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Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide: Making Holiness

Return to Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide.

When people use the word spirituality instead of religion, sometimes they are trying to evade the rigid categories and classifications of Western religions. First the bad news: Judaism is a Western religion and it's all about those categories and judgments. If you've ever prepared a kosher meal, you know what I mean: there are foods that should never be eaten, foods that can be eaten all the time except on Passover, foods that can be eaten but only if prepared in a certain way, and foods that are fine but only if eaten separately from each other. Judaism is part of the tradition of good actions and evil actions, sacred behaviors and non-sacred behaviors and sins. There are a lot of rules. There is a lot of hierarchy. But there is more, too.

Jewish spirituality is intense, an expression of the power of the individual to connect with God through the elevation of ordinary things to holiness. Through ritual and our individual consciousness of participating in a community that crosses time and space, we are part of a circuit of tremendous energy. That spiritual experience gets a further charge from striving for ethical improvement. Everyone can participate in the modes that Judaism offers of enhancing mindfulness of the beauty of the natural world, and the mutual connections of human beings. Judaism creates a sense of holiness through the act of blessing, the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot.

Blessings

Blessings in Judaism are an opportunity to acknowledge and recognize the holiness in everyday things. For most in the Jewish community today, blessing everything doesn't come naturally, and it feels like a complete reframing to think of blessings as a built-in process to ensure mindfulness.The Jewish day envisioned by the authors of the traditional prayerbook, the siddur, was structured by blessings, thanks and praise.

On arising, the morning service begins with thanks to God for bringing our souls back into our bodies. Every meal or snack can be framed by traditional blessings, appreciating the food. Even using the bathroom has a traditional blessing in Judaism. Throughout the day, blessings call the divine presence to mind, and bring our attention to what we're doing. Some think of Judaism as a way of being God's partner in creation, and blessings express that idea.

There are blessings of witnessing, for the things we see in nature and for once-in-a-lifetime events. There is a blessing on good news and one on hearing that someone has died, one on seeing a rainbow and one on hearing thunder. When we eat a new fruit or put on a new piece of clothing, we can say the blessing on God who has kept us alive and sustained us into this season.

Everything one could witness or experience, every ritual action, has a brachah, a blessing. When we perform mitzvot, commanded actions, like lighting Shabbat candles or affixing a mezuzah to the doorway of a house, there are blessings to recite on having the opportunity to these things.

The secret of Jewish spirituality is that it doesn't happen in silence, but in a flood of often-whispered words.

Finding and Creating Ritual

It is always exciting to find out that blessings already exist to commemorate the events of your life. From the dedication of your new house to putting on a new shirt, naming a new baby or recovering from a bad dream, you can find a Jewish blessing or ritual for nearly everything you want to make into a spiritual experience. As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman puts it in this article, "All the World is a Place for Prayer",

But God's presence was likely to become evident not just in the moment when a divine commandment was being performed but at any time or place, like the breathtaking surprise of coming across a desert landscape or a redwood forest, for which one says, "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who created the universe." The thinking behind these blessings that celebrate nature--not just its extraordinary manifestations but even such ordinary beauty as a tree in blossom--is especially instructive.

You can find a lot of the blessings you need in the back of a siddur, a Jewish prayerbook--check table of contents. The multi-denominational Jewish organization CLAL has a listing called This Ritual Life with ancient and modern Jewish rituals for everyday events. (They have a great one for quitting smoking.) Another great source is the feminist Jewish website www.ritualwell.org, where you can find Blessings for Daily Life.

There is a lot of room for creativity with making rituals and blessings, although in Jewish culture there is some preference for using older liturgical and scriptural ones. By using Hebrew or Aramaic, Torah text or older prayer book language, we can connect our spiritual experiences to those of the people who came before us. That's a strong value in Jewish spirituality--ritual as a means for connecting us to other people, including people who lived before us in other times and places.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "blessing" (and "bounty"). Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
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