Judaism At Home

The home is central to Jewish practice and values.

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"[These memories] came back to me when I became a mother. I wondered what to teach my children. I wanted to build a floor under my children, something strong and solid.

"Then I remembered and unwrapped a bundle of family tales, many located in or near the kitchen. In these I found wisdom and innovation and the fading rituals and habits of an assimilating clan. I had been carrying that bundle all my life." (xi-xii)

The kitchen--or wherever meals are served--not only becomes the center of family life, but also assumes a ritual function. According to the Talmud, “When the Temple stood, the altar offered atonement. Now, one’s table offers atonement” (Tractate Chagigah 27a). In other words, during the period when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the primary means of divine worship involved offering sacrifices on the altar. Today, the primary means of divine worship involves having meals at home. Blessings before and after the meal, ritual foods, and family participation transform eating from a mundane activity into a religious experience.

Because the kitchen has traditionally been the women’s domain, much of Jewish women’s spirituality has historically revolved around what goes on in this space. While certain areas of religious life--notably the synagogue and the beit midrash (house of study)--were once the sole domain of men, kitchen ritual remained in the hands of women. Women controlled the kashrut (observance of the dietary laws) of the home and determined the family traditions associated with the kitchen. Tehines, Yiddish prayers composed by or for women in the 16th through 19th centuries, include many prayers specific to the home, including meditations on baking challah and on lighting Shabbat candles.  In speaking to God, women invoked the private spaces of the home.

Lifecycle Rituals

In addition to holiday and Shabbat meals, certain lifecycle rituals take place in the home. The brit milah (circumcision) and simchat bat (welcoming ceremony for baby girls), which welcome a new child into the Jewish community, traditionally take place in the home, though space constraints often force these events into the synagogue. Placing these rituals in the home emphasizes that the child’s first and primary Jewish community will be his or her family, and that the home will continue to be the center of his or her Jewish life.

While weddings do not ordinarily take place in the home, the huppah (canopy), a primary feature of the Jewish wedding ceremony, symbolizes the home that the couple will build together. In getting married under a huppah, the couple emphasizes their commitment to building a Jewish home together.

Historical Development

The explicit identification of the home as the center of Jewish life seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Early rabbinic sources speak often of public spaces, such as the beit midrash and the synagogue, but only rarely mention the religious life of the home. While there is much discussion of legal issues relevant to the home, such as kashrut, marital relations, and blessings over food, there is little talk of the home as a concept in and of itself. The Talmud contains numerous stories of rabbis who spend years studying away from home, sometimes to the point that they no longer recognize their own children. To the talmudic emphasis on the beit midrash as the center of Jewish life, later legal sources add a focus on other communal institutions, such as guilds and local governing bodies.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.