It happened again last week.
I was speaking to a middle school social studies class, explaining Jewish history, beliefs and practice to non-Jewish students. For most, I was the first Jew they had ever met.
Before launching into how Jews celebrate the Sabbath, I asked the kids to raise their hands if they have some kind of Sabbath in their lives: attending a religious service, eating a special meal with family, reciting a prayer, or something else. A few hands went up, but only a few. I asked those students to share, eager to hear how they observe their Sabbath.
Then I explained the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday and continues until sundown Saturday. I reminded them that Sabbath was a revolutionary innovation, carried down by Moses on the Ten Commandments. It ran counter to the belief in the ancient world that human beings only had value if they were working and producing. In today’s non-stop world, that concept still seems revolutionary.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading Jewish theologians and philosophers, described Shabbat as a sanctuary in time. “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord”, he wrote. In class, I translated those concepts into something understandable to teens: We spend time with family and friends. We connect to God and each other through study, prayer and ritual. And food! Wonderful, soul-filling food.
Behind me, on a large screen was a family photo of our Friday night Shabbat table, laden with candles, wine, challah, and overflowing with people. The students listened attentively as I described the Shabbat ritual and its blessings, which our grandchildren – even the toddlers – know how to recite. A challah cover and kiddush cup were passed around the classroom, amid questions from the curious students.
‘What do you eat for dinner?’
‘That’s not Thanksgiving?? You do that EVERY week?’
And then, what happens nearly every time I speak, happened yet again.
Quietly, a boy asked, “Can I come?”
When I hear that touching question and when I see how fascinated the students are to learn about weekly Sabbath observance, I wonder if they are hungry for something they can’t quite name.
These experiences deepen my appreciation for the treasure we have available to us, if we choose to partake. Jews live in a world where ‘Sabbath’ coexists with ‘weekend’ and all its attractive options. But, even with all that freedom and all those choices, I wonder how many of us are also hungry for something we can’t quite name. A hunger for the meaning, connection and transcendence that a Shabbat dinner offers, every week.
Preparing Shabbat dinner for our family and sometimes for guests, nearly every Friday night, has taught me how much our behavior shapes our feelings. Over the years there were definitely times when I didn’t ‘feel like it’ but I did it anyway. Pushing through enabled the accumulated joys of weekly Shabbat dinners to win out. I look forward all week to our Shabbat dinners – and appreciate when we are invited to someone else’s home, knowing the effort involved.
If you seldom or never prepare a Shabbat dinner the prospect can seem overwhelming. That is why I cheer for every program, initiative and idea that makes Shabbat do-able for more people. For example:
*Check out Nina Badzin’s helpful list of creative hacks to make hosting Shabbat dinner easier.
*This week #ShareShabbat is taking place in our community. A week of classes on challah baking, hosting Shabbat dinner and even ‘prep and schlep’ cooking will culminate in Shabbat dinner this Friday. Kits including challah covers, a kiddush cup and wine will be provided. Participants are encouraged to invite someone to their table that they know, but with whom they have not celebrated Shabbat before.
*Programs such as One Table invite people in their 20s and 30s to connect: “to build a Shabbat dinner practice that feels personal, authentic, valuable and lasting.” Seventy-four (!) upcoming Shabbat dinners are listed on their website.
Shabbat was in the back of my mind as I read David Brook’s fascinating article, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”. While explaining the many factors that have contributed to the decline of the traditional nuclear family, he also suggests that a new family paradigm may be emerging- the ‘forged family’, bringing non-biologic kin into family-like relationships. The beauty of Shabbat is that it accommodates family structures of every kind. Shabbat’s gifts are available to all.
It’s a gift we give ourselves and our families, if we choose to open it.
Now, time to start cooking….Shabbat will be here soon!