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Education - Jewish Family Liturgy - A source of Inspiration for the Celebration of the Lord's Day in the Home
In our Jewish heritage there is one element which makes us envious, either because we have lost it or because we do not have the courage to invent if for ourselves: family liturgy!
Around the Table
The family table has remained the meeting place where the covenant is renewed, not only each day with the blessing of bread, but especially on the eve of shabbat (to rest, to cease, to live differently) and on feast days. Both have a familiar flavor and yet are so different from everyday life, captivating the heart from earliest childhood.
Everything comes from God and the important thing in life is to bless him for his gifts and for his intervention in our history; these are the realities experienced around the table.
Each one has his or her role to play there, especially the parents, as mediators of the prayer in common and initiators of the ceremonies, as their forebears were before them.
who has arranged the festive table, is the one who kindles the lights and says the blessing over them as the shabbat begins on the eve. She puts into the home what the grown-ups have gone to find in the synagogue: a reflection of the Divine Presence for this time of rest and joy together, which will spread its fragrance over the whole week to come.
join with her in welcoming with a traditional song those returning from the synagogue who come like angels, messengers of shabbat; they will share fully in both the fun and the serious moments of the ceremonies which follow.
is the one who says the blessings over the bread and wine; it is he who first performs the actions to be repeated by everyone, like the raising up and the passing on of the goblet of wine after he has sipped from it; he also dips his piece of bread into salt and eats it with a prayer of thanksgiving before sharing the banal, which he has broken.
Objects and ceremonies
Three ceremonies create sacred spare which delay the act of eating in order to give it new meaning and significance. Everyone stands for the blessing of the candles, the wine (or grape juice) and then the bread with which the meal begins; this blessing is answered by the Amen of the whole family;
Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctifies us by your commandments and who commands us to kindle the sabbath lights.
Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe,
creator of the fruit of the vine. ... who brings bread out of the earth.
The bread is different from that which is eaten during the week — it is plaited and there are two loaves or hallot on the hallah plate, covered with an embroidered cloth; these recall the manna and the dew which fell on it, a double portion of manna on Friday so that everyone would have sufficient for the morrow. The goblets and candlesticks are special ones used only on these occasions, and are often =graven with the greeting: Shabbat Shalom (a sabbath of peace). The wine used is festival wine, often imported from Israel. The candles, white tablecloth, best clothes and above all else, the atmosphere of peace and joy all show that it is the Lord's Day.
Other ceremonies unfold; the praise of his wife by the husband is taken from Proverbs 31; it is spoken with an affectionate smile for her who has toiled on the preceding days and knows so well how to create a setting for this liturgy.
The conversation does not center around banalities but around the readings for the day; the opportunity is taken to question the children who are following the Talmud Torah (equivalent of religious education classes); they in their turn share new interpretations which they have been taught. Each one is listened to attentively so that there can be the kind of simple, joyful sharing that is impossible in the rush of day-today living. Between the courses, singing can he initiated by anyone who has a mind to it — verses from hymns or psalms for peace, for daily life, in praise of the Lord of creation. Short and stimulating, these snatches of song are repeated again and again.
Beginning with the youngest, the blessing of each member of the family is part of the liturgy. Each goes to the father who places his hands on his or her head, taking advantage of this moment to say a word of encouragement or forgiveness or praise, while each in turn shares plans and good intentions. These are privileged moments indeed!
On shabbat afternoon the adults continue to study the Torah as well as commentaries on it in order to find help to live good lives. There are more than twenty collections of midrashim to explore, as well as lengthy treatises and the mystical writers for good measure. Meanwhile the children dance the horah, sing songs and generally enjoy themselves with friends and neighbors.
There is a final ceremony for the end of shabbat: the havdalah plate is brought in and everyone gathers to celebrate an ending and a beginning, because the working week is about to begin. A plaited candle replaces the festival ones; at the end of the prayer it is extinguished in a drop of wine and a spice box is passed from hand to hand for everyone to smell the sweet perfume as they wish each other shavuah toy (have a good week!) The perfume of the shabbat will impregnate the ordinary days of the week.
Thus, in the home, objects and ceremonies prepare or prolong the synagogue services. They recall in a concrete way the holiness of the seventh day and the meaning of this break in the ordinary routine of the home.
Someone has passed by and left her mark in the house as in the hearts of those who live therein: Queen Shabbat or the Shekhinah (the presence of God with his people).
In our Christian Homes
There is no question of celebrating the shabbat. Jesus, raised up on the eighth day, gave his disciples a new rhythm of life and replaced the precepts for them with his injunction'. Follow me, do likewise; which is just as demanding, although along different lines.
We have to rediscover a Christian way of life in the home, which develops the spiritual understanding of children and also helps a family share at the deeper level of faith. The Jewish family liturgy can inspire such a rediscovery of what it is to he inventive and creative in order to live by the essential, that is to say, in the proximity of the living Lord who gives himself to those who seek him; also to enter into the different phases of the liturgical year and celebrate life and life's happenings in its light.
An Experiment in Family Liturgy
The example of a group of families shows what can be done. They decided to meet on Friday nights in order to enter into Sunday by stages, to thank God for the break which is coming, to open themselves up together to its message. They do this around a table, using the kindling of lights and the blessing of bread and wine as they recall what Jesus has told us about these realities.
One head of a family undertook to explore the liturgical theme of the coming Sunday and lead an exchange of ideas on it; a decision to take action together very often resulted from this sharing.
Other families tried to enter into the changing liturgical seasons by an appropriate hymn, an Advent wreath, a seasonal ikon or the story of an event or individual highlighted in the Sunday readings.
Celebration by the Extended Family
It is important for the children from their babyhood (mothers know that the Lord's call comes with the beginning of life) that young and old prepare together in the home for the encounter with the living God in Jesus the Lord.
It is in the home that we should once more experience genuine ceremonies where each one has a part to play and where symbols will be lived first and then explained as the question why? is asked. Flame, because God is light, warmth and radiance in the heart; two candles because trustworthy witnesses must be at least two (sun and moon, angels at the tomb); and because Jesus learned to pray this way at a Jewish family table.
The older members of the family help willingly with this kind of celebration if they have an active part to play: reading, singing, miming, etc. All the family's talents must be brought into play — drama, drawing, modelling, games and so on, in order to express the message of the day being celebrated. This message can he investigated together. A prayer corner can be arranged with a symbol of the feast or of the theme of the day; an invitatory can he found which grows out of our ordinary life and which can be repeated like a signature tune. Step by step we can enter into the presence of the Lord.
Younger ones can play games based on the spinning tops used for the feast of hanukkah; Advent calendars can be made with windows to open each day. Treasure hunts with gospel clues and biblical quizzes can interest older ones.
Even the seasonal menu wafts its distinctive odors from the kitchen. There are symbolic meanings to be found in Christmas stars, Shrove Tuesday pancakes, Good Friday hot cross buns, Easter simnel cakes and many others, all helping to give a joyful rhythm to the year.
The Jewish custom of filling house and synagogue with flowers and shrubs at Pentecost, adopted by the Church in many places, speaks of the abundance of the gifts of the Spirit as well as of the joy of the Torah.
Let us set to work to rediscover the strength of the Jewish family, which is a place of religious initiation and concrete religious experience. Let us fashion together the solid fabric of the Christian family where the Lord is celebrated because he is alive!
* Sr. Marie-Helene Fournier is a Sister of Our Lady of Sion at En Shalom, a Center for Jewish-Christian Relations in Brussels. She was for a long time responsible for religious education in the diocese there.