What is a tradition?  And who does it belong to?

We typically think of tradition in a paradigm of unchanging patterns of behavior or ritual.  However, if we step outside the here-and-now and view Judaism from a historical perspective, something very interesting arises around this question.  It turns out, in fact, that our traditions are dynamic, not static; they are fluid, not concrete.

Some of the more familiar traditions in our school community surround Shabbat.  The Torah leaves us with two distinct mitzvot, or commandments, around Shabbat: that we should “keep” and “remember” Shabbat.  In its earliest iteration, we can see that Shabbat already has room for multiple interpretations and applications. Following the destruction of the ancient Israelite Temple, Jewish leaders at the time created certain prohibitions that in their eyes upheld these mitzvot.  Later, a liturgical element would be added.  Poems became prayers, prayers became codified, and we are left with the Shabbat blessings and prayers that we have come to know.  Poets and sages across history have subsequently added to and adapted these writings.  L’chah dodi, a now famous poem sung at Friday night services, was written in 16th century Europe.   Eyshet Chayil, an allegory sung around many Shabbat dinner tables in which a mother/wife figure plays the role of God, was written in the 17th century. What began as two simple mitzvot evolved slowly into a complex set of value-laden traditions.

Shabbat traditions continue to evolve today.  As a child, my family would gather most Friday nights to light candles and celebrate Shabbat.  All year long, those moments together as a family marked the end of the week and ushering in of the weekend.  Then each summer, we would pack into the family van (with requisite bucket of plastic toys to stay entertained!) and embark on a family road trip.  Into the van went the Shabbat candles, and from there onto the mantle of whichever house, cabin, or bed and breakfast we wound up staying in.  My parents took pictures of our travelling candles with their changing backdrops in South Carolina, Wyoming, and Prince Edward Island. Those pictures now line the bookshelf in their home where the candlesticks live. Shabbat came on our vacations, and then our vacations came home for Shabbat.

At the JCC’s Day Camp @ Pearl River, a quite unique Shabbat tradition has evolved – Shabbaqua!  The last Friday of each summer is marked by this event with all 200 campers in the swimming pool, the song leader with guitar in the lifeguard chair, and a “bracha boat” equipped with Kiddush grape juice, candles, and challah, floating in the middle of the pool.  The camp community sings prayers and songs all together as they splash and play in the pool.

We have each inherited the evolving traditions of Shabbat.  It is then up to each of our communities, as large as our school and as intimate as each family, to own that tradition and make it relevant.  Judaism gives us the mandate to do this and ample precedent for the evolving nature of tradition.  So, I ask you, how do you own traditions within your family? 

You are invited to continue the conversation as our Kesher groups discuss this question next week.  One group is meeting Tuesday, November 12th at 9:00AM and another on Thursday, November 14th at 7:00PM.  Please email Orlee, classroom 1 teacher, at if you are interested in joining. All are welcome.

Shabbat shalom,