Judaica helps newlyweds honor traditions

If Judaism begins at home, then the home should be filled with Judaica. When a bride and groom embark on their life together, household Jewish mementos provide warmth, depth and tradition. These are items used week after week, holiday after holiday, year after year — creating and enhancing customs and memories that shape the core of a Jewish home.

Throughout history, Jews have honed a talent for transforming the mundane into the sacred.

When an object such as a cup or a candlestick is used to fulfill a mitzvah, a good deed, tradition urges us to make that act as beautiful as possible. This practice is called hiddur mitzvah, "beautifying the performance of a commandment."

The ketubah, or marriage contract, is often an artistic, gorgeously lettered document that the couple frames after the wedding and displays in their home.

Depending on the officiating rabbi and both families' proclivities, bride and groom have a range of choices when it comes to the ketubah's text. Traditionally, it is a prenuptial agreement in which the groom guarantees the bride certain personal and financial securities during the marriage and, if necessary, after divorce or death disrupts the bond.

The ketubah, which the couple signs before the ceremony, officially becomes the bride's property after the wedding. Though its traditional text is not legally binding under U.S. law, it holds great power among traditional Jews.

The modern liberal ketubah functions as a marriage certificate rather than a contract. Many contemporary ketubot, commissioned and personalized at substantial cost, are full-scale artworks in their own right. Reasonably priced lithographs and preprinted ketubot also are available.

Just before sunset on Friday nights and on the nights preceding festival days, many Jews light at least two candles to symbolize Shabbat's two themes: rest and freedom. The first candle reminds us to rest on Shabbat as God did. The second evokes our ancestors' liberation from slavery in Egypt. Candlesticks always make a wonderful gift for Jewish newlyweds.

Shabbat celebrants say a blessing over the kiddush cup, which is filled with sweet wine. Ornate kiddush cups are a fine example of how ordinary objects can, in Jewish hands, be beautified for sacred use.

Diners cut, pass and serve challah on ceramic, wooden or metal boards. Although today many Jews prefer to tear and not slice challah, the older custom of slicing the loaf is reflected in elaborately decorated challah knives. Challah covers — plain, embroidered or otherwise ornamented cloths — drape the loaves, keeping them warm and moist.

A mezzuzah at the entrance to a Jewish home recalls the biblical commandment to inscribe God's words "on the doorpost of your house." Inscribed on parchment inside the cylindrical mezzuzah are the first two paragraphs of the Sh'ma, the central affirmation of Jewish belief in one God and God's covenant with Israel.

Tradition holds that mezzuzot should be hung at every doorway in the home, except those leading into bathrooms and closets. Mezzuzot are a visual affirmation of our Jewish identity and our commitment to our faith.

With the ceremony of havdallah (separation), Jews bid Shabbat farewell. When celebrated at home, the rite employs three important objects: A cup of wine symbolizes the wish for a sweet week to come. A spicebox filled with aromatics such as clove and cinnamon gives off sweet aromas to comfort spirits that are saddened at the departure of the Sabbath. A braided candle with two or more wicks burning as a single flame is the third element. It often stands in a special wide-mouthed candlestick. To conclude the ceremony, celebrants extinguish the flame in the wine. A plate inscribed with the closing benediction — into which wine is poured and then the candle snuffed — is yet a fourth item common to havdallah. These ritual objects can be purchased individually or in sets.

The mizrach (Hebrew for east) is a decorative cloth or tile hung on a home's eastern wall to indicate the direction of Jerusalem, and thus the proper direction in which to pray.

The chanukiah is an eight-branched candleholder with one additional branch to hold the shamash, or attendant candle. By lighting one new candle each Chanukah night, Jews honor the miracle that occurred after the Maccabees defeated the Syrians, when a single cruse of oil lasted for eight nights.

Tradition urges us to display the chanukiah so that passersby can see it. To that end, electric chanukiot are useful because they can be easily and safely set on a window sill, but they don't fulfill the mitzvah of candlelighting.

At the Passover meal, diners follow the ancient tradition of pointing to and explaining the shankbone, matzah and maror, which are displayed on a special plate. Seder platters come in myriad designs and are lovely enough to display all year.

A gift that keeps giving is a tzedakah or charity box. Known in Yiddish as a pushke, this decorative box holds money that family members set aside to mark special events such as the birth of a child, a job promotion — even a good dream. The box is emptied occasionally and the money goes to an appropriate Jewish charity.

The pushke recalls a medieval practice in which tzedakah was taxed and communal collectors traveled throughout the land gathering it. At that time, tzedakah was mandatory. Today it is a mitzvah.