. If there was any physiological irregularity, male rabbis were consulted. In contemporary Orthodoxy, middle-class sensitivities concerning the privacy of sexual matters have eliminated the role of the outside female circle; rabbis are consulted only in the most unusual cases. But it is in the maintenance of kashrut that the role of the home has increased most in contemporary times, and has assumed a novel symbolic weight. The affective term kosher home is now commonly used in reference to kashrut observance, which has gained much greater prominence in relation to its historical place in Jewish practice and thought. Over time, additional domestic practices have become more prominent (contemporary domestic Sabbath practices are innovations of the late sixteenth century). Most recently in the West, the pressure of Christmastime commercialism has encouraged Jewish families to elaborate the observance of anukkah, especially with parties, gift giving, and the decoration of the home, as an ethnic counterpoint to Christian symbols such as the tree and Santa Claus.

There are two major exceptions to this development (i.e., the increasing emphasis on Jewish domestic ritual). One is the virtual disappearance of the allah -separation rite. Married women baking their bread used to separate and burn a small portion of the dough, as a symbol of the tithe that was due the priests in Temple times. allah -separation used to be a major female responsibility, similar to Sabbath candle-lighting and to the maintenance of family purity (niddah ). But as bread production has shifted from a domestic to a commercial setting, the rite has become uncommon. Another exception is in practices of the Hasidic movement, which encourages male groups to congregate by themselves, or at the court of the rebbe, the sect leader. In these congregations, adult males eat the third of the three required meals together, away from their families, on the Sabbath afternoon. Hasidism also encourages men to spend some of the holy days and Sabbaths at the distant court of the rebe, again separating them from their families.

See Also



For a masterly, though brief, overview of the position of formal halakhah, see Aaron Lichtenstein's "Ha-mishpahah be-halakhah" in Mishpeot Yisraʾel: Divrei ha-kinus ha-shemonah-ʿasar le-mashavah Yehudit (Jerusalem, 1976), pp. 1330. On Ashkenazic Jewry, Jacob Katz's Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages (New York, 1961) provides a fine sociological overview; much pertinent information is scattered in the chapters on the family, religion, and Hasidism. In a shorter monograph, Tsibbur ve-yiidim be-Maroqo: Sidrei evra ba-kehillot ha-Yeudiyot ba-meʾot ha-1819 (Tel Aviv, 1983), I describe eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Moroccan Jewry and thereby provide documentation for a section of Sephardic Jewry; some of this material appears in English in "Women in the Jewish Family in Pre-Colonial Morocco," Anthropological Quarterly 56 (July 1983): 134144. A comprehensive ethnographic survey of religious and other home feasts in a village of Moroccan immigrants in Israel is given in Moshe Shokeid's "Conviviality versus Strife: Peacemaking at Parties among Atlas Mountains Immigrants in Israel," in Freedom and Constraint: A Memorial Tribute to Max Gluckman, edited by Myron J. Aronoff (Assen, Netherlands, 1976). One such feast is described in detail in my Immigrant Voters in Israel: Parties and Congregations in a Local Election Campaign (Manchester, 1970), pp. 140147. The qabbalistic sources for some of the comparatively recent domestic Sabbath customs are cited in Gershom Scholem's On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York, 1965), pp. 142146. In an overview of U.S. suburban Jewry, Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier (Chicago, 1979), Marshall Sklare and Joseph Greenblum analyze the novel weight of anukkah child-centered activities.

New Sources

Broner, Esther M. Bringing Home the Light: A Jewish Woman's Handbook of Rituals. San Francisco, 1999.

Dahbany-Miraglia, Dina. "Negotiating Passover: Women, Food and Power." Women in Judaism: Contemporary Writings (June 11, 2003). Available from

Goldberg, Harvey E. Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life. Berkeley, 2003.

Plumb, Marcia. "Filling the Bookcase: Women's Rituals in Rabbinic Texts." Journal of Progressive Judaism 2 (1994): 4970.

Sered, Susan Starr. "Husbands, Wives, and Childbirth Rituals." Ethos 22 (1994): 187208.

Shlomo Deshen (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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