I would never absorb all the rules and know the meaning and timing of every Jewish prayer. How could I? Rabbinical students spend years hammering out this stuff, and these are usually kids who grew up in observant households. I realized that if I wanted to explore Judaism, I had no choice but to loosen my grip. I would need to let the Hebrew flow without my understanding every single word—or even any of the words. Maybe I could hum along, or utter a syllable or two of a phonetic translation, or skim the English version if one was provided.
As I got further along in this portion of the journey, with more experience under my belt, I began to see that not understanding every word is the norm—especially for English-speaking Jews. Many have learned just enough Hebrew to say the necessary prayers; others have learned by ear and through repetition. The extent to which individual Jews are familiar with or follow “the rules” varies wildly. The labels of branches within Judaism indicate the degree to which that particular group chooses to adhere: the “ultra-orthodox” and “orthodox” stick as closely as possible to the law, while “conservative” and “reformed” have eliminated many traditional requirements.
Still, even the most observant among them can’t adhere perfectly. In fact, the sages and wise men have developed another set of guidelines for how to make things right when the inevitable mess-up occurs (such as how to “purify” a utensil intended for dairy that may have accidentally encountered meat).
When I began to grasp the meaning behind the rules and prayers, I had to laugh at my earlier notions. I thought the actions and words were like scientific formulas—conduct them perfectly and unlock the mystery of being Jewish. I wanted to say the exact words the observant utter every morning, afternoon, and evening. In Hebrew, these lines sound so complicated, so unattainable; I thought if I didn’t say them, Judaism would remain shrouded in mystery.
Eventually, I learned what the words meant and began to grasp the simple sentiments they convey. The prayer before eating bread? It translates as: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” The prayer one says upon seeing a natural wonder such as a rainbow or water fall? It goes: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who has such as these in His world.” Specifically, the prayers may offer a brief thank you or a plea or an apology—but they never stray too far from a simple expression of gratitude. The intention of the rules and the words is to honor God by demonstrating an appreciation for life and all that sustains it. They encourage Jews to stop and take notice.
An observant Jew might tell you the point of all the ritual is to remind him or herself, again and again, of the wonder of creation. But even then, he or she will probably fail at times to muster feelings of thankfulness. Luckily, an observant Jew has many do-overs throughout the day. Because the goal is not so much the flawless performance of whatever act is required, but the joyful appreciation it is meant to cultivate.
So even if Phil and I botched the Hanukah candles, what mattered most is that we recognized the flames as a sign of hope.