Jewish Ritual: the Secret to Community?

For communities all over the world, keeping Shabbat is one of the most important parts of what it means to be Jewish. With a never-ending cycle of festivals, traditions and practices, why did Shabbat rituals in particular become such a defining part of what it means to be Jewish and why have Jews gone to such great lengths to keep these millenia-old practices going, even in times of danger? Utilize the accompanying educational resources to engage your students.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. In the Ten Commandments, which number is Shabbat?
    • 4
    • 9
    • 1
    • 6
  2. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that Judaism is a religion that emphasizes sanctification of:
    • The mundane
    • Ritual
    • Time
    • God
  3. During the Spanish Inquisition, which traditions did Crypto Jews not keep?
    • Lighting Shabbat candles
    • Keeping kosher
    • High holidays
    • Publicly learning Torah
  4. According to the studies referenced in the video, rituals of all kinds help people do which of the following?
    • Reduce anxiety
    • Think more deeply
    • Solve problems faster
    • All of the above
  1. Each video in this series makes the claim that it is the most important Jewish priority. Based on the video and your own thoughts, make a compelling case for why holidays/rituals/Shabbat should be the most important priority within the Jewish world.
  2. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik said “of course the Torah wants to have genuine religious experience, to lead deeply meaningful and spiritual life but the ultimate genuine religious experience has to be objectified. It has to be translated into specific forms and actions.” How do specific forms and actions translate into a meaningful and spiritual life? How does objectification lead to genuine religious experiences?
  3. In the Torah, there are two different ways of framing Shabbat within the Ten Commandments. Shemot (Exodus) focuses on the idea of “zachor” (remember it, be mindful of it and actively commemorate it). Dvarim (Deuteronomy) on the other hand presents the idea of shamor (to guard) the Shabbat. Shamor has more of an emphasis on the ritual observance of Shabbat. With these various perspectives of Shabbat in mind, explain which one resonates more with you and consider how you can incorporate either or both aspects into your life.
  4. Today, Judaism is diverse with a variety of different philosophies, denominations and ways in which people observe Judaism. In order to strengthen the Jewish community and preserve Jewish continuity, is it more important to maintain our ancient Jewish traditions or to adapt our traditions to accommodate changing times and demographic trends?
  5. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said “Six days a week we wrestle with the world…the seventh day is a palace in time which we build.” What’s the difference between a palace in time rather than a physical palace? Which one is stronger and why?
  6. In Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein’s “Torah Temimah”, he explains that it is through Judaism’s specific rituals that Jews are distinct, so much so that we do not even make a blessing “asher kidishanu bimitzvotav vitzivanu” on mishloach manot (Purim baskets) or honoring one’s parents because doing good things for one another isn’t exclusive to Jews. He argues that it is Judaism’s specific rituals that make it unique and only on those rituals do we make a bracha (blessing). Do you think that there should be brachot for ethical mitzvot as well (Bein Adam L’Chavero – interpersonal) such as visiting the sick, giving Tzedaka (charity) and not stealing that are common amongst all people? Why or why not?
  1. Making It Personal: Interview one of your older relatives (a parent, grandparent, great aunt or uncle) about their favorite Jewish ritual. Start with the following questions:
    • What is your favorite Jewish ritual?
    • Describe the ritual and why it is meaningful to you.
    • Describe your childhood memories of the ritual
    • Is it important to you that this ritual is passed on to the next generation? Explain.
    • After interviewing your relative, present your findings to the rest of the group and explain how you felt while interviewing your relative.
  2. Jigsaw Method: Divide your students into groups of four. Give each student one of the following quotes about Shabbat. Each student should read their respective quote and jot down a few notes on its significance. Then, each student should present their quote to the other three in their group. After each student has presented their quote, ask each group of four to present the quote that they found most impactful to the rest of the students. Find the quotes below:
    • More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” — Ahad Ha’am (founder of Spiritual Zionism)
    • The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.” — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
    • Shabbat is a day of rest, of mental scrutiny and of balance. Without it the workdays are insipid.”— Hayim Nahman Bialik
    • Shabbat is the day we stand still and let all our blessings catch up with us.” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
  3. Professor Ruth Wisse said: “modern culture rejects pledges of allegiance, daily prayer. Yet, this is what the process of meaningful transmission finally comes down to. A single Yiddish poem, even a single word – God, Israel – repeated once a day, because one feels directed to do so, can help guarantee the survival of a people.” Taking inspiration from this quote, defend the notion that the survival of the Jewish people is dependent on the transmission of ritual.
  4. Read Isaiah 1:11 and then read the following quote from Rabbi Sacks: “I love Greek philosophy, the French impressionists, Italian design and the serene beauty of a Japanese Garden, but that does not make me Greek, French, Italian or Japanese. You do not have to be Jewish to enjoy Jewish humor, Klezmer music or chicken soup with noodles. Culture involves no act of commitment. That is why people have always been able to immerse themselves in the cultures of many lands, languages and creeds. Culture excludes nothing…identity is different. It involves duty, commitment, loyalty, fidelity. It comes wrapped with a sense of obligation. Identity is the point at which “I am” shades into “I must.”…No continuity without command.” After reading the two quotes above, discuss the following questions:
    • What do you interpret as the main message of each quote?
    • Why might one argue that the two quotes contradict each other?
    • Which quote do you identify with more? Explain.
  5. Why are rules and rituals so important in Judaism? Do you agree with this emphasis on behavior/action?
  6. Give your students our Kahoot on Shabbat and rituals!
  1. What are the three most important Jewish rituals in your life? Why are they so meaningful to you?
  2. Why do you think the observance of Shabbat is listed in the Ten Commandments before the prohibitions against murder, adultery and theft? Where would you rank the importance of Shabbat within the rest of the Ten Commandments?
  3. Jews observe Shabbat in various ways. Do you observe Shabbat? If so, how do you observe Shabbat and what role does it play in your life?
  4. Rabbi Sacks wrote “to touch the face of God, you do not need to scale mountains or cross oceans in search of fabled lands. All you need to do is sit at a table and sing God’s praises, make a home and open it to God’s presence.” Do you agree that deep spiritual connection can be formed through seemingly routine activities such as Shabbat dinner? Reflect on your own experiences.
  5. Written in Spain in the 13th century, “Sefer HaChinuch‘ (the book of education) discusses the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. In the book, it says “acharei Hama’asim, nimshachim halivavot” meaning our hearts follow our deeds. Judaism is a religion of action in which thoughts and intentions are important but it’s our actions that count. Which other aspects of your life can you relate this to?
  6. Reflect on your favorite holiday growing up. Why was it your favorite? What made it so special?
  7. In the book “Sacred Fragments”, Rabbi Neil Gilman speaks about rituals in the following way:

The ultimate goal of the entire Jewish ritual system, then, is not simply to enable us to identify with this particular community, as the folkways position would have it but, rather, to capture in our personal lives an elaborate cosmic order which extends to God himself as the ultimate cause and embodiment of that order.” 

Reflect on this quote and how it relates to your own life. Are rituals valuable as a way to identify with community or are they valuable for their intrinsic value (ie do you light Chanukah candles because that’s what Jews do and have done for thousands of years or because if it’s spiritual meaning?)

  1. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Sabbath”
  2. Rabbi Shimon Felix, “The Role of Ritual
  3. USC Shoah Foundation, “Observing Yom Kippur in Auschwitz
  4. Dimitris Xygalatis, “The Power of Ritual” (TedTalk)
  5. Casper Ter Kuile, “The Power of Ritual” (audio excerpt)

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