7 ways to Shabbat: Choosing magic over chaos

UPDATE: For my detractors, I would like to draw attention to this sentence from this piece that you all seem to have skipped over: “I lived through too many chaotic Friday night meals to close my eyes to the potential and even the reality of yet another Shabbat meal gone wrong.”

This piece was written with the objective of encouraging women–my sistahs–to continue to strive for magic at the Shabbat table. Part of that happens through speaking of Shabbat as though we cherish the day. Part of that happens through attitude and focus. I choose to strive for magic, even when it isn’t happening in my home at my table. I will continue to strive for that. And I won’t be ashamed of that or take it back.

Calling Shabbat a clusterf*$k is not humorous. It’s merely offensive. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. In spite of whiny kids, spaghetti on the ceiling, exhausted moms, and wine-stained tablecloths.

This morning, my friend Helen drew my attention to this piece on Kveller about Lea Geller’s weekly fail at the Shabbat table, A/K/A total chaos featuring unruly children. There was this:

Oh, Friday night dinner. You’re meant to be the highlight of the Jewish week. Each day we grow closer and closer to you, our anticipation measured by the lists and the shopping and the cooking and then the more shopping to get all the things we forgot, all of it building to a monumental crescendo of hope, promise, expectancy, and all of it ending in complete, unfettered, unmitigated disaster.

And this:

‘I want to sit next to you.’ All week long nobody really wants to sit anywhere near me, but Friday night dinner becomes a virtual smack-down to see who can physically climb back into my uterus. This can go on for hours, but usually ends with someone getting up and leaving the table, refusing to return. Often, there is a slammed door.

Helen, an educator, was furious.

“Does this mother not have the common sense to bring in Shabbat sooner and put her kids to bed if they are too young or tired to behave at the table? What is going to happen to these kids if this is how so many parents feel about Friday nights?”

Helen was appalled at a mother who put so much time into food preparation but didn’t expect to expend any effort into organizing some sort of structure for her children, for instance assigned seats that might be rotated on a monthly basis. She added that our sad reality today is of a society with executive functions that weaken with seemingly every technological advance.

I heard Helen’s point. For sure. But as a mother of 12, I had to say I also heard Lea Geller’s point. I lived through too many chaotic Friday night meals to close my eyes to the potential and even the reality of yet another Shabbat meal gone wrong. Because let’s face it: the situation is ripe for sibling rivalry.

It’s the only time the family really sits down together all at once, assigned seats and early Shabbat times notwithstanding. There is only so much one can organize. You can’t organize sibling rivalry according to your druthers.

On the other hand, I would NEVER EVER write something like this—this piece by Lea Geller. It’s ugly, plain and simple. I would be more inclined to write about something that helped make things BETTER at the Shabbat table.

Really. We have enough ugliness in the world. I’d rather be a sistah to Lea and give her a helping hand. I ruminated over what I would say to her, if I only had the chance and this is what I came up with:

1) Shabbat Is A GiftThis must be your premise and the way you present Shabbat to your children. Everything you do should emanate from this attitude. You need to drop the dread—it’s messing with your ability to embrace the gift.

Shabbat is a gift (youtube screenshot)
Shabbat is a gift (youtube screenshot)

2) Gear Your Entire Week Toward Shabbat—If you see a special treat at the grocery store, buy it for Shabbat. When you take a walk with your kids, bring a basket and hunt out beautiful stones and twigs you can gather to make a rustic centerpiece for the Shabbat table. Talk about what you will do together when Shabbat comes.

3) Make It Unique—Shabbat should be different than the rest of the week. There should be clothes and shoes only for Shabbat. There should be games and toys specific to the day and books, too. The word “kodesh” (holy) means separate. Making the Sabbath Day holy is about having everything different and special—dedicated only to that day.

It's Magic!  (youtube screenshot)
It’s Magic! (youtube screenshot)

4) Involve Them In the Mystique—Shabbat is mystical and magical. It’s the time we usher the Sabbath Queen into our homes. Feel the reverence and bring your children into the spirit of Shabbat along with you. Tell them a queen is coming to visit. Give each one of them one job to do, for instance shining Daddy’s shoes so shiny that the Sabbath Queen will see her own reflection in the leather and give an approving smile.

Shine Daddy's shoes (youtube screenshot)
Shine Daddy’s shoes (youtube screenshot)

5) Make Food Your Children Love—Don’t make anything new or fancy unless your children are by nature, adventurous in the food department. You don’t want to slave away in the kitchen and then feel unappreciated as your kids refuse to taste what you’ve prepared for them with so much effort. Do they like hot dogs? Fine. Give them hot dogs. Forget about fancy. Forget about nutrition. Just for this one night make it about making them HAPPY. That’s the essence of Shabbat: to do whatever is within the parameters of Halacha that makes you feel “oneg,” pleasure.

Serve food they actually like (youtube screenshot)
Serve food they actually like (youtube screenshot)

6) Spend time with your kids—Shabbat is the one day of the week you don’t have to run out to work or rush to put in a load of laundry. You can read to your kids or play a board game with them. You can sing with them and talk to them. But don’t push them. Suggest, and let them lead you where they want to go. It could be a making-silly-faces contest. It could be anything or go anywhere your imagination takes you. But it should be FUN.

7) Reflect On Your Riches—God gave these particular children to you. Revel in them: in the smell that is particular to the crook of a neck; the sheen on a ringlet of hair and the way it catches the sunlight; the things about them that are like you but in miniature. Take pleasure in them. Find the good.

Appreciate your wealth (youtube screenshot)
Appreciate your wealth (youtube screenshot)

It’s there for sure.

But you have to look.

About the Author
Varda Epstein is a blogger and Communications Writer for Kars4Kids.org www.kars4kids.org
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