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Jewish Traditions on Spiritual Formation during the New Testament Period and after.
Dr Alex Tang
The spiritual formation process in the Jewish tradition starts with the bonding process between the father and child, the home, the synagogue practices and the synagogue.
First, the parent (translated “teacher” in Hebrew) is the one who starts the spiritual formation process in the child. It is often the father who becomes the one solely responsible for the faith formation of the child from the time of birth – the “gidual banim u-vanot” which translates as “a value related to the birth and development of children.” (Spiro 1987; Edersheim 1994, 99-114).
The family has an important role to play in the initial spiritual formation of the child. The family has “taharat hamishpachah” which is the value of integrity, honesty and loving relationships in a family. Another value is “kibud av va-em” which means honouring one’s father and mother. The family is also to provide a nurturing environment of “shalom bayit” which is “the sense of harmony and wholeness.” The family is the nursery from which the faith formation of the child grows. It is that the family that forms an integrated complete unit in a larger unit which is the “K’lal Yisrael,” the Jewish community (Spiro 1987).
Second, one of the key emphases in synagogue practice is the Bar Mitzah (Bat Mitzah for females) at the age of thirteen. Children realise that all their education and faith formation is to prepare them for the Bar or Bat Mitzah. After the initiation ceremony, the rest of their lives are meant to live out the principles and practices of Bar or Bat Mitzah. “Mitzah” can be translated as “commandment.” Bar means “son of” (Bat “daughter of”). What this means is that the ceremony marks the time when a Jew becomes responsible for living out the commandments of God for the rest of his or her life.
The preparation of the child for the Bar Mitzah begins when he or she is 4 years old. The education process that is started by the father is now taken on by the synagogue; the “cultural, intellectual, and emotional conditioning” that involves learning about Jewish history, culture, identity and reading of the Torah leads to its culmination in the Bar Mitzah (Spiro 1987).
Third, is the formative role of synagogue worship. The Torah is divided into 54 sections. A separately section is read every Saturday morning in the synagogue throughout the year (Edersheim 1994, 245-255). Learning from the Torah and Haftarah (prophetic section of the Bible) are encouraged and practiced. Knowledge is not despised but embrace by the synagogue. Everyone is a student; young and old. “The wise student is one who applies his knowledge to serve and improve his life and lives of other.”(Spiro 1987, 552). There is a corporate culture of learning that continually challenges yet integrating learned principles in all stages of Jewish life.
Finally, the religious festivals play an important role in national formative practices. These religious festivals were related to Temple worship. And temple worship reminded the people of Yahweh, their God. Hence their whole year revolved round their religious festivals. There were daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly festivals, and great stress was laid on the regular observance of them in every particular one. During three major festivals or feasts, every male in the family have to go to Jerusalem. This meant planning for the journey. So the ancient Israelites mark times by the religious festivals.
1. The regular festivals were:
(a) The weekly Sabbath (Lev. 23:1–3; Ex. 16:23–29; 20:8–11; 31:12).
(b) The seventh new moon, or the feast of Trumpets (Num. 28:11–15; 29:1–6).
(c) The Sabbatical year (Ex. 23:10, 11; Lev. 25:2–7).
(d) The year of jubilee (Lev. 25:8–16; 27:16–25).
2. The great feasts were:
(a) The Passover.
(b) The feast of Pentecost.
(c) The feast of Tabernacles.
On each of these occasions every male Israelite was commanded “to appear before the Lord” (Deut. 27:7; Neh. 8:9–12).
3. The Day of Atonement
The tenth day of the seventh month (Lev. 16:1, 34; 23:26–32; Num. 29:7–11). The great annual day of humiliation and expiation for the sins of the nation, “the fast” (Acts 27:9).
The festivals were designed to constantly remind the Jews of God and of the Temple in Jerusalem and also to create a national identity. Concerning the three festivals which all males of the family must travel to Jerusalem, Brueggemann has this to say, “The main point would seem to be, “You must show up!” in order to give visible attestation that one is publicly aligned with YHWH and with YHWH’s people” (Brueggemann 2005, 13).
Hence, the Jewish way of faith formation involves the family and the synagogue. It is a corporate enterprise with family and synagogue practices which enhance and direct the learning effort. There are clearly defined pedagogy and desired outcomes. This can be considered corporate spiritual formation.
 “At five years old (one is fit) for the Scripture, at ten for the Mishnah, at thirteen for (fulfilling of ) the commandments, at fifteen for the Talmud, at eighteen for the bride-chamber, at twenty for pursuing (a calling), at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty for to be an elder, at seventy for grey hairs, at eighty for special strength, at ninety for bowed back, and at a hundred a man is a one that (already) died and passed away and ceased from the world (Mishnah,’Abot v.21)” as quoted in Edersheim, A. (1994). Sketches of Jewish Social Life. Peabody, Henderickson Publishers. p.113
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