The following describes the traditional way of celebrating Shabbat. To learn about more modern interpretations, visit this brief guide.
“More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” -Ahad Ha’Am
As the sun begins to set on Friday evening, the Jewish tradition calls for people around the world to gather in their homes and synagogues to kindle the “Shabbat (Sabbath) lights. In a moment of mysterious transition, the worries and responsibilities of the week fade away, and the joy of a day of peace and rest begins. Traditionally, the woman lights the candles and says the “brakha” (blessing), though anyone may have this honor, surrounded by their loved ones, who all say, “amen” to the ancient formula, “Blessed are You, Source of Life, who has drawn us close to You in holiness through Your commandments, and commanded us to kindle the flames of Shabbat.”
There are at least two candles lit, but some people have the custom of lighting a candle for each person in the family, or for each person present that evening, so that everyone is represented by a glowing flame throughout the night. Following the candle lighting, the “Bride of Shabbat” is welcomed, either through singing songs like Shabbat Shalom and L’kha Dodi (Come My Beloved) or by saying the evening prayer service, called Ma’ariv, in the home or synagogue. Then family and friends gather around the Sabbath table for dinner.
The table is set with a white or festive cloth, fresh flowers, and your favorite dinnerware. There are many rituals that take place before the first taste of challah (a special, braided bread used on the Sabbath).
The beautiful hymn, “Shalom Aleichem,” (Peace Be Upon You), is sung to welcome the Sabbath angels into the home. Some people have a new custom of passing Angel Cards (available in New Age bookstores) around the table so that each person can draw the angels who accompany them for that Shabbat. These angels are described in qualities like Love, Trust, Balance, Creativity, Surrender, etc. Then those of us who have children bless the angels in our lives, our children. Blessing is a major theme for Shabbat, because when we take time to appreciate life, we open the gates of love and blessing.
The parents place their hands on the head of the child, remembering the preciousness of each soul in their care. The boys are blessed with the words that Jacob gave to the sons of his beloved son, Joseph, “May the Holy One make you like Efraim and Menasheh,” while the girls are blessed with the names of the four matriarchs, “May the Holy One make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.” All of the names can be recited in order to be gender neutral. These blessings are followed by the priestly blessing, “May God bless and keep you. May the radiance of God’s Presence lift you and be gracious to you. May the radiance of God’s Presence shine upon you and bless you with peace.” Click here for more translations and to hear the blessings recited. Personal blessings can also be whispered to each child, creating a very special moment between parent and child. Since not everyone has a child, but everyone likes and deserves to be blessed, the adults can bless the ever-present child in each other, and the children might even have a blessing for their parents and friends.
The meal begins with Kiddush, the blessing over a cup of wine or grape juice. The fruit of the grape vine is a symbol of abundance and rejoicing. The introductory part of the kiddush recalls the six days of creation which culminated in a seventh day of rest for the Creator and for all of creation. Then the prayer over the wine is recited, “Blessed are You, Source of Life, who creates the fruit of the vine.” This is followed by a description of the exodus from Egypt and the importance of a day of rest as an expression of our true freedom.
Then it is time to wash the hands in a ceremonial act that recalls the priesthood of the Holy Temple. With a unique two-handled washing cup (or any cup will do), we pour water on each hand three times, lift our hands and say the following brakha (blessing), “Blessed are You, Source of Life, who has drawn us close to You in holiness through Your commandments, and commanded us to raise up the hands.” After drying the hands, it is customary to return in silence to the table, which has now assumed the status of an altar. Everyone waits quietly or hums a “nigun,” a wordless melody, together until the bread is shared. This is a playful and simple way to teach children and adults to focus their attention on a ritual and to perform it with awareness.
Two challot (braided breads) which have been covered with a beautiful cloth are uncovered and the brakha (blessing) over the bread is said, “Blessed are You, Source of Life, who brings forth the bread from the Earth.” The two challot remind us of the double portion of manna that the Israelites, who wandered in the desert for forty years, received on the sixth day of each week so they would not have to gather on the Sabbath day. It symbolizes our trust that God will provide for our needs and that we can take a day of rest in our busy lives to appreciate what we and God have created in the world. If you have the time and inclination to bake your own challah, it is a wonderful tradition to establish with your children and it fills the house with the sweet smells of Shabbat. The challah is cut in slices or broken into pieces. Some people sprinkle salt on it, representing a basic meal, and then it is given to each person to savor and enjoy.
Finally the meal begins. The food itself varies, depending on the traditions of your relatives, the country you come from, and whether you are a vegetarian or a meat eater. The range of festive dishes can include chicken and kugel (usually a dish consisting of wide flat noodles, eggs, sugar and cottage and cream cheese, although there are different varieties–including one made with grated potatoes and onions), hummus (chick pea-based dip) and kibbeh (a lamb casserole that includes onions and bulger), or tofu (made from soy beans) and brown rice. Whatever you serve, it is important for the meal to be festive and special. Somehow the food seems to taste better than ever on Shabbat, especially if everyone has been involved in some aspect of the preparation.
The meal is leisurely and it is customary to sing Shabbat songs between courses, to talk about the Torah portion of the week, to tell stories, or to engage your children and guests in a loving conversation. As the candles dim and the exhaustion of the week descends, a concluding prayer, the Grace after the meal or “Birkat Hamazon,” is sung. There are many forms of this concluding prayer, some short, some long, and some creative interpretations. The concept of giving thanks after the meal is based on the verse in Deuteronomy 8:10 “You shall eat, and give thanks and bless…”
Then the table is cleared, dishes are washed, the guests leave and there is a renewed spirit of sharing and peace that fills the home. The Friday night dinner can be a romantic time for a couple, a time of listening and appreciating in a family with children and a time of celebrating and sharing with honored guests and friends. It is finally time to rest our heads on a pillow. Dreams are golden on Friday night as we let go of the concerns of the week and allow the beauty of Shabbat to permeate our homes and our hearts.
Annie’s Shabbat by Sarah Marwil Lamstein, Albert Whitman & Co., Morton Grove, IL, 1997
The Art of Jewish Living; The Shabbat Seder by Dr. Ron Wolfson, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 1985.
Friday Night and Beyond, The Shabbat Experience Step-by-Step by Lori Palatrik, Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ, 1994.
Gates of Shabbat, A Guide for Observing Shabbat by Mark Dov Shapiro, Central Conference of American Rabbis, NY, 1996.
Sabbath Day of Eternity, Aryeh Kaplan, NCSY, New York, 1984.
Savta Simcha and the Incredible Shabbos Bag, Yaffa Ganz, Feldheim, Jerusalem, Israel, 1980.
Seasons of Our Joy by Arthur Waskow, Beacon Press, Boston, 1982.
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1979.