The Sabbath: How Orthodox Jews Create Sacred Space


This is a concise look at the Sabbath as practiced by Orthodox Jews. This article will serve as an introduction and a starting point for further research. The methodology used was interviews and participant-observation. I chose Orthodox Jews for this preliminary study because of the disciplined way they observe the Sabbath. The literature, including Biblical and anthropological works relevant to the Jewish Sabbath, reveals the ritual and cultural significance the day has to Orthodox Jews. Some of the findings included themes of ritual observance and its meaning, and the importance of communal worship to Jews. Most important was maintaining their connection to the past as revealed through the perpetuation of ritual observance.

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    I am used to getting up at five in the morning, but for some reason that particular morning I just did not want to get moving. I did anyway since my cell phone alarm was ringing insistently. For me to shut it off I had to go to the other end of the room where I had left it. That Monday was the day that I was going to break free of the cocoon of studying, reading, and writing that had enveloped me for the last five weeks. I was going to get started on my first ethnographic research. I was getting ready to head off to an orthodox synagogue in Dallas, TX to attend morning services. It seemed to me like the right thing to do, starting at the beginning of the week and working towards the Sabbath just as Jews do.

    I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had been to plenty of Reform and Conservative synagogues in the past. There is a saying in the military: the first casualty when you encounter the enemy is your plan; this saying is applicable by anyone doing ethnographic research. There I was at 6:40 in the morning. The coffee I had bought along the way to Dallas from Denton had not yet circulated enough through my blood stream to be effective. I was a bit nervous about being the goyim, stranger, in the synagogue. So what was the first thing I saw as I entered five minutes early? There were fifteen men in the sanctuary. Five were sitting going through the Siddur, (in Hebrew this means order) Prayer Book, six were in different phases of dressing for the service. Some were already wrapping tefillin, these are small boxes that are placed on the arm near the heart, and the head; this is done to fulfill the Biblical command, “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead” (Deuteronomy. 6:8). Before putting on the tefillin, the tallit, a four-cornered prayer shawl with fringes at each corner, is donned. See Figure 2 and Figure 3 to see what these items look like. Another man was at the podium leading the service. The last two men were over in a corner having a discussion. The rabbi was nowhere in sight, though he walked by twenty minutes later. He did not reappear until the Torah Scroll was about to be removed from the ark to be read. This was, as I was later to learn, a common occurrence. Most orthodox services might start at around the appointed time but people arrive at different times. In a Christian context, it would be considered somewhat rude to show up late for most during the service. Not so in Orthodox Judaism these late arrivals will simply begin the ritual and attempt to either catch up or stay a little after to finish. The adherent would not pick up in the same place as the rest of the congregation; he would start at the beginning.

    After attending my first orthodox Sabbath service later that week, I reflected on the differences and similarities between the weekday and Sabbath rituals in both services. One outward difference is that tefillin are not worn on the Sabbath. They are reminders of God’s presence and His commandments. This sense of the holy is pervasive on the Sabbath so their use is unnecessary (Donin, 1980).

    This paper focuses on these sorts of ritual practice as made evident in the services I attended over the five weeks I conducted my research. It also discusses how the men I interviewed observed the Sabbath Laws. The data gathered provided sustenance for my research question. How do Orthodox Jews create sacred space? What does the Sabbath mean to orthodox Jews? What value do they place on this Holy day that they would observe it so strictly every week, not with a heavy feeling of the Sabbath as being some kind of a burden, but with joy and gladness, thankful that God had given them a day of rest. This paper is a limited attempt at answering these questions. My most important finding was that the doing of observance of the law and ritual practice reaffirms a sense of identity and sacred community for Orthodox Jews. The “how” of this affirmation constitutes the main point of this paper.


