Just Remember: Symbols and Reminders in Judaism

All religions and cultures incorporate symbols and reminders into the norms of everyday life. In this unit, examples of these from Judaism will be presented, and the ideas and values they represent will be explored. Students will be encouraged to consider what their own connection and relationship can be in a 21st century context.

Unit Ages: 15-18 | 4 lessons


Every religion, every culture makes use of objects that serve as reminders or symbols. Reminders serve to reinforce a thought or specific set of actions or behaviors. Symbols often represent ideas or qualities. While Judaism has many such reminders and symbols, this unit will focus on three examples described in or derived from the biblical text: mezuzah ( מְזוּזָה ), tefillin ( תְּפלִיִּן ), and tzitzit ( צִצִּית ), as well as on one non-biblical example: the kippah ( כפִּּהָ ). The unit will consider how these physical symbols serve to remind of a relationship with God and consider how and if they speak to a 21st century Jew.

Desired Outcomes

Big Ideas
  • There are ritual objects in Judaism which serve as reminders of core ideas in Judaism 
  • Symbols in Judaism can be :
    • A reminder of God’s love 
    • Serve as outward display of identity
    • provide a connection to both past and future
    • facilitate the combining of different pieces of one’s identity
Essential Questions
  • Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?
  • Students will know what the mitzvot of tefillin, tzitzit and mezuzah consist of and how they are performed.
  • Students will know the biblical (or rabbinic) sources for these symbols
  • Students will understand the symbolic nature of these three mitzvot and what ideas are expressed in their observance
  • Students will understand the development of the custom to cover one’s head in Judaism and Jewish history
  • Students will be able to distinguish between the biblical mitzvot of tefillin, tzitzit, and mezuzah, and the custom to cover one’s head in Judaism 
  • Student will explore the messages of of the symbols to both those possessing/donning  them and to the outside world
  • Students will be able to analyze biblical and talmudic texts in order to ascertain the ancient source for Jewish rituals that are still practised today.
  • Students will be able to theorize the meaning behind Jewish rituals and ritual objects to mine the meaning behind them
  • Students will be able to draw conclusions about the meaningfulness of specific rituals and ritual objects to their lives
  • Students will be able to explore how the symbolism of ritual objects in Judaism can be used to express their identity.
  • Students will be able to navigate a Tanach, finding the chapter and verse when provided with a reference.

Assessment Evidence

What evidence will students provide to demonstrate that they:
Know the knowledge; Can do the skills; Can respond thoughtfully to the EQs and BIs

Teacher creates authentic assessments before beginning the unit

Learning Experiences

Possible Unit Plan

In this unit we will consider how ritual objects in Judaism (namely Tefillin, Tzitzit, and Mezuza) function as symbols, representing abstract concepts (such as God’s love for us, or all the other mitzvot). Symbols are an important part of all of our lives, and it would be worthwhile unpacking where and how they impact our lives (for example, where do symbols play a role in our lives? Why do we need symbols? What purposes can symbols serve for us? etc.) Here are some fun activities that allow your students to consider the concept of a symbol before having this discussion:

  • Walk around the school in small groups (or even outside of the school if you are in an urban area) and count the number of symbols (competition to see who gets the most)
  • A creative activity to design a symbol/flag/logo to represent your class/year-group/school (this could be an activity using digital media or paper and pens).

Following these quizzes, you could conduct a discussion on the power of symbols, and the role they play in our lives. You could ask each student to pick one symbol and explain its meaning and impact. Then explain how we are  going to examine four mitzvot in Judaism that function as symbols and explore the impact they can have in our life.

You could also ask your students to bring in objects that have sentimental value for them for a “show and tell” activity. It is likely the activities they bring will not have intrinsic material value (and even if they do this is less important to them), but more likely their value is what they represent (e.g. something that reminds them of a departed relative, or an object that represents the love/relationship they have with another person). This is a good way to transition to talking about the ritual objects we will be considering and how they also represent abstract concerts in a similar way.

Content Study: 

Each of the four lessons in this House stands alone, and can be taught independently.

Unit Closing/ Assessment: 

  • Over the course of this unit we have seen several examples of Jews finding new meaning from the observance of ancient rituals. As a final activity/assignment, you could ask your students to perform one or more of the mitzvot/rituals we have considered in this unit over a number of days and then write a journal/Blog/vlog where they consider what meaning they have found (if any) for their lives in them. These could be shared with the class in a final lesson.
  • A final project could also be to compile a collection/magazine of interviews of people for whom these mitzvot are important. Divide your students into small groups and help them find an appropriate person to interview. Make sure each of the four mitzvot are equally represented. Your students should draft a few questions for their interview, and in their articles include their own thoughts and responses to the interview. The final project should be a collaborative project with photographs etc. which can be printed and shared with the whole school (or alternatively this could stay digital, and a website could be built for this purpose).