Jews Practiced Self-Care Before It Was a Hashtag

It took me a while to fully understand the idea of self-care. As an unrepentant to-do list maker who knows inherently that the most satisfying feeling in the world is crossing items off of a never-ending list, I used to un-ironically tell people that getting errands done was my self-care, because eventually the list would end and then I would de-stress.

But as all of us know, there’s always another errand to run, room to clean, phone call to make, and the list never really ends. Instead of the eternal cycle of to-dos bringing me pleasure, it started to wear me down, leaving my mind racing when I tried to fall asleep and cloaking me in a vague feeling of guilt when I’d leave my dishes/thesis/emails behind to get my nails done or browse the shelves at the nearest bookstore.

After a few too many stress dreams, I started to develop the vocabulary of self-care, and realized that only by prioritizing my own physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health, am I able to be the best version of myself. While I started exploring what that meant for me, I began to uncover the rich, multifaceted array of connections between Jewish rituals and culture and the modern self-care phenomenon. Turns out our religion has been tuned into the idea of self-care long before it became an Instagram hashtag.

Here are a few ways to use the best practices of Jewish tradition to ground and enhance your own unique self-care practice:

 1. Find your Shabbat

Whether or not you observe Shabbat in the traditional way (from Friday night through Saturday night, with prayers, meals, and avoidance of technology), there’s a tremendous value in choosing a set time to unplug and focus on the simple pleasures of being present. Your ritual might include the more traditional elements — communal meals, putting the phone away, finding time to spiritually connect — or it might be something completely different that speaks only to you.

Maybe it’s taking long walks, finally finding time for that elusive pleasure reading, or cooking the comfort food you’ve been craving. One of my favorite rituals has become finding time, every week, to walk my dog without my phone. Rather than making calls, checking Instagram, and updating my to-do list, I am able to take a moment to breathe, walk, and clear my head. Your Shabbat experience can take place anywhere, at any time, because at its core it is meant to provide you with a consistent time to unwind and focus on prioritizing the present.

 2. Create a minyan

There are certain Jewish rituals and prayers, such as saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, that can only take place when a quorum of at least 10 community members are present, called a minyan. This is because Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of being part of a larger community as a network of support during good and bad times. Create your own inner circle of trusted friends, family members, and mentors who you can count on to stand with you and encourage you when you need it the most.

 3. Build your own seder

Throughout the Jewish year, there are designated “seders,” including the most well-known one on Passover, and the seders that accompany Tu Bishvat, Rosh Hashanah, and other holidays. Seder, which literally means order, is a structured, ceremonial meal. But you can take the spirit of order and bring it beyond holidays, to your daily meals and other aspects of your life. What would it look like for your day to take on an order that goes beyond routine to something intentional and sacred? What would you prioritize, and how would you create rituals that keep you present in your daily activities?

Personally, I make sure that every day, I fit in the time for walking outside, reading, and phone calls with my family. These small pleasures take what could be a mundane routine and turn my days into times that are punctuated with self care and the prioritization of emotional and mental wellness.

 4. Wander in the desert

A central part of the Jewish canon is the period of wandering in the desert. It took the ancient Israelites 40 years of circling around to reach their Promised Land, and it was during that time of nomadic journeying that they became a people. Sometimes the best parts of ourselves are shaped when we’re in periods of transition. Embrace uncertainty and allow yourself to be present on the journey of your life. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming — take a new route home, explore a different part of your city, or do something else to immerse yourself in the ambiguous excitement of the unknown.

5. Cultivate a havruta

In the traditional Jewish educational environment of the yeshiva, students don’t simply listen to lectures from the teacher. Instead, the bulk of study happens in partnerships between peers, who question each other, share opinions, and teach each other through the lens of their respective life experiences. This method is known as havruta (meaning fellowship). Take this principle and find something or someone that challenges you and pushes you to delve deeper into the content and questions that pique your interest.

A friend and I have chosen to jointly explore what it means to be a female leader today. That’s meant reading books and articles, watching videos, and providing each other with support and feedback, with “study” sessions taking place over drinks, dinner, and frozen yogurt. We’ve challenged each other, held each other accountable, and supported each other as we explore secular, religious, and non-traditional texts that inspire us to look deeper into the issues that matter to us.

As a formerly reluctant latecomer to the self-care world, I’m now a proud devotee. I even add hosting Shabbat dinners, setting aside time for pleasure reading, and those ubiquitous manicures to my to-do lists. Judaism has enabled me to see all of these practices through a new lens, and to prioritize the self-care aspect of my life in an unexpected and fulfilling way.

Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath

Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is a native New Yorker turned Washingtonian (by way of Jerusalem!). She is a Jewish educator in the Greater Washington DC community, and is currently pursuing an EdD in Educational Leadership focusing on Jewish identity development.

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