    “Study the Torah again and again, for everything is in it; yea, contemplate it, grow old and grey over it, for there is no greater virtue than this” (Bokser, 1983, p. 252). In the rabbinic classic Perkei Avot, Sayings of the Fathers, Ben Bag Bag speaks about learning and studying the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The same is true of the Sabbath. Turn it and turn it; all of Judaism is in it. The first mention of the Sabbath is in the Tanakh (Hebrew name for the Old Testament. It is also an acronym of the words Torah, the first five books of the bible. Nevi’im, the prophetic books, andKethuvim, the writings.), “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen. 2: 1-3, Jewish Publication Society). This is the only mention of the Sabbath after God finishes His work in Genesis. God looks over his creation and He blesses it and declares it holy. All the other days of creation God declared good, but the seventh day is different from all other days. קָדוֹשׁ (transliterated as qadosh) is the Hebrew word for holy. Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine” (Heschel, 1951, p. 9). God made a holy day on to Himself. He declared time to be holy. Other religions of the ancient world had holy places, but in the Tanakh there is only holy time. Even after the creation of man there is only holy time. Holy space came to Judaism later.

    God does not command that the holiness of time be observed till much later. At this point in the Tanakh there are no people called Jews. In the Tanakh the people who eventually are refered to as Jews were called Israelites. Today a Jew is defined as anyone that is ethnically Jewish, or practices the religion called Judaism. It is not until Genesis 11:31 when the man called Abram is first introduced, and it is until chapter 12 that he is spoken to by God. Abram is commanded by God to go to the land of Canaan. God says to Abram I will make of you a great nation. In time Abram’s name will be changed by God to Abraham. A name that means, “father of a multitutde of nations” (Gen. 17:5). Through Abraham’s son Issaac, the aforementioned promise was kept. Issaac’s son Jacob, who would later be called Israel, a name that may mean God wrestler, “for you have striven with divine beings and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32: 29). Jacob’s twelve sons will be the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

    The reader is no doubt familiar with the story of Moses, a descendant of Jacob, who was sent by God to Egypt to liberate the Israelites. Moses became the prophet and lawgiver to the people of Israel. On their journey to the promised land he proclaimed, “Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy Sabbath of the Lord” (Exd. 16: 23). In essence this was a restatement of the creation Sabbath. God was providing the Israelites manna (bread) to help feed them along their way (Exd. 16:14-15), Moses tells them: “Six days you shall gather it[manna]; on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none” (Exd. 16:26). At this point the Sabbath still belongs to God. He will not make manna on the seventh day because it is holy to Him. So the people are commanded to gather two days’ worth and to remain in their place on the seventh day, the Sabbath (Exd. 16:29). In this verse Moses also adds his own interpretation to Gods’ Sabbath by saying, “the Lord has given you the sabbath” (Exd. 16:29); this is the first mention of the Sabbath being given to man.

    This brief glimpse into the Tanakh shows the complexity of Biblical Law. In just one chapter the Jews are told not to work, not to gather on the Sabbath, but to gather twice as much the day before. Four chapters later we come to the Decalogue known as the Ten Commandments.

    Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: You shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exd. 20: 8 – 11)

    A second version of the Ten Commandments in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, is slightly different from the first in its choice of words. The first word of the fourth commandment in the Exodus version of the decalogue begins with remember, זָכוֹרzachor, in Hebrew. In Deuteronomy the word used is observe, שָׁמוֹר shamor (Bloch, 1978). The four rabbis I interviewed all placed great emphasis on the use and meaning of these two words. They all agreed that the command to remember is in itself useless. Anyone can remember the Sabbath. “Next comes the injunction to keep it holy, followed by some rules that pertains to the abstinence from working for you and your family, your slaves and cattle” (Rabbi, B, personal communication, July 18, 2011).Shamor, to observe is a significant change from zachor to remember.

    The etymological root of shamor means, “to engrave.” Ancient documents and legal statements of great importance were engraved in order to preserve them for posterity. “To engrave,” therefore, came to mean “to preserve.” The “preservation” of a religious law carried with it an obligation to take active steps to assure its perpetuation through transmission from generation to generation. (Bloch, 1978, p. 5.)

