Jewish life is filled with so many joyous moments. Here are 10 instances that I relish: time when Jewish tradition and ritual help transform an ordinary instant into something truly special and memorable.

1. Lighting Shabbat Candles

If there’s such a thing as magic, sometimes I feel that the moment each Friday evening when I light Shabbat candles. I love how as soon as I light my candles, close my eyes and say the blessing ushering in Shabbat, I seem to emerge into another world—one without distractions and work or the thousand mundane tasks that ordinarily fill my week.

As I open my eyes after saying the blessings over lighting the Shabbat candles, I gaze for a moment at my candlesticks and think of all the generations of Jewish women who have come before me, ushering in Shabbat for themselves and their families. It’s a powerful moment and feels imbued with holiness. Week after week, the first thing I do after lighting the candles is utter a prayer, asking G‑d to bless my family and praying for people who are sick in our community. I love how lighting the Shabbat candles seems to transform my entire home, from the mundane to the holy, from a place of hectic activity to one of peace and prayer.

More on Shabbat Candles

2. Listening to the Purim Megillah

A friend recently told me she goes to synagogue twice a year on the High Holidays, and finds synagogue to be somber, even depressing. I wish I could show her the synagogue on some other days of the year, when it’s fun and joyous! One of my very favorite Jewish holidays is Purim, when the Megillah is read: the book of Esther from a special, hand-written scroll. The atmosphere in the synagogue is merry, and the service is unlike anything else all year long.

Each year, my kids and I spend weeks planning our Purim costumes. In the past, they have gone to synagogue dressed as police officers, characters from favorite books and cartoons, cowboys and princess, and people in the Purim story. We then listen to the incredible account of Esther, who was Princess of Persia during the fourth century BCE, and who saved the Jewish people from a decree of death. Each time we hear the name of Haman, the arch-enemy of the Jews, we all shake noisemakers and shout “Boo!”

When the Megillah is completed, we recite blessings then sing a joyous song. It feels so good to know that the other customs of Purim await us all, too—donating money to charity, giving gifts of delicious food to friends and enjoying a festive Purim meal. At that moment, the words of the popular Purim song feel so true: Mishenichnas Adar, marbin besimcha, when Adar begins (the month that Purim falls), we increase in joy.

The Megillah

3. Thanking G‑d When I Wake Up

Too often, mornings find me groggy and tired, reaching blearily for my alarm clock as it blares in my ear, waking me after what feels like a too-short sleep. One short Jewish prayer, though, manages to change my mood and improves my whole day.

The moment I open my eyes in the morning, I say the timeless Jewish prayer thanking G‑d for allowing us to awaken: I gratefully thank you, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassionabundant is Your faithfulness! This brief prayer contains a lot of heavy thoughts, but it helps focus me on what a great miracle it is that I am waking up at all. It’s a way of focusing on the fact that our very existence is a miracle, and that we have been given another day of life, the most precious gift of all.

The Modeh Ani Prayer

4. Sitting in the Sukkah

Why didn’t anyone ever tell me about this before? That’s what I thought the first time I sat in a sukkah, enjoying the feel of a soft breeze, sheltered from the sun by a roof of fragrant green tree boughs. Each autumn, when much of the world begins to think about heading indoors, we Jews move in the opposite direction, erecting temporary structures outside and dwelling in them—eating our meals, spending time relaxing, talking to others—in makeshift huts called sukkahs. Spending eight days in sukkahs (in Israel, the holiday lasts seven days) reminds us of how dependent we are on the Divine. Outside, each passing cloud, every gust of air and beam of sun, reminds us acutely how much we live in nature: It’s a message that’s easy to forget indoors, where we’re not so attuned to the outdoor world.

My favorite moment is sitting at the lunch table inside our sukkah. Somehow, when we are there, everyone seems in less of a rush than usual; we linger over meals and enjoy sitting, feeling the fresh air. Even when the weather is cold, the briskness in the air is a welcome change from the rest of the year. Sukkot is referred to as zman simchateinu, or “the time of our joy.” For those few days each autumn when I sit in our sukkah with family and friends, in the early autumn sunshine, enjoying the beauty of our sukkah, I think just how true those words feel anew.

