Image: A Jewish man prays from a prayer book. Photo by 777jew.

Sometimes it may feel as if Judaism is full of secret codes and handshakes, and for a newcomer, it can be overwhelming. You may have seen someone gesture over Shabbat candles, or do a little bobbing thing during prayer, or hold a tallit [prayer shawl] in an unusual way, and wondered, “Why are they doing that?”

Judaism is full of small rituals, and sometimes those little rituals can make newcomers to the community feel like outsiders. If you are the one who doesn’t know why the person you are talking with suddenly breaks out with “Pooh, pooh, pooh!” it can be alienating.

The most important thing to know about most of these is that like the many mysterious rituals of the Passover table, a lot of these rituals exist to encourage questions and discussion. They get started somehow (some we know, some we don’t) and then various explanations attach to them, and we’re off and running with a tradition. Some of these are quite lovely, for instance:

If you watch me during the section of the daily service called the Shema and its Blessings, you will notice that during a certain prayer, I gather up the corners of my tallit [prayer shawl], wrap the fringes around the fingers of my left hand, and then use that hand to cover my eyes as I say “Shema Yisrael!  Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!” [Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!]

I was taught to do that by Rabbi Ben Hollander, z”l, when I was a first year student in rabbinical school, in Jerusalem. He taught me that there are words in the prayer which refer to the gathering in of all the scattered Jews of the world, so I should gather up my fringes and hold them during the Shema, as if gathering up the Jews myself. As for covering my eyes, I do that because there is a story in the Talmud (Berakhot 13b) where Rabbi Judah the Prince covers his eyes to concentrate while he says the Shema prayer. Since then, we cover our eyes at that point – either to concentrate, or to emulate a great rabbinic soul.

Are any of these things necessary in order to be a good Jew? No.

However, when you are curious about something you see someone do, ask!  If you find the practice meaningful, you may want to adopt it yourself. Learning is a mitzvah.  Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot, “The shy will not learn.” So ASK!

At the same time, “monkey see monkey do” is not a good rule of thumb for learning Jewish ritual. For instance, there are certain places in the service where tradition dictates a bow, but it is forbidden to “multiply bowing” – so choose your role-models carefully. It’s better to do too little than too much.It is a good idea to learn why you are doing a particular piece of choreography in the service, not just to copy the person sitting in front of you. (If you are a newcomer, follow them for sitting and standing and that sort of thing. But if they suddenly start doing a lot of other stuff, just watch and ask them about it afterwards.)

If there’s a ritual you’ve seen and wanted to ask about, feel free to ask here! If I don’t know, I will have a good time looking it up or … asking someone!

P.S. – There may be things you wonder about in this article. I have tried to link each of them to a good explanation. Just click on the link to learn. If you still have questions, ask!