Tallit, tallit katan, Tefillin, women covering their hair, mezuzah, Halacha, and bears, oh my!
Jews have a lot of Mitzvot/Commandments, 613 in fact, and we are given a charge to do as many as we can, with some sages and scholars saying each Mitzvah done, is a stone to build the third temple and user in the age of Moshiach. Now, I am a reform Jew and one thing I LOVE about being a Reformer is that we’re to study the entirety of Jewish texts and find what they mean to us (including looking through commentary) and what within them is spiritually important to each of us. How I feel, and many of the interpretations of Halacha, not to mention just about everything else herein, is my view and my family’s views of these things, so don’t think this is the law for all Jews.
First, let’s examine the passage where Shabbat/Sabbath comes from;
Genesis 2: 2 – On the seventh day God finished the work that had been undertaken: [God] ceased*ceased Or “rested.” on the seventh day from doing any of the work.
Genesis 2: 3 – And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy—having ceased on it from all the work of creation that God had done.
Those passages speak directly and unequivocally about Shabbat, every Jews day of rest, from sundown Friday, till sundown Saturday, when we are to cease all work. There’s no debating our weekly holiday is a special time, a holy time in which we free ourselves of the troubles of the past week and cleanse and empower ourselves for the week ahead. However, how Jews take this special time and celebrate it (aside from synagogue and Torah study) is different for each.
We say the prayers, light the candles, have challah bread, and drink the kiddish (wine for adults, grape juice for kids), this is just the start. We have a nice meal that is different from all other meals during the week together, we also like to do some family bonding, arts and crafts, art, music, play board games, or something along those lines. One thing for us is that it is a special time for family, for us to honor G-d, and for a bit of R&R from the week, that is the mainstay of Shabbat for our family.
This is where our tidbit of interpretation is a bit different;
Exodus 35: 3 – You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.
In Orthodoxy, this is seen as though we should not light a fire on Shabbat, however, the Torah is impeccable in its wording, and it says clearly “Settlements,” not houses. We interpret this under a lens that in the era this was written, where bonfires would be lit and people would be outside of their houses, staying warm, while talking amongst the community. A house, is in fact, NOT a settlement, a “settlement” as defined by the Oxford dictionary is;
“A place, typically one that has hitherto been uninhabited, where people establish a community.”
We interpret this to mean to stay in your own home and spend the time with family and friends, don’t light a bonfire, and go out and have a good time. Rest with those you love, and don’t spend it outside with others, while ignoring your family or forsaking your duties to rest for fun. This is further settled for us in the following passage;
Deuteronomy 5:14 – but the seventh day is a sabbath of your God יהוה; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.
Now, cooking may be seen as working, this is a fact that preparing and cooking a meal isn’t labor free, but turning on lights takes less work than holding a copy of the Torah and flipping through its pages. Karaite Jews will use battery-powered lights, which is confusing, because they say using electricity creates a spark, which is the same as starting a fire, but a battery-powered anything, is simply portable electricity. Electricity is a separate thing from fire, and while electricity can cause a fire, turning on a light does not burn your house down.
Exodus 35:3 – You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.
For one, it doesn’t say dwelling or house, again it says settlements, but also what did it take to start a fire in ancient times? It took work to start a fire!
As anyone who was a boy scout or who learned how to camp properly; you had to dig a hole, find wood, make kindling, and put rocks around the hole to keep the fire contained, then after all of that, you had to strike a flint repeatedly or rub sticks together furiously. Making a fire happen wasn’t as easy as striking a match or whipping out your zippo lighter, it took genuine work. While making a fire is easy today, it took work in ancient times, and it was considered something to make one’s house and family warm.
Now, let’s get into some other aspects a bit deeper, starting with commonly accepted practices of rabbinic Judaism, namely orthodoxy.
Deuteronomy 6:6 – Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.
Deuteronomy 6:7 – Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.
Okay, got it, this is self-explanatory, as G-d is delivering instructions and he wants Jews to teach them to their children and recite them as they wake up and when they lie down at night to help remember and hold them as tradition. This is a common part of the daily (3 times a day) prayers of the Jewish people and G-D perfectly and without room for debate, lays these parts out… perfect!
Deuteronomy 6:8 – Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol*symbol Others “frontlet”; cf. Exod. 13.16. on your forehead;
This, is where it gets a little trickier, as Jews do not read the Torah as a literal translation, yet Orthodoxy takes these words as literal, and this is where we get Tefillin from. Tefillin is generally worn on the forehead, the inner arm facing the heart, and on the hand, but what if G-D didn’t mean to strap black boxes all of yourself… what if the meaning was deeper and more meaningful? Instead of strapping black boxes and leather straps, what if G-D meant to bind the act of study, meditation, reflection on Torah and G-D in your mind, to forever hold G-D in your heart, and to do the Mitzvot of G-d with your hands?
That is exactly how we interpret that passage and our Tefillin are not physical things, it is our mind to study, our hearts to love, and our hands to perform worshipful deeds aka Mitzvot. Just yesterday my wife witnessed a car crash, it was 98 degrees outside and she parked her car and ran over to make sure the people were okay, then took it upon herself to buy them water and call for police to come to check everyone out. We are not wealthy people, but a couple of dollars for water, genuine concern for everyone’s safety, and making sure no one was injured, this is the tefillin on our hand to us.
