Mindless Ritual or Meaningful Act

Friday, 12 January, 2024 - 10:45 am

Traversing through my Uptown neighborhood this week, I encountered the annual sight of dozens of young ladies traipsing in and out of houses on Broadway. These Tulane students returned to New Orleans a full week ahead of class to engage in Sorority Rush. To an outsider such as myself, it seemed that the traditions associated with this activity are bizarre. Girls lining up and then walking in circular lines, removing their jackets and purses outside despite the cold weather, high fiving each other while walking in opposite rows, and a bunch of other things that I cannot explain. I am sure that each practice has an explanation and history, but to me they seemed like mindless rituals.

Conversing about this with someone in our community, we mused that for many who observe us performing our “traditions” and “rituals,” they seem equally bizarre and mindless. This was a sad thought for me. Because I know that each of our practices is laden with layers of meaning and explanation. Every detail of a Mitzvah or even a Jewish custom is substantiated with precise intentionality. Yet, for too many they are meaningless; to quote Tevya, “I don’t know why, but it’s a tradition.”

So, I would like to utilize this forum to share some of the detailed meanings behind the oft-practiced Jewish tradition of Kiddush on Friday night.

The Torah declares, “Remember the Sabbath Day to Sanctify It.” How do we fulfill this obligation? By mentioning the Sabbath in blessing as it enters (and when it ends). Our sages instituted that this blessing be recited over a cup of wine. This ritual is called Kiddush. The idea behind it is to connect the remembrance of Sabbath and the themes of faith associated therein, with a physical act of reciting words and drinking wine. This is an expression of the recurring notion conveyed through all action-based Mitzvahs, that our feelings are influenced by our actions.

Why over wine? Firstly, wine brings joy, a lovely association with a Mitzvah that should be done with gladness of heart. Beyond that, there is an opinion that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was a cluster of grapes. Adam and Eve partook of that fruit on Friday afternoon just before sunset, bringing darkness and suffering to the world and to mankind. By using that very same substance, at the same time, to usher in a day devoted to G-d and spirituality, we reverse the effects of that sin and bring redemption to the world and to humanity.

We take a cup that can hold a minimum of approximately 3.4 ounces and fill it with wine. Why this amount? The one reciting the Kiddush must drink more than half of the cup. For the average person just over 50% of 3.4 oz is a mouthful of wine, enough to be a significantly enjoyable consumption.

While reading the words of Kiddush (that are themselves layered with meaning), we hold the cup of blessing in the upturned palm of our hand to symbolize being a recipient of that blessing. We raise the cup at least a hand-breadth above the table to demonstrate that we are investing mindful effort in raising the cup. During the Kiddush we glance at both the candles and the wine. The sin of Adam and Eve darkened the light of their eyes (spiritual perception). We thus direct our eyes to the candles and wine to reverse the impact of the sin. 

The Kiddush is recited in the presence of the Challah (albeit covered) to connect the Mitzvah of remembering the Sabbath to the Mitzvah of honoring and delighting in the Sabbath, through a delicious repast. Even the number of words in the Kiddush (72) is significant, as is the acronym formed by the first four words (Tetragrammaton). Not a single detail is meaningless or without explanation.

You have now had a tiny taste of the meaning behind the traditions and rituals of Kiddush. 612 to go! Get busy and learn.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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