"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"We are about to move into a new house. Is a "housewarming" party part of Jewish tradition?"


Mazeltov! Sure, we make a party, and we do a lot of other things too. All are subsumed in the practice of what is known as chanukat habayit- "dedication of the house." (If the first word looks suspiciously like Chanukah to you, you are perceptive; one of the meanings of the name of that holiday is "dedication.")

First of all, even before moving in there are two important mitzvot to accomplish. A mezuzah must be put up in every doorway.1 Less well known is that a guardrail should be erected anywhere on the property that a dangerous fall might be possible. 2

Along with a new house usually come new furniture and appliances. In addition, every Jewish house needs another type of furnishing: basic Jewish holy books, the more the better, and prominently displayed. If you don't already own some, put it at the top of your shopping list. A complete bibliography would be too long to include here, but at least one book each of scripture, Jewish law, prayer and inner dimensions. Each should have the original Hebrew and an authoritative translation, and preferably some commentary too. Please don't think of these volumes as primarily decorative; use them often.

Also before moving in, certain special guests should be invited. These are young Jewish schoolchildren, along with their teacher or a counselor, for they are needed to recite in their pure innocence Shma Yisrael and other basic verses of Torah. Hearing them, you will quickly appreciate what a great inauguration that is! Be sure to have a big bowl of treats available to reward your benefactors.

As soon as you move in, choose a clean appropriate spot in the house for prayer. Designate it verbally. Pray that the Divine Presence should rest there just as in a shul (for the men in the family, this helps only in those cases when it is clearly unfeasible to take part in a minyan).3

In the land of Israel chanukat habayit is actually a mitzvah.4 Biblically, if someone were to have built or acquired a house but not yet "dedicated" it, that in itself would have been sufficient basis for a military draft exemption for a year.5 Technically, the dedication is accomplished (and the exemption forfeited!) simply by moving in and eating a meal there, or, according to some authorities, by affixing mezuzot. Still, to own your home is considered a spiritual attainment in Judaism,6 and so the inauguration of a residence is an occasion for a celebration, even outside of Israel.

There is also a mystical justification for the celebration. 7 The three "basic necessities": food, clothing and shelter, are manifestations of different levels of holiness in the physical world, and each has its corresponding mode of Jewish expression.

Food, which corresponds to that level of holiness which is possible to draw upon and internalize in this physical world, is like the words of Torah which, through study, is "digested" and assimilated within. They stand for mitzvah observance, since the light generated by a mitzvah is said to encompass us from without (the Jewish aura!). Clothing represents those mitzvot we do as an act of will. Shelter, the "distant encompasser," derives from a higher spiritual source than clothing. It parallels those mitzvot we do without conscious will, unknowingly.

The classic example is the mitzvah of "forgotten sheafs" [Deut. 24:19]. If you overlook stalks of grain while harvesting, you are not supposed to go back for them; you have to leave them for the poor. But you can only do this mitzvah by being unaware; if you consciously ignore the stalks, the mitzvah is no longer relevant, since you didn't really overlook anything! Because these are not mitzvahs you can decide to do, rather, the mitzvah has to happen to you-a "gift from Heaven"-its occurrence is a reason for greater joy than the majority of mitzvahs. Since a house symbolizes this rare aspect of mitzvot observance, the dedication of a house is a joyful occasion.

So don't forego making a party, where a meal with bread should be served. Whether such a meal is officially a "mitzvah meal" is debatable in certain circumstances, 8 but a pleasant and beneficial way to tip the scales is to ensure that words of Torah are spoken at the table, 9 as well as blessings and inspirational thoughts about the occasion and the Creator-Provider. (By the way, you might be interested to know that a similar debate and resolution applies to a bar mitzvah meal.)

Psalm 30, "A Song for the Dedication of the House" is certainly appropriate to recite on this occasion. True, King David composed it in honor of the Holy Temple, but then, every Jewish home is supposed to be a "miniature Temple." In fact, that is one of the main reasons why we make such a fuss over the occasion. A home that is built on a commitment to Torah is indeed a miniature temple and G-d's Presence will dwell in it. Three recommended ways 10 to maintain the Divine Presence in our homes are to refrain from arguments, to be open to guests, and to treat meals around the table as a holy occasion.

If you wish to say more than a solitary psalm, Sephardic Jews have a collection of many passages for the occasion from Scripture, Talmud and Kabbalah, that includes a number of thoughtful blessings and invocations.

A nice custom is to place a pushka [charity box] on the table, so that everyone present can give tzedakah at some point in the proceedings. What a great merit for the house and its new residents and a sure augur of success! Therefore, the more people you invite, the more mitzvot that will be made in your new home. To follow up this good start, it is an excellent idea to hang a pushka on a kitchen wall in a prominent spot, where it will continue to be a beacon for mitzvot in the home. This represents the third pillar of your Jewish home-the other two are the books for Torah study and the designated spot for prayer-"On three things the world stands: on Torah study, on prayer, and on deeds of kindness."11 Try to use all three daily.

Mazeltov again. Enjoy your new home. May it be a house full of Jewish good deeds and good spirit. May G-d's presence always be felt in it.


Yrachmiel Tilles

1. Deut. 6:9, 11:20.
2. Deut. 22:8
3. Ta'amei HaMinhagim, p. 71.
4. See Encyclopedia Talmudit under Chanukat Habayit and the many sources cited there.
5. Deut 20:5, 24:5.
6. "A person without a place of his own is not a whole person" [Yebamot 63a with Tosfot].
7. See Likutei Torah, Zos Habracha.
8. Encyclopedia Talmudit, op. cit.
9. See Avot 3:3.
10. Yalkut Meam Loez (Hebrew edition) on Deut. 22:8.
11. Avot 1:2.

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