'When your child will ask you' (כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛). These are the words the Torahs uses when introducing us to the Mitzvah of celebrating Passover.

Asking 'why' is central in Jewish life. That one, little question has driven Jews to discover, invent and create in areas far beyond Torah study alone.

Having just experienced Passover once again, today I thought we'd have a look at a sampling of several Mitzvahs and customs which are fairly well known, but whose histories are not quite as famous:


Saying a special prayer while holding a cup of wine is the inaugural act of the Shabbat dinner, and really of Shabbat itself.

The Ten Commandments mandate that we verbally announce, or 'sanctify' (Kiddush in Hebrew), the arrival of Shabbat every week. The Jews adopted the custom to say this special 'announcement' - which is comprised of verses in the Torah which speak of Shabbat, as well as a special blessing - while holding wine in one's hand.

Judaism always seeks to fuse the spiritual with the physical, so it is fitting that a spiritual act such as bringing in the holy day of Shabbat should be paired with some 'l'chayim'.

Netilat Yadayim/Ritual washing hands before eating bread:

Washing hands is quite common in Jewish practice. We wash before eating bread, in the morning and at other times. This is one of the seven Rabbinic Mitzvahs, which also include the Mitzvahs of lighting the Chanukah Menorah and celebrating Purim.

During Temple times, before eating food from the Temple, one would need to wash their hands to purify them. This custom was expanded to before eating any bread as well.

You might have noticed that the custom is to pour the cup of water over each hand more than once. The reason for this is that after washing once, some water remains on one's hand. That remaining water might come in contact with a part of the hand which the water had not previously reached, thus rendering the water itself impure. Hence the custom to pour water twice, or even three times over each hand, to rinse off any remaining water. It is followed by reciting a short blessing.

The 'Chupa'/Jewish wedding canopy:

An important part of the Jewish wedding ceremony is standing under the 'Chupa'. The reason for this is because perhaps the most important part of the couple's ceremony is committing to build a home together, merging two separate lives into one. The Chupa represents their new home - one, single, brand new entity which they both commit to building together.

Having two Chalahs on Shabbat:

After the Passover Exodus from Egypt, the Jews remained in deserts between Egypt and Israel for 40 years. While there, they were given a miraculous food called 'Mahn' (מָן) in Hebrew. This food would fall from the sky every morning, when the Jews would gather it and eat it.

On Shabbat, however, they were not permitted to carry the food from outdoors, so they received two portions on Friday: One for Friday and the other for Shabbat day. Hence, at each Friday evening Shabbat table there were two portions of the 'Mahn'.

Once on the topic of 'Mahn', this also explains another Shabbat-related custom: As the Jews wouldn't receive any more 'Mahn' until Sunday morning, they would still be eating their special Shabbat portion on Saturday night, when Shabbat had already ended. This is the reason for the special Saturday night meal called 'Melava Malka' ('Escorting the Shabbat Queen'), remembering that Shabbat 'Mahn' portion that the Jews were still eating on Saturday evening.

King Solomon writes (Kohelet, 7,23) that 'though I [have been gifted by G‑d with exceptional] wisdom, I still cannot comprehend [the reasons for the Torah and Mitzvot]. That said, there is a wealth of information, history, spirituality and even psychology hidden in many parts of the Torah. Ultimately we value them simply as G‑d's commandments, but understanding as much as we can certainly makes the Mitzvot all the more enjoyable and relatable.

Rabbi Avrohom