Create a Sacred Space at Home

Linda Eber wanted her new home to feel like a sacred space, a warm and welcoming refuge that she could share with her family and friends. So when she moved into her apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y.—the first home she had bought on her own—she created a housewarming ceremony based on the ritual of affixing a mezuzah to the front door.

“I wanted to acknowledge the importance of having a home, even for someone—me—who doesn’t have a partner or children,” says Eber, 60, a social worker. She invited guests to participate in the hanukkat habayit (dedication of the home) she had crafted with songs, blessings and readings, and she dedicated her home to the integration of mind, body, heart and spirit. In turn, guests offered their own blessings to her.

“Afterwards my home had the energy of all the people who were there,” Eber recalls. “It was imbued with a sense of spirit that felt really good.” The mezuzah, she notes, represents a “symbolic gatekeeper,” keeping out negative forces, encouraging us to choose who and what we want to let into our lives, and directing us to behave in ways that are sacred.

“We lead such busy lives and it’s so easy to come and go without mindfulness,” says Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, 62, of Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, who suggested the idea and resources for a hanukkat habayit to Eber. “The mezuzah reminds you that you have declared your home to be a certain kind of space. You kiss the mezuzah when you go in and out. It’s an expression of intentionality—kavanah—and a deliberate physical, loving link to a sense of God’s presence.” The ritual of putting up the mezuzah is spare, she notes—just one blessing followed by the Sheheheyanu. “The tradition that fills the home is what makes [the home] sacred.”

Jewish tradition encourages the conscious fashioning of sacred space at home—not just in the synagogue or in natural surroundings. In biblical times, God commanded the Israelites in the desert to build a sanctuary, “and I will dwell among you.” (Exodus 25:8). The rabbis later riffed on this verse, envisioning the home as a mikdash me’at, a little sanctuary, the quintessential temple in miniature. In contrast to the detailed instructions for the building of the biblical sanctuary, the rabbis did not prescribe specific details, directions or prohibitions for home space. “I’m moved by that openness and possibility,” says Lippmann. The value of sh’lom bayit—enriching a home with an atmosphere of peace, safety, tranquility and respect—adds another layer of sacredness, especially during Hanukkah, a time of rededication and renewal.

The elaborate instructions for building the tabernacle are similar to the detail needed to create sacred space, says Nina Amir, 53, a journalist and life coach in Los Gatos, Calif. Surrounding herself with things that are beautiful, peaceful and remind her of God allows her to tap into “something higher” and create her own “vortex of energy” when she works or meditates.

Yet, she stresses, we can choose to create sacred space anywhere—even just by enveloping ourselves in a big tallit. “We can build a sanctuary without needing wood, stone, gems or precious metals. It doesn’t take a lot. It’s all about intention. When you ask for God to be there, then God is there,” she says. For her, Shabbat candle-lighting is the perfect time to invite in the Shekhinah (the divine feminine presence) or a guiding archangel. She imagines herself as a priestess, a modern, female version of the kohanim, or priests, who used to prepare the sacred space, light the candles and invoke God’s presence in Temple times. “Today these duties fall to … Jewish women all over the world,” she says.

Small Rituals
Before they got married, Rachel Brook, 31, and her husband, Matt Holman, both freelance musicians, thought deeply about how to make their home a sacred space. Brook, who grew up in a Reform home, had recently entered cantorial school in New York; Holman had just converted. “Our life began to take on a more observant flavor, and we had to figure out what that meant to us and how it would evolve,” she says. Like Amir, they, too, found meaning in lighting Shabbat candles.

Because Brook and Holman work from a shared home office, setting a boundary between ordinary and sacred time and space is even more significant. “We make a physical affirmation that no matter where we are and what mental state we are in, we will get together as a family and release daily worries,” says Brook. After a long week that might result in stress and negativity, the tenor of the evening changes with the candle-lighting. “We step outside our smallness together and embrace the night, acknowledging space for each other and for Shabbat.”

