For someone who is Jewish, yet an atheist, what is one practice that is doable that they could keep?

With suggestions for one doable Jewish practice, prayer, etc; please include guidelines of how to keep it.

By doable, this means a mitzvah other than shmiras shabbos(since he/she is just starting out and may not be particularly ready for it).

EDIT I am happy that my question was not only allowed to stand, but also reopened.

In moving some of my earlier editing remarks to meta, the overriding motivation for asking my question is a bit obscured. So please allow me to restate or perhaps emphasize it for anyone subsequently looking at this question. I will take the liberty to use a statement by ezra and a major principle in a link by Yaacov Deane both below.

"But one of the most important things you can do (in my opinion) is be proud of being Jewish and be supportive of religious Jews. There are a lot of haters out there. Stand up. Be proud."

And the significance and importance of Ahavas Yisrael.

Again I express my appreciation for the existence of this site. I feel I have uniquely benefitted.

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    Welcome to Mi Yodeya! Thank you for your question and we hope you take a look at what Mi Yodeya has to offer. – LN6595 Nov 6 at 22:10
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    Let's take the discussion about this post's fitness for our model and how to improve it over to here: judaism.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4805/… . – Isaac Moses Nov 7 at 16:31
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    @user18223 I was thinking more about your situation, and what it means to be a very basic level of religious. This led me to a new idea for you: Toss around the thought of keeping a kosher kitchen. There's no need to rush, for it can be done at any time. But a kosher kitchen is one subtle mark that separates the "committed" Jews from the "ambivalent" Jews. It gives the Jews who keep it a link to their tradition that, while not invasive, leaves its impression. Just a thought for the future.... Much bracha to you, whatever you do – SAH Nov 8 at 6:16
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Try putting on Teffilin daily, and reciting the Shema daily.

And if you don’t have a pair of teffilin, just the Shema. But your local Lubavitch center will gladly loan you a pair.

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    Not in shabbat! – kouty Nov 7 at 6:58
  • The sex of the OP is undetermined. Tefillin are only for males. What if they are a woman? – Yaacov Deane Nov 7 at 18:12
  • The word is "Lubavitch". And they're called "Chabad houses". – ezra Nov 7 at 18:32
  • @ezra Not all of them! In fact, I think there is a move today toward calling them "Chabad centers." And of course there is a "Lubavitch House" – SAH Nov 8 at 6:10
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    @yaacov if tefillin help a woman get to keeping kosher and Shabbat, it's worth it. – Double AA Nov 8 at 12:53

I think you should begin the practice of learning something Jewish every day.

This mitzvah is, in my mind, both necessary and sufficient for a Jewish life. Why? Because it keeps your pintele yid not only burning, but uncovered and unforgotten-- allowing it to light up the rest of your life, and the world. Also, this mitzvah uniquely enables the performance of all other mitzvot, should you choose to do more.

Learning, specifically Torah learning, is what Jews do. Learning is and always has been at the center of gravity of Jewish life.

The Talmud puts an emphasis on learning every day at a fixed time. According to the Talmud, that is the subject of one of the Creator's first questions to every Jew after death.

It is no accident that our beautiful, untrammeled tradition is endlessly full of wise and serious and gratifying things to learn--for example, the Talmud itself. Herman Wouk writes in his essay "Why Daf Yomi?":

[...] Because by now the Talmud is in my bones. Its elegant and arcane ethical algebra, its soaked-in quintessential Jewishness, its fun, its difficulty, its accumulative virtue (“I learned a ‘blatt’ [a two-sided page] today, I’ve learned 40 ‘blatt’ this year”) all balance against the cost in time and the so-called “remoteness from reality.” Is ‘Lear’ closer to reality? I think they are about as close (‘l’havdil,’ as my rabbi would interject) in different ways, and that the Talmud is holy besides.

Anyway, I love it. That’s reason enough.

---Preferably at the same time every day. Preferably beginning with this blessing, or as you see fit. Every day, learn one small piece of the wisdom your forefathers discovered. You won't regret it. Hatzlacha raba.

