In the Jewish calendar, days begin at sundown, rather than at sunrise or at midnight. The most important thing you can do to make Shabbat special is to remember that it’s coming and plan to have a nice meal with your friends or family on Friday evening. If you aren’t ready for any other piece of Shabbat observance, this is a good first step. It’s an important Jewish custom to save your best food for Shabbat. A tasty Friday night dinner, even one that isn’t traditional Jewish food, even something ordered from the pizza joint down the street, will make it feel like Shabbat. Especially if you eat it in your house with people you love. One activity that can be special in the week before Shabbat is baking hallah. Though one could use any whole loaves of bread for Shabbat, making the special braided loaves of hallah is an opportunity for creativity. It’s easier to find the time to bake when you aren’t a parent, but a lot of fun if you have children to make crazy shapes with the dough.
The beginning of Shabbat is marked with the lighting of candles. In biblical times, women lit a lamp that had to last them through the evening, since lighting a fire was work they would not do during Shabbat. This tradition has been carried forward through Jewish history. Today, you can begin your Shabbat on Friday evening by lighting the candles and saying a blessing.
You can buy candles that are marked “Shabbat candles” in many supermarkets, though if you can’t find them, other plain candles will work. Since we let them burn down and don’t usually move them or blow them out, make sure you find a good fire-safe spot. One lights the candles first because saying the blessing is what brings in Shabbat.
This is probably the origin of the custom of covering the eyes before saying the blessing–to hide that the action in the blessing already happened. Some have the additional custom of waving the hands toward the face, as though to bring in the light of the candles.
The blessing is:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzeevanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat candles.
After the candles have been blessed, don’t blow them out.
Before both the Friday evening meal and lunchtime on Saturday, there is an opportunity to affirm the holiness of Shabbat through the Kiddush. This blessing combines the regular acknowledgment of God’s role in feeding people with a longer blessing on remembering creation. If you don’t feel comfortable saying the blessing in Hebrew, you can recite an English translation of all or part of it.
Many Jews grow up drinking a very sweet sacramental wine for Kiddush. Some people like this wine, either because they like sweet things or because it makes them nostalgic. Sweet wine isn’t necessary, however. Kosher wine makers are doing their best to improve the quality and variety of kosher wines, so that people who only make Kiddush on kosher wine can choose a dry wine if they like. The same blessing that is used for wine can also be made over unfermented grape juice. Really the point is to sanctify a symbol of joy and relaxation, and you only have to drink the sweet stuff if you like it.
The Friday evening Kiddush has three parts: a reading of Genesis 1:31-2:3, a short blessing over the wine itself and a longer sanctification of Shabbat. Here is the translation of the entire blessing, with a transliteration of the short blessing over the wine itself:
And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. The heavens and the earth, and all they contain, were completed. By the seventh day, God had finished the work which God had been doing, and rested from all work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, for on it God rested from all the works of creation.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei pe-ri ha-gafen.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made us holy with your commandments. Lovingly you have favored us with the gift of your holy Shabbat as our inheritance, a reminder of creation, first among the sacred days, recalling our liberation from Egypt. You have chosen us and given us a holy purpose from among all the peoples, In loving favor, you have given us your holy Shabbat as a heritage. Blessed are you, God, who makes Shabbat holy.
After the Kiddush, the next blessing is over the bread. It’s often called Ha-Motzi, which means “who brings forth” because it’s a blessing on God bringing forth bread from the earth.
Some perform a ritual hand-washing before the blessing over bread. (Of course you should really wash with soap and water before you eat–what would your mother say? Not to mention your kindergarten teacher. This is symbolic washing, to remind you.)
For the ritual washing the blessing is:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzeevanu al nitilat yadaim.
Blessed are You Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments and commanded us concerning the waving of hands.
(I don’t know why the Hebrew verb is to wave–probably because people wave their hands around to dry them after they’ve washed.)
Some do this ritual washing with a cup. They fill the cup with water and pour the water over the hands, then wave the hands and dry them on a towel while reciting the blessing. Some progress to the table without doing anything else that isn’t part of progressing toward eating bread. (If everyone suddenly stops talking and starts humming, that’s why.)
For the bread, the blessing is:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, ha-motzi lekhem min ha-aretz
Blessed are You, Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
There are a lot of small customs associated with performing this blessing. First you take your cover off the loaves of bread. For some reason, rabbis give as the reason for the hallah cover that the hallah will be embarrassed because you blessed the wine first! Some lift the loaves together, others make a symbolic slice at the bread with a knife, perhaps to remind us of animal sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times.
After you’ve made the blessing you can slice or tear the bread into pieces, salt it and distribute it. Because we put bread into the hands of a mourner and Shabbat is a day of celebration, some families have the tradition of putting the bread on a plate or in a basket to pass it. There’s also a Sephardic custom of throwing the bread. Another, newer custom is for everyone to say the blessing together while touching the bread, and pull off a piece at the same time.
The blessing on the bread covers all the foods you eat in your delicious meal. The blessings before eating are short. People who want a long grace have to wait until the grace after meals, which is longer.
You can acquire a siddur that contains all of these blessings in Hebrew and additional traditional songs to sing at the Shabbat table. You can also get a benscher, which is the Yiddish word for the short booklet containing the grace after meals with Shabbat blessings and songs printed to distribute at weddings and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
You can recite the daytime Kiddush and the blessing over bread at Saturday lunch and have a special meal on Saturday as well as on Friday evening. Traditional observance mandates three meals on Shabbat: Friday night dinner, Saturday lunch and Saturday supper, sometimes called Seudah Shelishit.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Saturday lunch feels like a greater commitment to Jewish observance than Friday night dinner for many people. You can try this and any other Shabbat custom without immediately making a commitment to always observe them. These pleasures are yours to enjoy. You don’t have to change yourself into some idealized religious person to claim your share of Shabbat relaxation and spirituality.
If you are exploring Shabbat as a spiritual practice, you could choose to use it as your day for a long walk, a long yoga practice or a long nap. It could be your day to see friends in person instead of sending an email. It’s a good day to read a book, if that’s something you like to do but never seem to have the time. Without any rituals at all, Shabbat can still be a good day to just be.
The Guide to Shabbat and Havdalah for Interfaith Families is available as a PDF and our booklet Shabbat: What to Expect in the Synagogue, Shabbat Made Easy, and Havdalah Made Easy are available for download.