More on Sukkot

5. Snuggling With My Kids and Saying ‘Shema

Each night when my kids were small, we’d cuddle at bedtime, enjoying a hug and chatting about their days. When it was time to go to sleep, we’d both cover our eyes and say the timeless Jewish proclamation: Shema Yisrael . . . “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, G‑d is One.” I loved that feeling of closeness and the knowledge that we were links in a chain going back thousands of years, uniting us with countless generations before us who all proclaimed G‑d’s oneness, and I loved the timeless message I was sending to my children: that G‑d is immediate in their lives, longing for a connection with them.

The words of the Shema permeate deep into our very souls. Throughout the generations Jewish mothers and fathers recited these words with their offspring, realizing that those precious moments had transformed them, reinforcing the knowledge that they are part of the Jewish people, connected with the Divine above.

The Bedtime Shema

6. Cleaning for Passover

Yes, really. While cleaning house is a lot of work, somehow when I’m cleaning for Passover I mind it less, even enjoying the process. I love knowing that all over the world, other Jews are also giving their homes a thorough scrubbing, eliminating chametz, as well as the dirt and grime built up over the past year. The weeks before Passover are the one time I can commiserate with my friends about cleaning house and also the time when my kids are most motivated to help, knowing how important the process is.

While I try to keep an orderly home, Passover is the one time all year I come closest to achieving it. The feeling of having a well-scrubbed, chametz-free house on Passover, as I gaze around my gleaming, orderly surroundings, is priceless.

Passover Preparations

7. Waking Up on Shabbat Morning

Most mornings find me waking at dawn, with a long list of tasks ahead of me. I turn on my phone, check my emails, flip on the radio to listen to the news—and then I do those things over and over again, all day long. Except on one day each week: Shabbat. I know that on Saturday morning, there will be no alarms, no phones, no errands, computers, no news, no radio, newspaper or texts that require my response. And the feeling is so liberating.

I’m usually up in my family first, but instead of using those extra minutes to get more done, on Shabbat I make my way quietly to the kitchen, pour a cup of coffee and drink it while listening to the stillness all around me, revelling in the knowledge that for one day, I have no appointments, no electronics, no deadlines to distract me. In those peaceful hours, I sometimes feel like I’m finally getting to know myself again, while all the hectic noise of the week is quelled at last.

Shabbat: An Island in Time

8. Listening to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah Speech

A Bar Mitzvah boy giving a speech (Serraf Studio)
A Bar Mitzvah boy giving a speech (Serraf Studio)

We’ve all heard them . . . a speech that’s usually too rushed, blurted out too quickly and too quietly to a crowded room. Bar and bat mitzvah speeches aren’t usually known for their eloquence, but there’s nothing I’d rather hear. “Today, I am a bar mitzvah” or “Now that I’m a bat mitzvah” are some of the sweetest words I know, and they always bring a smile to my face. I love the eagerness and earnestness of kids as they announce that they will take being a Jewish adult seriously. I’m moved by the way words of Torah and Jewish wisdom feel so fresh to these young adults. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Entering Adulthood: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah

9. Fasting on Yom Kippur

OK, in a way this is my least favorite experience, too. It’s certainly difficult to go without food or drink for an entire 25 hours. But somehow, fasting on Yom Kippur reminds me of the reason we go without on the holiest day of year; it’s one day when we try to transcend our physical lives and become like holy angels, who need neither food nor drink. It’s one day when we try to reach beyond ourselves, relating to G‑d in a whole new way. Somehow, at the end of Yom Kippur, I feel full of energy—proud of myself for making it through the day and joyful that, for one day at least, I’ve tried to shed my usual limitations and focus entirely on what is spiritual.

Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement

10. Dancing at a Jewish Wedding

Art by Chana Helen Rosenberg
Art by Chana Helen Rosenberg

Like all weddings, Jewish nuptials feature a moving marriage ceremony, guests, plenty of delicious food and dancing. But there is something special about Jewish weddings, which often feature energetic dancing and entertaining exploits performed by guests, all meant to entertain the bride and groom, who are likened to a king and queen on their wedding day.

Through the years, I’ve been at amazing Jewish weddings where guests danced for hours, where some guests juggled or performed acrobatic tricks. I’ve been to wonderful Jewish weddings where the bride and groom were lifted up on chairs as we guests danced and sang around them. I’ve been to joyous Jewish weddings where some guests dressed up in funny costumes, or brought props like hula hoops, stilts or a unicycle, and to one memorable Jewish wedding in which friends of the bride performed an elaborate skit. Dancing with other women at Jewish weddings is exhilarating, as we all celebrate the bride and groom, and the beautiful home they hope to build long after the festivities end.

The Jewish Wedding