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8. Rituals and traditions

The year begins with a cycle of solemnities called the “Days of Awe” (Yamim Norayim), a period of judgement and repentance.

Rites et traditions

From the Jewish New Year to the Day of Atonement: the Days of Awe 

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Alphonse Lévy (Marmoutier, 1843 - Alger, 1918), Yom Kippour, France, 1888

The Jewish New Year (Rosh ha-Shanah) is celebrated on the first and second days of the month of Tishri. During these two days, God, remembering His creatures, passed judgement on mankind. Religious services express this trial liturgically. Prayer is punctuated by soundings of the ram’s horn (shofar) encouraging repentance. Tradition has introduced the symbolic notions of the “Book of Life” (Sefer ha-Hayyim) and the “Book of Death” (Sefer ha-Mavet) in which these divine judgements are written. Culinary traditions include the serving of delicacies evoking sweetness and abundance on the eve of Rosh ha-Shanah.

However, the judgement is not truly sealed until the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), celebrated ten days later, on the tenth day of the month of Tishri, by fasting and prayers of penitence lasting more than twenty-four hours. This is the day of the verdict, the climax of ten days of penitence during which one has confessed one’s sins and asked forgiveness from men and God. On the eve of Yom Kippur this expiation is expressed differently from community to community, in rituals of purification and contrition, expiatory sacrifice and alms to the poor.

The services, interspersed with confessions, begin in the evening with the prayer Kol Nidrei (literally “all vows”), which applies to the entire community and annuls vows made hastily. They end the following evening with the Ne’ilah prayer service, recited with the doors of the Torah Ark open and sealing men’s destiny. A final, long sounding of the shofar marks the end of the ceremony.

In some communities, many worshippers spend the day standing, obeying a vow of silence and uttering only prayers. Men wear a white robe-like garment and a belt, sometimes with a buckle dedicated to the feast.

Some communities extend the “Days of Awe” to the forty days from the 1st of the month of Elul to the day of Kippur. Others prolong this period until  the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) called Hoshana Rabbah, the last day one can ask forgiveness for one’s sins. The night is spent studying and the next day supplicatory prayers (Hosha’not) are recited, waving the Four Species and beating the floor with willow branches: “Bring us salvation, please!” 

The Shabbat

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Boîte pour aromates (boîte pour bessamim), Schwäbisch Gmünd, Allemagne, XVIIIe siècle

“Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis, 2: 3). In order to acknowledge the divine nature of Creation and thus associate oneself with the master of the universe, man, like God, must suspend his daily activities. In the text of the Ten Commandments (Exodus, 20: 8-11) the holiness of the Shabbat has a social dimension because the commandment stipulates that this day of rest applies to all beings – man, his family and all those in his household, including his slaves and animals. Celebrating this day and the marking time it demands involves abstaining from any act that could change the natural, mechanical or social order of things established during the course of the week. Derived from the work required to the construct the Tabernacle in the desert, conceived as a microcosm on a human scale, Jewish tradition lists thirty-nine categories of activity that are forbidden on Shabbat.

This abstention from one’s daily activities goes hand in hand with a host of ritual and spiritual manifestations intended to signify the specificity of Shabbat. Celebrated like a queen, Shabbat ha-Malkah, also called the Shabbat Princess, begins on Friday before nightfall with the reading of psalms (qabbalat Shabbat), followed by the sanctification of the day, said over a glass of wine (Qiddush), before two flames, and the blessing of two loaves (Hallot), in memory of the double portion of manna that the Israelites received in the desert on Fridays.

The Shabbat ends on Saturday evening when the first three stars appear, with the separation ceremony (Havdalah), performed with a glass of wine and by candlelight by smelling sweet spices (besamim), whose fragrance remains during the beginning of the week. The final farewell to the Shabbat is made with a meal, Melaveh Malkah (literally “escorting the queen”).

The supreme purpose of the Shabbat is to develop the additional (or enlarged) soul (Neshamah Yeterah) that every Jew is given for its duration, through what the prophet Isaiah called the “delight” of the Shabbat (58: 13-14). In this spirit, the third meal eaten on Shabbat, shalosh se’udot (literally “three meals”), is composed of dishes cooked the day before, enlivened with hymns and punctuated with sentiments on the Torah. Study and rest also play their part, as do the services in the synagogue. The masters of the Talmud made sure that any reference, however trivial, to the concerns of the week (millei de-hol) is prohibited. Every Jew must forget his everyday cares and avoid any intrusion of the profane in the sacred, in order to intensely experience these moments of prefiguration of the world to come (‘olam ha-ba).