This summer, Brook introduced a new daily ritual: washing the hands immediately upon waking in the morning (netilat yadayim). In Israel, she bought a ceramic netilat yadayim cup painted with streaks of blues and greens and a shocking orange stripe on one side. “It’s a wonderful way to get into the right frame of mind for the day,” she says. “It’s easy to wake up and think about logistics. Instead I think about separating sleep from the day ahead, and I approach the day from a place of awareness.”

As simple as these rituals sound, Brook notes that it’s even easier not to do them. “The hard part is remembering these are priorities. It’s amazing what a struggle it is to be consistent and make a small ritual an inherent part of the day and week.”

While Brook chose the traditional netilat yadayim to launch her day, Rabbi Lisa Bock, 51, of Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo, Calif., merged hand-washing and candle-lighting ceremonies in an innovative home ritual for couples or families to sanctify the evening. “I tend to begin my day with more intention, more kavanah, than I end my day,” she writes on Ritualwell.org. “At the end of the day I just want to come home and eat and rest and just be. But often, I walk in like a whirlwind, with all the thoughts and events of the day, impressions of others with whom I have interacted still on my mind. My concerns, ideas and thoughts sometimes linger, even unknowingly, and take over the precious time I have with my soul mate. … My kavanah, my intention, is to bring our workday to an end, and create a reunification of gratitude, love and holiness.”

In a three-part tray, Bock places a bowl with a cup of water, a small towel and tea lights in cupcake holders (one for each person present). The ritual begins with washing the hands and allowing the water to flow into the bowl, followed by the blessing for the creation of evening (maariv aravim). It concludes with the lighting of the candle, floating it on the water, and reciting the following words: “As we light the candle, may we consider that the soul is the candle of God, and as water provides nourishment and a place for the candle to float and be sustained, so may our home be blessed and provide our souls and our bodies with rest, peace and togetherness.”

Make the ritual your own, says Bock; feel free to adapt it. Separate whatever you associate with work from your special time. She adds that slowing down at any time and pausing to appreciate what’s around us can be a powerful tool to create holiness. “Take a moment at the kitchen sink or a window to look at your children playing, or your dog running in the yard, or a bird, or the sun on the lawn, and thank God for what you have.”

Transitions serve as appropriate moments to create a sacred ambience. Lippmann recalls making “Shabbat pictures” out of construction paper and crayons when her daughter was a child. “We could capture the week and reflect on it before lighting candles. It was a sweet half-hour to move into Shabbat without zooming into it.” Another family she knows asks the children to say something good they have done during the week, reinforcing the intention to enter Shabbat by focusing on the positive.

The Dinner Table
For Laurie David, an environmental activist, mother of two daughters and the author of The Family Dinner (Grand Central), Shabbat dinner is a “mandated time for celebration” that has become a “weekly appointment with gratitude” in her family. “How clever that the Jewish ancestors more than 2,000 years ago understood the importance of setting aside a sacred time for dinner; a time to take a break from the pressures of the week and purposely bring family together,” writes David.

David has focused her energies on making family dinner the “regular ritual it was always meant to be.” The key ingredient, she found, was the desire to have everyone stop at around the same time every night and sit together for a “satisfying amount of time to eat, talk and connect as a family.” Taco Tuesday with her friend Heidi Haddad’s family soon became a fixture, followed by Shabbat Friday. “Heidi and I divided up the chopping and cooking tasks, while our kids used their creativity to set the table with paper flowers and mismatched place mats. We also decided to include a few age-appropriate questions for the table. If you were a fruit, which one would you be—and why?”

The accountability of committing to come to the table most nights builds relationships, encourages communication and provides security, David says, creating memories and rituals “you and your kids will carry and savor forever.” The process has been life-changing, she concludes.

“Very powerful things happen at our dining room tables,” explains Rabbi Karyn Kedar, 56, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Chicago and author of three books on Jewish spirituality. “Gathering around food is a sacred act that we elevate with blessings before and after eating.” Once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the family table was transformed into the altar, a hub of holiness. Kedar tries not to lose sight of that spirit at her own family dinners. “Even if we are having pizza, I take it out of the box and put it on a pretty plate. My children have learned that we don’t eat out of paper. You create your own environment and are in partnership with your environment.”