We do not wear the physical Jewish phylacteries, but we wear tefillin in our minds, our hearts, and on our hands every day, all day, without fail!
Deuteronomy 6:8 – inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
This is a reference to Mezuzah, the thin, small box with a tiny kosher scroll inside, angled to point towards the door, and this we do, as there is no other interpretation possible. This is also a sign to other Jews, that our house is a safe haven, should they need it, that they will be welcomed and treated as the family within our doors.
Tallit and Tallit Katan we also wear, as this was directly commanded by Hashem to Yisrael in the book of numbers in various portions;
Numbers 15:38 – “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that the spies who brought them disaster did so because they had gone after their own hearts, and after their own eyes. Therefore tell them to make Tzitzit—fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and that they shall put on the Tzitzit, the fringe, of each corner of the garment a thread of blue wool to remind them of the blue sky and of the miraculous acts of the Eternal Who is above the heavens.
Numbers 15:39 – This blue thread shall serve you as an indication; when you will see it, you will be reminded of all the commandments of the Eternal, and follow them, and you will not be enticed by the vain desires of your heart, and by the superficial look of your eyes, after which you follow, and become faithless to Me.
Numbers 15:40 – The fringes of the Tallith shall serve that you will remember and follow all My commandments, and become holy to your Almighty.
These passages are pretty straightforward in regards to tallit and the tzitzit, without a need for any interpretation. Within our family, men wear tallit katan, even without blue thread, a basic undershirt with tzitzit fringes worn every day to remind us of the 613 commandments/Mitzvot, and the Tallit with blue thread for prayers and rituals. This is very similar to the beliefs and practices of the Karaite Jews regarding Tallit and Tzitzit.
It was known that both high priests and priests covered their heads to remind them that G-d is always above them, and so in our family men cover their heads with Kippah. It’s not just a representation of humility to G-d, but also an identifier that one adheres to Jewish traditions and culture. When it comes to women, in our house, whenever a married woman is outside in communal spaces, they cover their hair, for the same reasons above, and as a sign of being married.
In both male and female cases, we beautify ourselves with our coverings, we get nice kippah and beautiful tichels and wraps. This is a constant symbol of faith, belief, and a means to maintain a traditional connection to the Jewish people and Jewish culture.
Now, this is something we’ve discussed with many and is always a bit of a hot-button issue in our application of Halacha in regards to dietary laws. We abstain from eating all pork and pork products… We do not eat shellfish and only eat fish with scales and fins… but we do in fact mix dairy and meat, and here’s why;
Exodus 23:19 – The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of your God יהוה. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
G-d does not mix words, he does not leave much open to the imagination in most of his laws, so when he says “Kid,” he is referring to immature goats and sheep. Why under orthodoxy is Chicken and even fish meant to be kept separate from dairy, neither of those species even produce milk. Immature cows are calves, not kids, and so these animals have no restrictions per G-d himself, regardless of rabbinical declaration otherwise.
If you ask many orthodox rabbis if you can use imitation bacon bits, eat turkey bacon, or even have impossible meat meant to simulate pork, the answer will almost always be no. Often they will give the excuse that others might think it’s pork, which only G-d knows otherwise, and if G-d doesn’t know, how can they perceive it as omnipotent? If a community knows a person and knows that person keeps the laws, then they should know that the person wouldn’t eat pork, so why would this be an issue if they ate something that wasn’t pork, but looked somewhat like it?
To us, it is important to honor Jewish traditions and culture, but it is more so important to honor the laws as G-d laid out for the Jewish people, without further elucidation when it is not needed. When something is a bit confusing to us, we absolutely will refer to the Talmud or the sages, but when it comes to the word of G-d itself when it is as blunt as an Israeli generally speaking is, elucidation isn’t necessary and only stands to muddy the water.
My family also adds some modern tidbits to our personal dietary laws, such as only buying ethically sourced meat, and making sure that animals are not mistreated on their farms. We also investigate if employees are treated fairly and/or if employees have lodged any complaints against the company. These are, to our family at least, holy aspects that no kosher seal can supersede or make positive if they aren’t upheld.
Being part Ashkenazi, part Mizrahi, American by birth, and reform Jews afford us a spiritual experience unique to our family. We eat a lot of Jewish food, from the many cultures which Jews come from, we celebrate all of the Jewish holidays, we celebrate life cycle events, etc… but we take practices and views from many sects of Judaism; Orthodox, Haredi, Karaite, and of course Reform itself. We are not ignorant of any facet of Judaism, as we are constantly studying and learning, and growing, but like America itself, we are a melting pot of all that we learn and find spiritually meaningful.
We live a wholly Jewish life, and while it might not be the Jewish life agreed upon within each sect, it is nonetheless Jewish. Our life revolves around Torah, family, community, helping others, and the mitzvot; it is something that permeates our food, our time, our studies, our discussions, our decor, our culture, and our language as we learn more and more Hebrew and some Yiddish.