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Livre de prières, Livre de bénédictions, Seder berahkhot, Levi Offenbach, scribe, Nancy, France, 1767

The few prayers mentioned in the Bible are individual, spontaneous expressions. In Judaism, prayer began in Babylon during the first exile (586 BC), as a substitute for sacrifices that had become impracticable. People gathered to read and comment on the Torah, and the principle that prayer is “service of the heart,” an activity of and in the heart (‘avodah she-ba-lev), took form.

Prayer was institutionalized after the return from exile. The members of the Great Assembly instituted three daily prayers (tefillah or ‘amidah) corresponding to the highpoints of activity in the Temple: the morning and afternoon services (shaharit and minhah) and an evening prayer (‘arvit or ma’ariv).

Their model was the prayer of biblical figures: the three patriarchs prepared the ground for the three daily prayers, Moses and Hannah dictated their form, and King David is the archetype of God’s servant in prayer, resembling the heavenly “creatures” described by Ezekiel (1,7): feet together, head slightly bowed and heart raised heavenwards.

Any prayer to God must begin with laudatory sentiments and end with an expression of thanks. The prayer (tefillah) begins with three initial blessings of praises and ends with three final blessings of actions of grace. The middle part differs depending on the solemnity of the day: during the week twelve supplications are added, increasing the number of blessings to eighteen, hence its common name, “The Eighteen” (Shmoneh ‘Esreh), even though a nineteenth was added later. On the Shabbat and holidays, a single, specific blessing is added. An additional tefillah (Musaf) is recited on festival days when the Torah ordains a supplementary sacrifice.

Since daily prayer is the ideal moment to carry out other instructions, the recitation of “Hear, O Israel” (Shem’a Yisrael) and its accompanying liturgical texts has become its centerpiece. The Torah is read and the phylacteries (tefillin) and the fringed prayer shawl (tallit) are preferably worn.

In accordance with the Talmudic adage that “In the multitude of people is the king’s glory, but in the want of people is the destruction of the prince,” rabbis have stressed the importance of public prayer in the presence of the quorum of ten men (minyan) . Certain particularly solemn prayers are recited only when there is the minyan.


Robert Capa, 1949

Robert Capa (Budapest (Hongrie), 1913 - Indochine, 1954), Yeshivah dans le quartier de Mea Shearim, Jérusalem, Israël, 1949

“You shall teach them to your children” (Deuteronomy 11: 19). The teaching of the Torah to one’s offspring, the sole guarantor of the continuity of tradition, is considered a primordial duty for every Jew. The Talmud differentiates the wise student (talmid) and the uneducated (‘am ha-aretz), and sees true nobility in knowledge, hence the importance of a system for passing on knowledge: the yeshivah, a generic term denoting either a master with whom one lives and studies, or an institution with its own organization, rules and customs. It is the reputation of the master (rosh yeshivah), with whom the student will be in permanent contact (shimmush talmid hakham), that governs his choice of his place of study.

From the 5th to the 10th century the Babylonian yeshivot created an original institution, the biannual study sessions (yarchei kallah) for all those wishing to suspend their activities to study for a month under the Talmudic scholars of these academies (geonim).

Every township, no matter how small, administers and finances a yeshivah and houses its students. Towns and cities such as Lucena, Narbonne, Ramerupt, Évreux, Volozhin and Fez became universally recognized centers of learning.

In the yeshivah, the student’s sole motivation is study for study’s sake (lishma). The subject studied can have no bearing on daily reality. There is no study program or curriculum, no diploma or degree, and only very rarely do scholars become rabbis themselves. One can attend at any age, change masters at will, and a master can become a disciple.  

The subject of study and the teaching method are always almost the same, irrespective of the place and even period. The text studied is the Talmud. Students studying in pairs (havruta) prepare the text on which the master’s lesson is based. The master considers the passage on which he discourses as learnt and introduces the subtleties of his understanding and interpretation (hiddush). The ultimate aim is to compare different passages and identify their apparent contradictions, so as to finally bring to light the coherence of their subjects through intense semantic analysis, by the creation of new concepts, by the subtlety of their interpretation and even the lesson’s correction (girsa).

There are however very different tendencies from one region to another, and if some yeshivot seek a clear codification, others pride themselves on their particularly sophisticated casuistry (pilpul).


Fauteuil de circoncision. Italie du Nord, XVIIe - XVIIIe siècle

Fauteuil de circoncision, Italie du Nord, XVIIe - XVIIIe siècle

Circumcision (brit milah), tangible sign of the covenant with God and one of the fundamental duties of Judaism, is instituted in Genesis (17: 9-13): “And God said to Abraham: ‘[…] This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you. […] He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” The Bible says that Abraham circumcised himself at the age of ninety-nine, then his son Ishmael and his entire household, and that he circumcised his son Isaac eight days after he was born. 