    It is this perpetuation, through practice, that is at the core of Sabbath ritual. Ritual as defined by R.A. Rappaport is “formal – stylized, repetitive, and stereotyped. People perform them in special (sacred) places and set times. Rituals include liturgical orders – sequences of words and actions” (Kottak, 2011, p. 496). This falls under the context of liturgical orders as defined by Rappaport. Prayer is certainly stylized and repetitive in nature. Many Jewish prayers and blessings have the same formula, “Praised be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by Thy commandments and has instructed us to…” (Bokser, 1983, p. 2). This formulation, which is repeated several times both before and during services, and at home is central to Jewish prayer. Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger writes, “ritual focuses attention by framing; it enlivens the memory and links the present with the relevant past. In all this it aids perception” (Douglas, 2007, p. 79). What Mary Douglas says here is crucial to know and remember when studying any religious practice. She asserts that ritual focuses the practitioner’s attention. However, Douglas left a very important piece of the puzzle out of her definition of the function of ritual; that is the feeling of cloaking one’s self in the ineffable. Most social scientists, anthropologists included, fall short of going that extra step to examine the practitioners, and the religions sense of the holy, even when that scientist is devoutly religious as Mary Douglas was.

    The anthropological definition of what ritual is and means transcends the practices of any specific religion. Ritual is important in Judaism as it inscribes a connection to the past (Douglas, 2007, p. 79). To present day Jews this association is important as they see themselves continuing the traditions that Jews have maintained for millennium.



    Orthodox Jews over the age of eighteen were recruited for this study. Recruitment was done via phone calls and E-mails to local synagogues and personal contacts that I had previously made in the Orthodox Jewish community. Six participants agreed to be interviewed for the purpose of this study. Four of the participants are rabbis two are orthodox congregants. Of the participants, the rabbis are each of a different branch of Judaism. Two are Orthodox the other two are Conservative and Reform. Of the Orthodox, one is Hasidic, the other Modern Orthodox. The two congregants are both Orthodox.

    Literature Review

    The literature review for this project comprised mostly of Jewish texts that dealt in whole or in part with the Sabbath. The Tanakh was the base text for my examination of Sabbath rules and regulations. All the laws contained in the Mishnah, the Talmud, theShulan ArukhCode of Jewish Law, have their beginning in the Tanakh they are commentaries written by sages and rabbis in order to elucidate and update the laws of the Tanakh. This does not make the Tanakh the be all and end all of Jewish texts, no, just the starting place. These texts were examined in the light of not only what the rabbis wrote, but also for their religious cultural significance. By using these foundational texts in order to gain an understanding of what the Sabbath is, and using the interviews to examine what the Sabbath means to the Jewish people, Orthodox Jews in particular, I was able to perceive its meaning to Orthodox Jews.


    Before each interview, I had prepared a list of general semi-structured open-ended questions that I would tailor to fit the person I was to interview. The modifications made to my interview questions were based on age, profession, and form of Judaism practiced. I left myself plenty of room and time to be able to expand upon any points of interest that might come up during our conversations.


    I attended several services at synagogues of the three largest forms of Judaism, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. There is a fourth, called Reconstructionist, a movement begun by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. There is no Reconstructionist synagogue in the Dallas area. There are only three in Texas, located in Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Due to time constraints and the fact that all my participants were in the Dallas area I decided that driving that far would be detrimental to my current study.

    Data Analysis

    After accomplishing the transcription of recorded interviews, I began to analyze the responses to the questions and comparing the answers with each other. For example, I asked all the participants to describe for me what their routine is on any given Sabbath. From this question, I could determine level of observance of each participant in regards to the ritual associated with the Sabbath. I then compared these practices of my informants to the laws that govern Sabbath observance from the multiple Jewish textual sources that pertain to them. One of my findings through this line of inquiry was that being religiously orthodox my participants found no difficulty in performing the required ritual observances of the Sabbath. The observance that an outsider or a person considering conversion would find difficult is second nature to Orthodox Jews. These Jews do not spend the Sabbath thinking of what they need to avoid doing in order not to break Halakha, Jewish Law. None of my orthodox participants saw the law as a burden. They saw it as a joy. My two non-orthodox participants, on the other hand, believing in their right to re-interpret Jewish Law, observed the Sabbath in differing ways.