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    It's true; learning gemara can do wonders. – chacham Nisan Nov 8 at 10:28
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    I really appreciate this answer and have read it over many times. Of course, I am, thanks to you, going through the Rabbi Sacks pieces. If I may ask, do you have a math background? I've rarely seen "necessary and sufficient" outside of that context. Maybe in the future I might ask you for further advice. Meantime, best personal regards, – user18223 Nov 8 at 14:04
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    @user18223 I'm really grateful for your comment and particularly glad I was able to help you. I wish I had a math background, but I don't. "Necessary and sufficient" is something that one hears, I guess :) I wish you much success in your search for a link to our beautiful tradition. Meanwhile, reach out anytime -- I'm on Mi.Yodeya constantly. – SAH Nov 8 at 14:37
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    I wanted to let you know that I've taken your advice and started Mishnah Yomit. Actually last week I posted a question stating my intention and acknowledging you as motivating it. In it I linked several possible sites and asked for any additional ones I might consider. Needless to say, while I did get an up vote, I immediately got a downvote and a close vote. So I deleted my question - don't want to go through the harangue again. I did find a shiur I like; and I wanted to thank you. Best regards, – user18223 Nov 12 at 21:32
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    @user18223 Kol hakavod! I am really happy you started learning. May your learning bring you much happiness and blessing for many long years! – SAH Nov 13 at 3:07

You can learn the blessing of Shehakol and recite it before you take a drink. Once you learn it (and that can take time), it takes about two seconds to say. You can learn the words here.

Shehakol, like all blessings, is an expression of gratitude to God for giving us the good things in life. Studies have shown that regularly expressing gratitude and appreciation for the simple things in life makes one happier and healthier (see for example here). Getting into the habit of regularly expressing appreciation for drinks may help you spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

I commend you on your interest on taking on a practice. We believe that every single mitzvah counts, and that every single mitzvah has a positive effect on the doer and the whole world.

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    Not just drinks, but before the first bite at every meal – Double AA Nov 6 at 23:56
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    @DoubleAA Let's start small. We can add on when we're ready. – LN6595 Nov 7 at 2:07

Make Friday night dinner as special as possible, and at any rate your best meal of the week. Just pulling out the top-shelf booze and grilling some steaks is a (BIG) step in the right direction. If you feel comfortable lighting candles and saying a bracha as part of that, all the better. It's once a week, it's fun, and it doesn't require too much sacrifice, whaddya say?

(On a personal note this is actually how I ended up becoming religious)

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    You're already going to eat; why not make it shabbat? Good suggestion. – chacham Nisan Nov 8 at 10:29
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    Also it has the advantage of tricking your yetzer hara. When you go from no Jewish practice to some, it will do everything it can to stop you. But how will your yetzer hara object to a nice dinner and good booze? It can't :) – Josh K Nov 8 at 14:59

Lighting candles on Friday night. Stop everything. Turn off electronics. If you live with others and they're willing, bring them over to join you. Light two candles* and hold still for a few moments. Just focus on the flame and the spirit. If possible, say the prayer while lighting them, but don't worry if lighting is all you do for now (or ever).

  • I recommend buying candles made for Shabbat because they will be the right size. You don't want them to burn for too long or you will be tempted to blow them out for fire safety reasons. Spring for a set of candlesticks too. You can get nice ones at a thrift store or garage sale for probably $5US.
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    But make sure to light them before sunset. – Alex Nov 7 at 3:15

First of all, I highly recommend putting on tefillin and reciting the Shema, as mentioned in the answer from Dr. Shmuel. Just make sure not to don tefillin on Shabbat or the holidays.

As far as blessings are concerned, maybe you could learn some of the blessings in the siddur over different kinds of food and recite them (for instance, the blessing of "borei p'ri ha'eitz" before eating an apple).

(Here is a great resource for learning the text of the blessings.)

I'd also encourage you to give tzedakah in some way.

But one of the most important things you can do (in my opinion) is be proud of being Jewish and be supportive of religious Jews. There are a lot of haters out there. Stand up. Be proud.

Good luck and all the best to you my friend.