The Home, the Sanctuary
Space matters, says Kedar, and so does what we put in it—books, artifacts, art, furnishings. Matching the “language of our physical environment with the language of our interaction” transforms the home into a sanctuary. “It should be beautiful and welcoming and should convey our essence, what we care about and what we care for.”

Kedar creates sections and corners of her home for different purposes. Nothing blocks the way in the welcoming spot at the entrance. Rocks are strewn about, signifying the importance of the earth to her husband Ezra, an Israeli tour guide.

Kedar’s writing space is adjacent to a large east-facing window through which she can see the sunrise and the changing of the leaves. She reads in a big blue chair in the corner. Alongside an array of candles on her desk, a matchbook strikes a resonant note with a quote from Alexander Pope: “Vital spark of heavenly flame!” A similar theme inspires the signed print that bursts with red flames and Hebrew letters—Kedar interprets them as sparks of the imagination—surrounding a white “Yod” encircled by blue. The print is a representation of Psalm 103:22: “Bless the Eternal, all God’s works, in all places of God’s dominion; O my soul, bless the Eternal.”

Kedar became even more attuned to the significance of space when she participated in designing her synagogue’s new building. “We paid great attention to creating a vessel of holiness, with pockets of holiness everywhere that express our core values.” Tan walls, for instance, mirror the wheat harvest in Israel and a connection to the land. Five bricks are intentionally missing in the vestibule to symbolize that the world is not complete—and it is our responsibility to complete it.

As challenging as it might be, shutting off phones and computers with the attendant beeps, chimes and vibrations we have come to expect also fosters peacefulness. “The opportunity for quiet allows you to recognize your thoughts and have them come up naturally,” says Kedar.

Bock changes the settings on her phone and curtails her use of email to reflect her day off, home time or Shabbat—except in case of emergency. Create a ritual around turning off the cell phone, she suggests. “Put it in a basket. We can gently set boundaries in a way that honors ourselves and others,” says Bock. “It’s important to give ourselves the time and space to rest, rejuvenate and reconnect with ourselves, with God and with others, both on Shabbat and on each and every day.”

TIPS TO CREATE SACRED SPACE
It takes little more than our minds to create a sacred space. If we visualize the space we are in as surrounded by a divine light, and we set aside a time to be in that space, we begin to create a sanctuary. If we also do a few small things, such as say a prayer, meditate, light a candle, burn incense, or place flowers, holy texts or sacred objects on a table, suddenly we have a sacred space. Look around your home and ask what you can put in it to make it feel more holy and peaceful. What brings shalom into my home? When we do this, we consciously or unconsciously send an invitation out to the Divine Presence asking to be joined in the mikdash (temple) we have created. –Nina Amir

Connect the idea of sacred space to behavior. How do we speak to each other and treat each other? Learn how to fight more respectfully. Let your children teach you something or share what they are learning. Small actions like making Shabbat dinner lovelier or saying something nice to your child can enhance the sense of sacredness. Create rituals around the practice of giving. Before Shabbat and holidays, put money in the tzedakah box and discuss the concept and logistics of tzedakah. What happens when the box is full? Where will we give it? How will we decide? Can we take it there? –Rabbi Ellen Lippmann

Earmark at least one day of the week for the ritual of saying thank you, and it will become a treasured tradition. Before Friday night dinner (or any dinner), have your child pick out a poem or saying that reflects gratitude. Or print out quotes about gratitude and put one under each person’s plate. At an appropriate time, go around the table reading them. –Laurie David

Pick your corner that you will be your corner. If you were sent to that corner and had a nonpunitive “time out” every day—a time to take your thoughts back from the distractions of the world and collect them in that corner—what would you create? How would your space be a partner with who you want to be in your time out? –Rabbi Karyn Kedar