May 24--The Hasidic rabbi of Kotsk was once asked, "Where is God?"

The rabbi answered: "Wherever God is permitted to enter."

The symbols that pervade a committed Jewish home are there to help us bring God inside.

The primary symbol, the one on every Jewish doorway, is the mezuza.

This small container holding a piece of parchment known as a klaf is inscribed on one side with the word Shaddai, a name of God and also an acronym for shomer daletot Yisrael, "guardian of the doors of Israel."

A God-centered home is the source of identity, education, affection, and recognition.

On the other side are hand-inscribed passages from the Torah including Deuteronomy 6:4-9: "You will love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You will teach them diligently to your children, and you will speak of them when you are sitting at home and when you go on your way, when you go to sleep and when you rise up...you will inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates."

A mezuza is affixed to the upper right-hand side of the doorpost (mezuza literally means "doorpost" in Hebrew, the original language of the Torah) of every room inside a Jewish home with the exception of closets and bathrooms.

When Jews move into a new home, they recite a special blessing upon hanging a mezuza. Every time they walk through a doorway, it is customary for Jews to touch fingertips to lips and transfer a kiss to the mezuza. This is a way to connect to the declaration of faith contained within the passages of Torah preserved inside it.
Beyond the doorway of a Jewish home, the most important items inside are books. A home that displays its Jewish books tempts occupants and visitors alike to read them! Jewish holy books are to be treated with great respect. Because they contain God's teachings, holy books are not permitted to be placed upside down or left open when not in use.

Damaged or worn books that contain the name of God are given a respectful burial in a Jewish cemetery just like people.

A symbol of a Jewish home's concern for others is a tzedaka box.

This is a container into which parents and children drop coins and bills to be given to the needy, in keeping with a Jew's obligation to the larger society. Tzedaka derives from the word tzedek, which means justice. For Jews, giving to others is a positive act. We don't give until it hurts; we give until it feels good.

But sometimes Judaism actually requires us to feel mournful. There are traditional Jewish homeowners who never completely finish their houses, and it's not because of an oversight or the result of running out of home-improvement funds. In the year 70 C.E., Jews suffered the destruction of the second Temple and their exile from Jerusalem and Israel. A corner purposely left unfinished in a Jewish home is a symbolic reminder of that destruction.

Without a Temple, the Jewish home became the center of Judaism, with God-directed daily routines as positive grounding tools. But Jews have never forgotten the Temple of ancient times, and many pray for its rebuilding. This is why many Jewish homes have a wall decoration called a mizrach ("east" in Hebrew) hung on the eastern wall. It reminds Jews in the Western world that when they pray three times a day morning, afternoon, and evening they should face east toward Jerusalem.

God is invited even into the Jewish kitchen, with its many symbols of allegiance to God's commandments. Those who observe the kosher dietary laws will have at least two sets of dishes, one for meat and the other for dairy foods. On the Sabbath, a special braided bread called a hallah is placed on the table, with candlesticks containing lit candles, and glasses of wine or grape juice for sanctifying this special day when all work ceases. As God rested on the seventh day of Creation, Jews also rest on our seventh day, Shabbat.

Shabbat is seen as an integral part of creating shalom bayit, peace and harmony within the home. When a Jewish family takes a break from the mall, turns off the television, and turns to one another instead, Shabbat becomes a virtual island in time for resting with relatives, a key to family survival.

A God-centered home is the source of identity, education, affection, and recognition. Honoring one's parents and educating one's children are among a family's most crucial religious duties. But this home also must be hospitable to guests.

Perhaps the greatest paradigm for such a Jewish home is found in the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham was said to have kept his tent open on all four sides so that strangers would know they were welcome. Providing water, food, and a place to sleep out in the desert was a life-saving act.

From time immemorial, Jewish families have invited others to share in Shabbat meals or other celebrations such as a Passover Seder. Another way to perform the mitzvah of welcoming strangers may be to volunteer at a homeless shelter for those who are not lucky enough to have a home to go to.

The Jewish home is not only a place where Jews live. It is a home into which God is invited.

Rabbi Leslie Schotz is spiritual leader of Lakeland Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation serving Wanaque and Ringwood. She is a student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.

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