    Sacred Time

    The Sabbath begins officially when three stars are visible in the night sky. If it were a cloudy day you could to go to any Orthodox website or synagogue, you could find a list of candle lighting times. A good general rule is 45 minutes after sunset there would be three stars in the sky, if you could see them of course. Something that my Reform Rabbi participant mentioned was that he and his wife would usually light the Sabbath Candles early depending on their schedule. When I asked my Orthodox participants if they lit the candles at home early, they all said yes. Later Rabbi R. explained this to me, “We will light the candles early, once all preparations have been made so that we can steal some time from the world” (Rabbi R, personal communication, July 6, 2011).

    CH: “Would you consider the weekday services to be doing the same thing stealing time from the world?”
    Rabbi R.: “Yes you could look at it that way I suppose. We gather in communal prayer three times a day during the workweek. We stop our day-to-day activities and pray to the maker of the universe.”
    CH: “Is there any other time theft I need to be aware of, in case the time cops show up I can cover for you?” I asked with a laugh.
    Rabbi R.: “Yes, yes there is. On Saturday when the Sabbath is ending we hold off on doing the Havdalah ceremony that ends the Sabbath for a few minutes.” (Rabbi R, personal communication, July 6, 2011)

    What does it mean to steal time from the world? By lighting the candles, early Jews open the doors of their hearts and mind to God and His Sabbath. The Sabbath is a joy and peace from the cares of the world comes with it. Most Jews no matter what their religious affiliation look forward to the coming of the Sabbath. Whether it is as a religious observance, or as a time of leisure, the beginning of the weekend after a long week at school or work the concept of a Sabbath is important to many people. A change in what defines the activities of leisure time, and a desire to fit into the modern world that caused a shift in Jewish observance of the law. This shift precipitated the movements that led to the current division of Jewish sects today.

    A typical Sabbath for my two non-rabbinic participants is a day to get out and away from the rat race that comprises their normal workweek. Both are divorced, Steve has no children but David does. He has them stay with him every other week. Steve and David do not know each other, nor do they attend the same synagogue in Dallas. For the most part their Sabbath practice is similar. They both drive to the synagogue on Friday night and walk home after services. Once they are back at home they may read go for a walk to visit a nearby friend, or just go to bed early to prepare for the next day.

    On Saturday, they would head back to the synagogue though Steve admits to sleeping in at times since he cannot set his alarm due to Sabbath restrictions. David, on the other hand, told me he has a special alarm that shuts off on its own so it will not ring all day as some clocks do. This may seem like an odd requirement, an alarm clock that shuts itself off, but it is forbidden to kindle or extinguish a flame on the Sabbath. Since most clocks are digital and run on electricity, they fall under this category. After the Shacharit, the Hebrew name for the morning service, there is time for some Torah and Talmud study. Then it is off usually to a friend’s house to enjoy each other’s company or just home to relax, eat, and take a nap whatever strikes their fancy. Then it is back to the synagogue for the Havdalah service. David’s Sabbath is different when he has his kids with him. He will have activities and games with them, but he also walks them to friends’ houses to play and picks them up later. Therefore, his Sabbath varies a bit from week to week.

    Havdalah Service

    The Havdalah service is a simple, short yet beautiful service that marks the separation between the sacred and mundane. The Havdalah is not celebrated until after the Minhah, the name for the evening service, and even then not until at least three stars are visible in the night sky. A blessing is said over wine. Then a blessing is said over spices. These prayers follow the same formula presented earlier. The spices are normally bay leaves, cloves, and or cinnamon. The sweet smell is a reminder of the Sabbath gone and the one to come. Lastly, a braided candle is blessed and lit. This is the ultimate farewell to the Sabbath since on the Sabbath Jews are not allowed to light a fire. After the candle is lit, Rabbi B. informed me when I asked him, “Why you hold your fingers curved up to the flame?”

