Definition of Ritual

What is the definition of ritual in Judaism? Torah Judaism focuses on three main relationships:

  1. Bein adam leMakom - between a person and Hashem (God) – definition of ritual
  2. Bein adam lechaveiro - between a person and their fellow person – interpersonal (see Jewish Ethics)
  3. Bein adam leatzmo - between a person and themselves – intrapersonal (see Moral Matters)

Definition of Ritual - a Jewish child saying kiddush

Ritual in Torah refers to the first relationship; bein adam leMakom. As such, we are discussing the obligations and foci that a person is required to fulfil in the perfection of their relationship with Hashem (God.)

Whilst we are focusing here primarily on ritual observance, bein adam leMakom is actually the overarching umbrella of all Torah observance be it interpersonal, intrapersonal or ritual. 

Thus the Even Ezra (Torah commentator) (Shmos 20:1) explains that the first of the Aseres Hadibros (10 Commandments,) I am Hashem your God, founds all the 613 mitzvos. 

Definition of Ritual in the Torah

Ritual in the Torah refers to practices that relate primarily to our relationship with Hashem and are undertaken only as an element of that relationship. 

Therefore, even though, as pointed out above, all Jewish practice is based on this relationship, things like having mercy for others and doing kindness to others have strong aspects of intrapersonal and interpersonal respectively.

So a mitzvah like bris milah (circumcision) of the parent on the child, even though it involves another person, is almost exclusively ritual and done because Hashem commanded.

Another characteristic of ritual practice is that it is more often than not, independent of human rational. 

So, for example, we are commanded to eat kosher with the whole body of science which that entails. Whilst we can and in fact are obligated to try and understand the essence of the mitzvah, we do it independent of any logic or rational. 

Not to murder and not to steal are mitzvos that are so logical and so connected to the smooth operation of human society, that they are adopted by most civilised cultures of the world. But, even here, we perform these precepts exclusively because Hashem commanded them.

Some primarily ritual mitzvos, contain enough of a human rational, that they can also be explained in that way. So, for example, to rest from the 39 creative labours on Shabbos (Sabbath) is primarily a sign for the Jewish People to show that Hashem created the world and He alone runs it. 

But, it can also be rationalised to provide essential spiritual rest for the soul at the end of a week and on a less esoteric level, a very healthy rest for the world from human input.

So, ritual in the Torah, whilst it underpins all Jewish practice, is one of the three pillars of Judaism.

The following article will help expand your understanding of the Definition of Ritual:

  • Rituals and CeremoniesJewish rituals and ceremonies are divided into three main categories, find out what these are and why.

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