It is therefore ordained that circumcision should take place on the eighth day. It takes precedence over all festivals and can only be postponed if the child’s life is threatened. The act is performed in the presence of ten men by a pious man experienced in circumcision, the mohel. The godfather (sandek) holds the newborn on his knees, sitting on a special chair called “the Chair of Elijah” a tribute to the prophet Elijah, who preached the reinstatement of circumcision during the reign of Queen Jezebel (mid-9th century BCE). When the circumcision has been carried out, the father recites the blessing and officially names the child. The ritual ends with a festive meal.

The traditional circumcision instruments – the dish, knife and protective clamp – date back to antiquity and are often decorated. In the Rhineland it is traditional to make a long sash (mappah or wimpel) from the circumcision diaper and embroider it with the child’s name, date of birth and wishes of prosperity. This embroidery, executed by the mother, a female relation or sometimes even by a professional embroiderer, is offered to the synagogue on the child’s first or third birthday during the “Shultragen” ceremony and used to bind the Torah scrolls he will read from on the day of his bar mitzvah.

Bar Mitzvah

Châle de prière, Tallit qattan. Italie, XVIIIe siècle

Châle de prière (tallit qattan), Italie, XVIIIe siècle

The bar mitzvah (literally “son of commandment”) ceremony consecrates the thirteen year-old boy reaching the age of responsibility and religious commitment. From then on he must fulfil the instructions of the Law and take an active part in the religious community. He wears the phylacteries (tefillin), can be counted in the ten-man quorum necessary for collective worship, and can be called on to read the Torah.

Wearing the blue or black striped prayer shawl (tallit) with string fringes (tzitzit), the boy dons the tefillin for the first time: with leather straps he attaches around his left arm and head, the boxes containing minute parchments with the passages in the Bible stating the fundamental principles of Judaism.  

On the Saturday following the donning of the tefillin, the bar mitzvah boy is “called up to the Torah” (‘aliyah) on the platform in the middle of the synagogue, for his first reading of the Law. He leans over the scroll, taken from the Torah Ark (aron qodesh), the closet containing the Torah scrolls, recites a blessing and intones the reading with the traditional cantillation. He is surrounded by the male members of his family and by the cantor (hazzan) or rabbi who prepared him for this ceremony. He concludes the reading with a second blessing ending in hymns. The boy then delivers his Torah speech or sermon (drashah), an interpretation of the passage he has read demonstrating his religious knowledge, and ends by expressing his gratitude to his parents and his teachers. The ceremony is followed by a reception. In the 19th century, the evolution of Judaism led to the institution of the bat mitzvah (“daughter of commandment”) for twelve year-old girls.


Alécio de Andrade, Rue des Rosiers, 1975

Alécio de Andrade (Rio de Janeiro, 1938 - Paris, 2003), Boucherie Emouna, rue des Rosiers, Paris, 1975

Kosher food is food fit for consumption according to laws governing the entire food chain. Regarded by some as a prototype of arbitrary law, and by others as a hygienist practice before such a concept existed, kashrut is a set of Jewish dietary laws applied on three levels. First, it indicates that which it is lawful to eat. Man can eat meat but only certain species and types of animal. The only terrestrial animals he can eat are those that ruminate and have cloven hooves – these two criteria limit what is permissible to herbivorous mammals and exclude carnivores, for example. Reptiles and insects are prohibited. In the aquatic realm, only fish with fins and scales can be eaten. Birds are permitted but not predatory species.  

Authorized animals must be slaughtered by a qualified ritual slaughterer, the shohet, who ensures that they are in good condition before and after slaughtering. Sick animals and animals that died a natural death are prohibited. The flesh must be salted at length or grilled to be cleaned of its blood. The Jew is repulsed by blood and kashrut commands him to go beyond the prohibitions for all mankind to eat a limb taken from a live animal or to drink its blood.

The third principle stems from the biblical prohibition stipulating that “thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” The “mother’s milk” stresses that one must not mistake that which has no more life, dead flesh, and that which sustains life, the mother’s milk. Milk and meat, milk products and meat products must therefore be kept separate, as must the utensils used for their preparation and consumption. These dietary rules impose social constraints and require a community organization capable of meeting its needs. Presented in rabbinic literature as a set of categorical laws eluding rationality, kashrut demands that Jews exercise constant restraint in their relationship to nature and society.


Tiq et Sefer Torah, 1860

Coffre et rouleau de Torah (Tiq et Sefer Torah), Empire Ottoman, 1860

The text of the five books of the Pentateuch or Torah must be faithfully handwritten by a scribe (sofer) using a reed pen dipped in black ink, on a scroll of parchment made from the skin of a pure animal. Both ends of the scroll are sewn to a wooden rod called “The Tree of Life” (‘Ets hayim) – a term also denoting the Torah in Judaism – with a handle, often clad with silver.