    “We do this in order to use the fire. It is not right to light it bless it and not use it for something” (Rabbi. R, personal communication August 4, 2011). A final prayer is said to officially separate the holy from the profane:

    Praised be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast set a distinction between the holy and the mundane, Between light and dark, between Israel and other peoples of the world, between the seventh day and the six days of the week. Praised be Thou, O Lord who hast set a difference between the holy and mundane. (Bokser, 1983, p. 223)

    Sacred Space

    Exodus chapters 25 through 27 describe the building of the Tabernacle in the desert. These three chapters have special meaning for the Jewish people. First, the laws that define what types of work are forbidden on the Sabbath are derived from the labors that are required to build the Tabernacle. Second, the Tabernacle is the official holy site of the burgeoning Israelite religion. Sacrifices took place there, God descended upon the Tabernacle to speak directly with Moses, and the Holy of Holies contains the Ark of the Covenant. The Tabernacle was moving sacred space and later the Temple in Jerusalem was fixed sacred space. The synagogue today is a model of this space. There were places in the temple that only the priests could enter and even then, only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies. See Figure 1. The synagogue is much the same in design but does not have the restrictions that the Temple did about where a person could or could not go. Using Figure 1 as our model the outside the synagogue would be the world, number two in Figure 1. Number one in the same figure called Israel would be the entire property of the synagogue. The smaller circle numbered one would be the synagogue itself and the place in the sanctuary for congregants. Numbers three, four, and five would all be up on the Bimah. The Bimah at the eastern end of the sanctuary is an elevated platform that comes away from the wall, picture a stage if you will. On the east wall is the ark. In the ark are the Torah Scrolls that the synagogue owns. Most synagogues that I have visited have two or three scrolls in the ark.

    It should be noted that not all synagogues are the same, but they are all similar in style. I have never been in a synagogue that did not have a social area, a room that could be set up for social and religious events, such as community Passover Seders, or parties celebrating a Bar, or Bat-Mitzvah, a coming of age ritual. There are classrooms for the children, and library filled with Jewish religious and non-religious works of Jewish origin and relevance. All synagogues have a sanctuary. The sanctuary of one particular synagogue I visited was an all-purpose room. During the weekday, Sabbath, and Holy Day services, it was the sanctuary. The rest of the day, the room is used for multiple purposes. The summer camp, which was in full swing during my research, for kids, took over the room as a play and nap space during the day. The room takes on a different orientation during the Sabbath, just as Jews change the focus of their lives from the mundane to the sacred on the Sabbath. The eastern wall of the sanctuary holds the ark that contains the Torah Scrolls. This the focal point of the sanctuary. Since the congregants are seated facing this wall it is oriented in such a way so that when the congregation prays they do so facing towards Jerusalem. This orientation would change in different parts of the world. If the synagogue is north, of Jerusalem then the ark would be on the south wall and the congregation would face south. A synagogue in Jerusalem would position it facing the site of the former temple.

    During the Shacharit I learned about the orthodox view of the world outside the synagogue, a term used to refer to the synagogue. Even during the workweek, there is an encroaching of the sacred into the realm of the mundane. As with the Sabbath mentioned earlier, there is a tendency to steal time from the world. Jews are required to pray three times a day. Preferably, this is done in the synagogue to ensure that there is a minyan, ten male Jews that have been Bar-Mitzvah. “The sages taught that god listens more readily to the prayers of a congregation than He does to those of an individual… Furthermore, the sages tell us that when ten or more pray together the “Divine Presence” (Shekhina) is with them” (Donin, 1980). This does not mean that God does not listen to the prayers of less than ten people. If one cannot make it to the synagogue three times a day he is still commanded to pray. According to Rabbi R, an orthodox rabbi said, during our interview “It is this need for communal prayer that helped the synagogue develop into the center of Jewish life after the destruction of the temple and the deportation of the Jews by the Romans” (Rabbi R, personal communication, July 6, 2011).