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    Your penultimate remark is precisely why I came here - stand up and be proud. The pintele yid I mentioned is an internal drive. Yet I wanted some external manifestation; to show the flag. – user18223 Nov 7 at 14:33
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    @user18223 For that, the really brave might consider a mezuzah and/or a kippah and/or a hat ;) – SAH Nov 8 at 2:57

Welcome to Mi Yodeya and thank you for persisting with your excellent question.

Especially in consideration of recent current events, as you have already commented about concerning the sad and terrible synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, it is highly admirable and praiseworthy that you come forward with your question now.

It demonstrates a desire to show unity with your people, even though philosophically you may not agree with them about everything. And also that we all (not just your own people) must get along with each other in harmony. That appears to be the underlying foundation of the one practice that you seek.

As a self-professed atheist, the content of your question, that you seek suggestions of what would be doable/achievable by you personally, also indicates your character. That you try to be realistic about your nature and apply a rigorous, intellectually honest, measure to your own life.

With that in mind, if you are seeking one, single practice, what is called in traditional Jewish terminology a single mitzvah/commandment that you could keep, it seems appropriate and logical to seek something that is comprehensive and all inclusive in its scope.

It should also be something that you can relate to intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Ideally, it should be something which you can study about in depth over time and reflect upon again and again, which will lead you to positive growth as a human being for the rest of your life. This is the concept of good in Judaism, that which leads to an increase, profusion and diversification of life.

With all this in mind, a famous story found in the Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a, concerning two of traditional Judaism's most famous Sages, Hillel the Elder and Shammai comes to mind. An individual with essentially no knowledge of Jewish practice and teaching came before Hillel seeking his help and advice to find this same type of thing. He was seeking the whole of Torah, a single mitzvah so to speak. And Hillel replied to him:

That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.

As is explained by one of our later Sages, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, in his book, Likkutei Amarim Tanya, chapter 32, This single mitzvah, called Ahavat Re'im (Love of neighbors) which is based upon the expression from our Torah (VaYikra 19:18), Ve'Ahavta le'Rei'acha Kamocha which means:

Love your fellow as yourself.

demonstrates that, in reality, we are all brothers (as in brotherhood, not sexual characteristic) with a single, common Father. (It is worth noting that in Hebrew, father can also mean source.)

The beginnings of the details of what this particular mitzvah practice entails are discussed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman in that chapter. It is worthwhile to read it carefully, reflect upon it and try to incorporate its performance into your life.

Further intellectual underpinnings about this mitzvah and its importance are also found at the following link discussing Loving a Fellow Jew and Loving G-d.

May you be blessed with success in pursuit of your goal here. And I am sure, like myself, we are all looking forward to your continued positive contributions to our community.

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    Thank you for the most heart-warming, uplifting, encouraging personal message. It is far beyond what would otherwise be called an answer. I am deeply touched. With deepest personal regards, – user18223 Nov 8 at 18:39
  • While loving others is certainly a good thing to do within Judaism, is it a distinctly Jewish practice? – Alex Nov 8 at 19:55
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    @YaacovDeane I'm not talking about the parameters of the mitzvah. I'm saying that loving someone is not really a manifestation of Judaism, even if it happens to be a fulfillment of a commandment. It is certainly not an external manifestation, i.e. something that is noticeably Jewish. – Alex Nov 8 at 20:06
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    But traditional Torah teaching concerning the recital of Shema, something which is a clear Jewish manifestation, both internally and externally, tells us that one of the intentions we are to have upon saying the word "Echod" (אחד), as in 'G-d is one', at the end of the 1st line, means among other things, "Love/Ahava" (אהבה). 'Echod' and 'Ahava' share a common gematria of 13, like in G-d's 13 attributes of mercy which we recite all day on Yom Kippur, at every Festival and after Viduy on Monday and Thursday. – Yaacov Deane Nov 8 at 20:23
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    My comment is about the answer. If I was looking for a practice to make me feel Jewish, I would not be looking for something like love, which is something that I would be doing regardless of my religion. And if I was looking for something to display my Judaism, I certainly wouldn't be looking for something like love, because that is not recognizably Jewish. Indeed, this is part of the reason why the question probably should have remained closed — the parameters are not defined enough. – Alex Nov 8 at 20:31

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