The secular New Year is right around the corner, and many of us are thinking about resolutions. For some of us those may include taking better care of our bodies, or tending to our relationships. Others of us, however, may be thinking about our spiritual or religious practice. If you’ve been looking for a way to increase your Jewish knowledge or observance, mitzvot are a great place to start. .
The word mitzvah is often understood as “good deed” but it actually means “commandment” and there are officially 613 of them. You’re probably already observing some of them, such as not cross-breeding animals, and some of them might not apply to you, unless you were actually wondering whether or not you can marry a third-generation Edomite convert (as far as I can tell, you can).
The start of the secular New Year is just around the corner, and it’s a great opportunity to begin adopting other mitzvot into your life. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be terribly religious, there are many ways to modify the mitzvot so they will be meaningful for you and your family.
So, in mostly no particular order, here are my Top Ten Mitzvot For the New Year:
1. Celebrating the Jewish holidays. You might already be lighting candles during Hanukkah, attending a seder during Passover, or dragging the family to services for Rosh Hashanah, but perhaps this year you’ll consider eating some new foods for Tu Bishvat, dressing up for Purim, or building a sukkah. I’m even planning to fast for Yom Kippur this year!
2. Teach your children. According to the Torah, Jewish parents are obligated to teach their children Torah, a trade, and how to swim. In addition to signing up for swim lessons down at your local JCC, now is a great time to start teaching your children about Judaism if you aren’t already. Kveller has a ton of wonderful ideas, and the PJ Library sends free books to Jewish children.
3. Teach yourself. No matter how much you know about Judaism, there is always more to learn, and even if you feel like you don’t know anything, there are a number of places to start. Most synagogues offer adult education classes , and MyJewishLearning has a ton of great articles. In addition, there are many excellent books, such as Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. Rabbi David Teutsch just published A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living, a comprehensive guide to a wide range of issues from prayer to bioethics and even sex!
4. Find a Jewish community. Judaism was meant to be lived in a community, and synagogues are a great place to start. If you’re already a member, consider taking the kids to services more often. If you haven’t yet found your spiritual home, a little shul shopping can be fun!
5. Keeping kosher. Lots of Jews shy away from the idea of managing two complete sets of dishes, and cringe at the idea of never eating pepperoni pizza again. Even if you’re not sure whether to go whole hog on this one (pun intended), you might want to consider finding ways to bring more intention to your eating. My husband and I don’t eat pork or shellfish, and I haven’t had a beloved cheeseburger in over 5 years. But we don’t keep separate dishes, and we do eat meat outside of our house. It’s not officially kosher, but it works for our family.
6. Tzedakah. The obligation to give tzedakah, or perform charity, is considered central to living a spiritual and meaningful life, and is incumbent upon everyone, even the poor among us. There are a number of ways to integrate giving into your life on a regular basis, and to get your children involved. Maimonides outlined the levels of giving, the highest ones being those that help the recipient become self-sufficient. Kiva is an excellent organization that focuses on social microlending—offering small loans to individuals starting their own business.
7. Stop the gossip. Lashon hara refers to speaking negatively about another person, even if what you are saying is true, and it’s forbidden by Jewish law. We’ve all been on the receiving end of gossip, so it’s not hard to understand why it’s not a good idea. But we’ve all been gossips, too, and it’s hard to stop. But it’s worth trying, if for no other reason than to be a good model for our children.
8. Simplify your life. The Torah tells us not to to follow the whims of our hearts or what our eyes see (Num. 15:39). Not surprisingly, there are many ways to interpret this, but I like to think about staying focused on what’s important, and simplifying my life. My husband and I are working hard to cut down on our material consumption so we can spend less time taking care of stuff, and more time enjoying our family and the things we do have. If you’re interesting in learning more about simplicity as a Jewish path, here is a great article by Moti Rieber and Betsy Teutsch. Also, the popular blog Zen Habits has a number of relevant posts.
9. Put up a mezuzah. If those mitzvot seem like hard work, it’s because they are. (Nobody ever said Judaism was easy!). But here’s an easy and fun one for you—put a mezuzah up on your door frame. The mezuzah dates back to biblical times, but there are some fun and modern options to choose from, or you can make one yourself, or make them with the kids. If you’re not sure how to put them up, Todd and God are here to help!
10. Shabbat. Of course, we have to end the list with the biggie. It has been said that, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” The restrictions can seem a bit daunting at first, but the whole point is a day of rest, a day when nothing needs to be created, fixed, or changed. That sounds pretty good, right? Even if you’re not ready to walk to services or give up the phone for a day, there are many wonderful ways to make Shabbat a little different and a lot more meaningful. You might try lighting candles on Friday night, turning off the computer for the day, or making sure to spend time with your family.
There you have my top mitzvot for 2012. What are you thinking about for the coming year?