    So what is it about the Shacharit, and the other service that helps create an island of sacred space at the beginning of the workweek? The first part of it is the donning of the tallit. The tallit is a four-cornered garment that has fringes at each corner, see Figure 2.

    And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray; that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 15: 37-41)

    It is a sacred act to put on the tallit. It serves as a reminder of the laws handed down by God. A prayer is recited before putting on the tallit, “Praised be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments and has instructed us to robe ourselves in a Tallit to remind us of all the commandments of Thy Torah” (Bokser, 1983, p. 2). Again, we see the formula of many of the prayers. These repetitious words wrap the practicing Jew in sacred words. A metaphor of the physical acts of wrapping one’s self in a tallit. Many prayer books translate these prayers as beginning with “Blessed be Thou” like in Rabbi Donin’s Book To Pray as a Jew does throughout the text. The late Rabbi Bokser states in the introduction to his translation of his The Prayer Book, he believed that Blessings come from God. We cannot Bless Him only Praise Him (Bokser, 1983). After the Congregant has wrapped himself in the tallit, he begins to put on the tefillinTefillin are small leather boxes that have a strap. See Figure 3. I asked Rabbi B, what the significance of the shape of the tefillin was and the design of the knots, “There are four strips of parchment in the tefillin, one is the Exodus 13:1-10, and the second is Exodus 13:11-16, the third is Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the fourth is Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The head box has the raised Hebrew letter shin, the headtefillin knot is in the shape of the letter dalet; the hand tefillin are knotted in the shape of the letter yud. Together, shindaletyud spell Sha-da-i one of the names of God” (Rabbi B, personal communication, July 18, 2011).

    One is placed on the head, the other is wrapped around the bicep, and then the strap is bound around the arm down to the hand. The prayer for putting these on follows the same basic format as the tallit prayer. The symbolism of wrapping oneself in and binding oneself to the commandment of God is ritually and symbolically very powerful. It is fascinating that the Latin root of the word religion is, “religare,” “to tie, to bind” (Kottak, 2011, p. 493). Combined with the repetitious nature of the prayers, which is an aspect of prayer ritual in virtually every religion, all these ritual acts, symbolic accoutrements, and the need for communal public prayer three times a day serves as a reminder of the Sabbath that is to come. This stealing of time from the secular world is also a theme that pervades other religions. Muslims pray five times a day, there is no set times of prayer for catholic laity but priests and those in religious orders, such as monks and nuns, must pray three times a day.

    Many of the above facts correlate nicely with some of the anthropological definitions of religion. Victor Turner used the term communitas, “an intense community spirit, a feeling of great social solidarity, equality, and togetherness” (Kottak, 2011, p.493). The need for communal prayer falls under Turner’s definition nicely. An earlier definition is that of Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, the father of anthropology, “animism, the earliest form of religion, was a belief in spiritual beings” (Kottak, 2011, p. 493). This basic definition, though accurate, is too far reaching in its scope. Tylor himself seems to have known this since he also proposed the evolution of religion, from animism to polytheism (believing in multiple gods) to monotheism (belief in one god).

    Orthodoxy or Orthopraxy

    Since the perpetuation through observance that is at the core of the Sabbath. Moreover, since the remembrance of the Sabbath, is superseded by the observance of the Sabbath. Is Judaism an orthodox religion? The word orthodox means right belief. One of the first things that almost any Jew will tell you is that there is very little in the way of dogmatic belief in Judaism. When we look at the Torah and the Talmud what we have is a long complex code of do and do not’s. These regulations handed down by God to the people are all about observance, practice. Both David and Steve both told me during interviews of the lengthy code of laws that govern the Sabbath are based on the thirty-nine labors carried out to construct the tabernacle in the desert. These instructions begin in the 25th chapter of Exodus and end at the 28th. Further details and explanations of any obscurities in the text are in the Talmud. In the end, Judaism is truly a religion of orthopraxy.


