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Ritual or Tradition?

I was watching reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” with my husband the other night. In one of the episodes Sheldon and Howard are on their way into the desert to launch a rocket. Their conversation during the drive develops into a short and comical conversation about whether having peanuts in the launch room at NASA is a tradition or a ritual. So, naturally that made me want to write a blog about it. I mean the study of religion is what I do and religion is steeped in both tradition and ritual. I also really like definitions. The dictionary is one of my favorite books, it is here that I will start. Tradition according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is as follows: (taken directly from the website

traditionnoun tra·​di·​tion | \ trə-ˈdi-shən \Definition of tradition

1a: an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)

b: a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable… the bulk of traditions attributed to the Prophet …— J. L. Esposito

2: the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction

3: cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions

4: characteristic manner, method, or style in the best liberal tradition

Now let’s look at the Definition of Ritual according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: (taken directly from the website

ritual adjective rit·​u·​al | \ ˈri-chə-wəl , -chəl; ˈrich-wəl \

Definition of ritual (Entry 1 of 2)1: of or relating to rites or a ritual : CEREMONIAL a ritual dance

2: according to religious law ritual purity

3: done in accordance with social custom or normal protocol ritual hand shakes ritual background checks

ritual noun Definition of ritual (Entry 2 of 2)1: the established form for a ceremony specifically : the order of words prescribed for a religious ceremony

2a: ritual observance specifically : a system of rites

b: a ceremonial act or action

c: an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner

Ritual is both the description of events/actions and the event/actions it can describe. While tradition is something customarily done or a verbal story passed down through generations. In my discussions with people, when they hear the word ritual they think “witchcraft” and when they hear the word tradition they think “holidays”. I find this thought process intriguing. As it shows how much influence what we see in films/TV/ books and other forms of media has on our thought process. The second most brought up topic when asked what came to mind with the word ritual was “sports”, this also came up often with the word tradition. In this case, the words were used interchangeably. While they may be similar, ritual and tradition are not interchangeable.

For example, making a turkey for Thanksgiving is tradition. You can opt out of it and still have a large Thanksgiving dinner or you can change how you make the turkey by choosing to fry it instead of bake it and so on and so forth. Performing a ritual dance such as the Turkish Whirling dance or the Polynesian temple dances are rituals. They have a specific series of steps in a specific order that must be done.

This is not to say that rituals cannot change or be updated, Catholicism is steeped in ritual as is Judaism, the reason they survive centuries later is they adapt and change as the world changes. Just as you may adapt your morning rituals to accommodate new circumstances such as a new job or having a baby. Ritual is fluent and changeable but it is a strict definition that makes something a ritual, when the steps aren’t followed it can become tradition.

There is another part to ritual that makes it such an important part of our lives. Consider this, you wake up every morning and make your bed, then make your tea (or coffee), while drinking your morning cup of your favorite brew you pick out your clothes for the day and then take a shower and begin the preparation of getting ready for the day. This is your morning routine (or ritual if you will) when you wake up late and go straight to the shower missing the other steps it can throw your entire morning off, sometimes even your whole day. Why does that happen? All you did was forget to make a cup of tea and your bed, so why is your whole day now thrown off kilter? The answer is simple: these small daily rituals prepare our mind for what follows and when we don’t do the steps to the ritual in the manner we normally do them we are telling our brain that it is not time for that event to take place.

This is why ritual plays such an important part in spiritual practice. The rituals put our brain in the proper state of mind, they prepare us for the religious activity, for the mindful contemplation of what is said from the dais in a church. Tradition is doing what is considered the normal activity or a handing down of beliefs and stories. Ritual is a very specific set of steps taken to prepare your mind and body for the activities to take place.

What are your rituals? Your traditions? How do you prepare yourself for the day? How do you prepare yourself to connect on a spiritual level? Is putting out a bowl of peanuts in the launch room at NASA for a launch tradition or ritual?

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