Across the country Saturday and Sunday evening, many Jewish Americans will kick off their second pandemic Passover with Zoom Seders, extending their virtual tables to family and friends. Others will hold small gatherings composed of just immediate family members. The adventurous might even host a few people at scaled-back celebrations.
In any case, the holiday will take place entirely at home. And that’s got nothing to do with COVID-19 and everything to do with Judaism.
For many Jews, the home isn’t just a site for passing on the religious and cultural practices associated with their religion. It’s the site. In fact, in Hebrew, the home is referred to as mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary, said Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s on par with the synagogue in importance.
“The home is a holy temple — a minor temple. ... The table is a sacred space and a sacred time,” Rabbi Abusch-Magder said. “What happens at the table is seen as a moment of redemption. It’s a moment away from all other moments.”
The table is sacred not only during holidays like Passover and the weekly Shabbat, or Sabbath, which for Jews spans from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, but also during daily meals for those who follow the religious law of saying a blessing before and after eating.
Countless other rituals take place elsewhere in Jewish homes, from the daily prayer that is said the moment one opens his or her eyes — the modeh ani, that gives thanks to God for returning one’s soul to their body — to small gestures like touching the mezuzah when passing through the threshold. The divine guides the rhythm of the day and, at times, one’s movement through the home.
Though one might assume that Judaism was driven into the domestic realm by centuries of persecution, Rabbi Benny Zippel explains that the Jewish community’s emphasis on the home actually comes from the Hebrew Bible.
In Exodus, God commands the Israelites to build a dwelling so that he may live among them. “The emphasis is specifically not on the synagogue but on the individual’s dwelling — each one making his or her world around him a sanctuary,” said Rabbi Zippel, who leads Chabad Lubavitch of Utah.
He also highlights Deuteronomy’s call for Jews to inscribe God’s words to their mezuzot, their doorposts. The mezuzah, which is the name for the item that’s affixed, signals to God, “This is not my home, it’s your home. It’s your place,” Rabbi Zippel said.
For Jews, synagogues — though important — aren’t necessary. Even Jewish prayers and rituals that require community participation are based not around a building, or binyan, but on a minyan — a group of 10 people, traditionally men.
“There’s no requirement for a synagogue,” Rabbi Zippel explained. “The space is not what matters. It’s the sacredness that a person is able to attribute to any space that matters.”
The home, he added, is “the only integral Jewish institution.”
As the domestic sphere is still largely run by women, this makes Jewish women tremendously important in passing down the culture and traditions, according to religious leaders and other experts.
While Judaism’s texts and rules have been largely written by men, they bear the fingerprints of women. Customs that likely began in the home as “folk Judaism” later entered the canon of formal religious law, said Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman, who leads the Jewish roundtable at the Pacific School of Religion’s Center of LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion in Berkeley, California.
The fact that much of Judaism is rooted in the home could be one of the reasons that the religion and culture endures. Jennifer Thompson, a professor of Jewish studies at California State University, explained that it’s the “visceral” moments in the home that really form people’s religious identities, especially those of children. She points out that the sensory aspects of the Shabbat meal — the smell of fresh-baked challah, the taste of the grape juice, the sparkling candles — all help to root religious rituals deep in children’s developing sense of self.
Judaism’s emphasis on home-based activities may help explain why around 75% of Americans who are raised Jewish stay Jewish. The faith group has a higher retention rate than major Christian groups, according to Pew Research Center.
Other surveys have shown that around one-third of Americans who have left their childhood religion did so, in part, because faith never seemed that important to their family. If parents model religious practices and discuss their faith, their children are more likely than others to stay religiously active as adults, religion experts say.
Both in the past and in modern Jewish families, children have taken “an active role in preparing for Shabbat and holidays and other occasions, and participated in life cycle rituals ... like name-giving rituals,” according to Tali Berner, a professor in Tel Aviv University’s Humanities department. Becoming Jewish hasn’t been about “theoretical learning” — the study of texts — but rather “participation, imitation and action,” Berner explained.
She added that the synagogue has also played an important role in keeping Judaism alive and that it’s the combination of prayer and ritual at home with public, communal worship that has made Judaism so durable and resilient.
Rabbi Abusch-Magder, however, believes that home practice, which she calls both “creative and private,” is ultimately what sustains Judaism and makes it both adaptable and resilient.
“The fact that you can take the same religion and move it to Yemen and Argentina is because it’s adaptable and one of the reasons you see that adaptability is in the home, at the table,” she said.
While Rabbi Zippel sympathizes with Jews who will miss having crowded tables this Passover, he urges them to embrace this year’s scaled-back celebrations in their homes because that’s where the real meaning of the holiday — and the heart of Jewish culture — lies.
“Pesach is a holiday of inner personal transformation,” said Rabbi Zippel, using the Hebrew word for Passover. Not only are all Jews supposed to read the story of the ancient Hebrews’ flight from Egypt as though it happened to them, Rabbi Zippel points out that the Hebrew word for Egypt — mitzrayim — can also be read as m’tzarim, which translates to “from boundaries and narrow (straits) — the feeling of being imprisoned in yourself.”
From the safety of our homes, we are free to contemplate the walls and limitations we have built inside of ourselves and how we might transcend them. Rabbi Zippel says it’s a lesson best meditated upon not at a noisy table full of extended family but, rather, at an intimate Seder.