Although the form of the Torah scroll (Sefer Torah), the most sacred of all the objects in the synagogue, has not changed since the Hellenistic period, its present-day ornaments are the result of a centuries-long evolution that has rendered the handling of the Torah more ceremonial and aesthetic, and resulted in formal differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi ritual practices, the latter having remained closer to ancient tradition. Each of these ornaments corresponds closely to those used in the Temple of Solomon and glorifies the splendour and importance of the Torah. There are two categories of sacred objects. The first category, the instruments of holiness or the holy (tashmishei qedushah) both protect the Torah from being soiled or damaged and exalt it. It includes the Torah sash (mappah), the Torah mantle (me’il), the Torah Ark curtain (parokhet), the Torah cases (tiqqim) and the Torah Ark itself (aron qodesh). The second category of objects, also sacred due to their link with the Torah, are more the result of aesthetic additions that have evolved down the centuries, and includes the ornaments that enhance the Torah’s beauty: the crown (keter), finials (rimmonim), breastplate (tass) and reading hand (yad).

In ancient times the Sefer Torah was wrapped in a cloth (mappah) or kept in a cylindrical wooden case (tiq). This continues to be the custom in most Sephardi and Eastern communities (notably in Tunisia and India), whereas the European Jews have replaced it with an ornate mantle (me’il), like the mantle of the high priest.

The upper tips of the ‘atsei hayim, protruding from the tiq or me’il, are adorned with finials (rimmonim), representing the pomegranates, symbols of life and fertility, adorning the columns of the Temple of Solomon, also called “apples” ( tappuhim ) in Sephardi communities. These removable silver or copper ornaments festooned with little bells appeared quite late on – the first record of them dates from the 12th century. In Europe, this form was superseded by architectural motifs, particularly towers. Although the use of rimmonim is still widespread, the keter Torah, the crown symbolising the Torah’s royalty, is also used in western synagogues. From the 15th and 16th centuries, Ashkenazi Jews hung a silver plaque on a chai (tass) reminiscent of the high priest’s breastplate, on the me’il. Small silver plaques slid into a small window on the tass indicate the name of the service celebrated (ShabbatPessah, etc.).

In accordance with the Talmudic order that “the one who touches the naked Torah scroll will be buried naked” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 14a), the yad (reading hand) facilitates reading the text without the hand touching the sacred book. Covered with all its attributes or enclosed in its case, the Sefer Torah is kept in the Torah Ark (‘aron qodesh), concealed by a curtain (parokhet).

The liturgical objects redistributed by the JSRO in 1951


Quelques uns des 113 objets attribués au musée d’Art juif de Paris par le JRSO et transféré au mahJ en 1998

The Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), a federation of American Jewish organisations and representatives of the French, British and German communities and the Jewish Agency for Palestine, dominated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was founded in New York in May 1947. This organization was mandated to institute proceedings for the restitution of heirless Jewish property and assets spoliated under the Nazi regime. Its first office was in Nuremberg and its chairman was Salo Wittmayer Baron, an eminent historian of Judaism and professor at Columbia University in New York.

A section of the JRSO, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR), was specifically tasked with cultural items. From 1949 to 1952, its managing director, Hannah Arendt, organised the collection of spoliated artefacts and books and their redistribution to communities and Jewish cultural and educational institutions throughout the world. A central depot was established at Offenbach and another at Wiesbaden. Via the intermediary of the JCR, 150,000 books were redistributed to libraries, mainly in Israel and the United States. The objets d’art and liturgical objects were allotted to the Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem (40%), to the United States (40%), and the remainder to other countries (Britain, South Africa, Canada, Argentina and secondarily France). Liturgical objects that could still be used and had no exceptional artistic value were allotted to synagogues. The items entrusted to the JCR, included eleven crates transferred by the American military occupation authorities from the Central Collecting Point in Munich to the JRSO in February 1949. A small part was sent to Israel (thirty-five paintings) and the rest auctioned in New York. The abundant advance publicity for this auction enabled several owners to come forward and claim their property.

The same 40/40/20 per cent quota was applied to all almost heirless Jewish cultural items. On 26 July 1952, thirty-six crates containing artworks, objets d’art and liturgical objects were shipped to Israel. When, in Berlin in 1954, the JRSO discovered a hoard of artworks confiscated by the Nazis from the Reichsvereinigung der Juden, the Jewish umbrella organization created by the Reich, its redistribution was entrusted to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. These were the last restitutions of artworks made by JCR under the auspices of the JRSO.
As part of these restitutions, the Musée d’Art juif de Paris, founded in 1948, received 113 liturgical objects and textiles of ordinary quality. They were transferred to the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in 1998.