    After the short time, I spent with the Orthodox Jews in Dallas I must take issue with a reoccurring theme in scholarship on Jews and Judaism that sees them as dying out. For example, Calvin Goldscheider states that, “some perspectives from the social science and history postulate that the American Jew is vanishing and that the American Jewish community is eroding” (Gitelman, 2009, p. 268). To his credit, Goldscheider also discusses that the paradigms used in studying other religions do not and cannot apply to Judaism or the Jewish people as an ethnic group. As an example, he states that many secular institutions will use religious themes while synagogues stress ethnic ones (Gitelman, 2009, p. 268). It is this mix of the ethnic and religious which is prevalent in Judaism today and which keeps the Jewish people not only viable in the modern world, but also makes them difficult to categorize.

    The challenge for qualitative researchers is that they must recognize their own positionality. This brief qualitative ethnographic study achieved much greater depth of explication than a quantitative approach would have done. The researcher has to recognize his or her bias and deal with them accordingly. I did this by acknowledging what I am religiously. Having been born a Catholic, and converted to Judaism in the Reform Movement, and coming to the realization that some Jews would not consider me to be a Jew I decided for myself that I was going to just be a God fearer. All of my Orthodox rabbi participants called me a Noahide, a follower of the original seven laws given to Noah after the flood. As far as Judaism is, concerned people need not convert to Judaism. If you are not a Jew, you should follow the laws given to Noah. Quantitative research is good if you are attempting to figure out a baseline number of how many Jews observe the Sabbath, but those numbers can never tell you what Jews feel about the Sabbath, or what it means to them to observe the Sabbath.

    Is there an attrition of the practitioners of Judaism? The answer is yes, there is, as there is in any religion. Numbers are not important here. The simple fact is that people lose their faith for various reasons. What I have experienced during this research and in my experience with Judaism in the past is that it is alive and vibrant. To be an Orthodox Jew in Texas boggles the mind. As with any socio-cultural group that migrates to a new area, they bring along what they need. Some would probably say that aside from a need for communal worship that the Jews brought with them kosher butchers, restaurants, and clothiers. What these researchers failed to realize is that these professions are religious in nature. Just as Jews are commanded to worship God, He also commands them as to their diet. “This is not to be mistaken with kosher style restaurants. There is no such thing as a kosher style of cooking. It is not like Greek or Chinese food that has a style of cooking. There are though certain foods from Germany, Poland, and Russia that are ethnic in origin that are kosher, like blintzes” (Rabbi B, personal communication, July 18, 2011).

    In the end of this preliminary research, what remains is a vibrant living religion. A religion that exists in the modern world of today, but still maintains its own cultural identity. With adherents, who live shifting from the mundane modern world, to the sacred realm of Judaic observance. The reasons for the occasional predictions of the end of Judaism and other religions is that some adherents to culturally distinct religions tend to leave them, tempted away by the modern world that surrounds them. So while there is attrition in Orthodox Judaism there is also return and conversion into the faith. Other findings are the deep meaning that the observance of Sabbath ritual has for Jews. Not just Orthodox Jews but also the Conservative and Reform Rabbis that participated in my research both had deep affection for the Sabbath though they followed a different path of observance.

    There is a need for further ethnographic, qualitative study of religious experience. This study for me is symbolic of opening a door and taking a quick peek inside a room filled with vast treasure. This goes back to Tylor’s ideas of the evolution of religion. He explained that religion came about to explain the unexplainable. Tylor and his contemporaries, and many researchers since then have felt that, as science explains these phenomenons, that religious observance would fall away (Kottak, 2011). The fact that religion still exists shows that there is something missing, or unfulfilled in Tylor’s theory. Further ethnographic study is needed of the religious experience. Without understanding, what the meaning of ritual and observance is to the adherents of a religion. The study of religion would then be nothing but cold numbers and words that sacrificed a glimpse at the truly Divine nature of all religious practice.


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    Figure 1: Biblical sacred space.

    (Kunin, 1998, p. 15)

    Figure 2: Putting on the Tallit.

    (Donin, 1980, p. 32)

    Figure 3: Putting on the Tefillin.

    (Donin, 1980, p. 37)