As a young mother who did not grow up immersed in Judaism, one of the most daunting tasks was conveying a strong sense of Jewish identity to my children. While I had read plenty of Jewish philosophy and law, I didn’t have the lived, communal experience that so easily informed my husband’s observance…the songs, the prayers, even the food. I was determined that my children would always ‘belong.’ One of the simplest points of entry was Shabbat dinners. Armed with my mother-in-law’s old sisterhood cookbooks and tutorials on YouTube, I dove in. We started with just challah and candles, but worked our way up, as the kids and I learned new blessings each week. Our children added ‘Shabbat Dancing,’ a spontaneous after-dinner tradition, in which they demonstrated their lack of rhythm while careening around the house singing songs like Bim Bam and Zum Gali Gali. We learned to close Shabbat with the beautiful Havdallah experience, delighting in the multi-sensory spices, candle and wine.
Organically, Shabbat took root in our home, so that as our kids grew, and ventured out into their own interests and activities, they always knew they’d find reconnection on Friday evening. Not every Shabbat was romantically unhurried. Many received short shrift, as we pre-cut the candles for a quick burn, in order to rush out for services. Sometimes, I admit, the end of a long week found me too burned out to prepare a Shabbat-worthy meal. So we ate takeout pizza beside the glowing candles. On shortened evenings we might only light candles and make kiddush. On leisurely evenings, the kids would cheer and we all would giggle as my husband regaled me with every stanza of Eishet Hayil (Woman of Valor).
However we ‘do’ Shabbat, the power of the occasion is the rhythmic certainty of reconnection and rest waiting at the end of every harried week. If you’re seeking a few easy ways to delineate Friday nights without killing yourself, here are a few of my favorites:
- Give yourself the gift of flowers. For me, these are usually just a couple of bunches of whatever is seasonal at Trader Joe’s, tossed in a jar or pitcher, but are often whatever is colorful in my backyard (blooming branches of bushes and trees count too). Occasionally, the hubby will bring home an armload of roses. I cannot emphasize enough that this is not an expensive tradition! I rarely spend more than $10 (and then only when company is coming). But the addition of flowers, however humble, elevates Friday above the other days, marking it as special. And the activity of cutting and arranging offers a quick moment of reflection and gratitude for nature’s gifts.
- Listen to something uplifting. It may seem obvious—and maybe it’s something you already do. But amidst the ordinary chaos of everyday life…ringing work phone, yelling children, barking dog…I find myself forgetting to pay attention to my own sensory needs. I’m inundated with ‘noise’--the thought of adding sound is counter intuitive. But thoughtful ‘noise’ is different. Whether this is putting on a favorite playlist or letting a streaming service do the curating, I’ve found that a great way of decompress before Shabbat is to accompany Friday afternoon’s tasks with music.
- Let your kids help prepare for Shabbat. My kids have made countless Shabbat placemats using washable crayons or markers and rolls of white paper. They’ve decorated challah covers out of plain cloth napkins and fabric markers. As they grew, they graduated to paper flowers for the table, origami napkin folds, and eventually setting the table and preparing the Shabbat candles, pouring the grape juice, etc… Engaging in the ‘work’ of preparing for Shabbat together doesn’t always contribute to the relaxation, but it does give everyone ownership and create habits to last a lifetime.
- Take a moment to be grateful. On a busy weekday, this one might be easily overlooked, but on Friday afternoons (especially when I am not in the Shabbat mood), I take just a minute or two to give thanks. Often, it means pondering my blessings while rushing through food prep over the kitchen sink, rather than thoughtful contemplation over a cup of tea, but the focus does bring clarity. Accompanied by a few deep breaths, a moment of gratitude provides a reset before Shabbat.
- Set the expectation. For some families, this means banishing all electronics for 24 hours, in others, just putting away phones through dinner. In our house, expectations usually have to do with ‘Shalom Bayit,’ (literally peace of the house) a reminder to kids to come to dinner with a Shabbat attitude. When they were little, that could mean a long, slow 'Shhhhhhhhhh,' settling into a quiet anticipation before candle lighting. As they got older, it could mean resolving any bickering before arriving. While I cannot guarantee quiet toddlers or teens free of moodiness, setting group expectations about what Shabbat means in your household creates an almost Pavlovian response to candle lighting. Once Shabbat arrives, the mood visibly shifts. What may begin as rote response or required behavior settles into relaxation and joy.
However you ‘do’ Shabbat, the importance is that you do it…when you feel like it, and when you don’t… when you have time, and when you don’t. Ideally, you’ll set aside a good chunk of Friday for preparing a celebratory meal, baking challah with your children, setting out the white tablecloth and wine. If, like me, you have a less idyllic lifestyle you may, on occasion, come skidding into the kitchen five minutes to sundown. That’s ok too. Give yourself permission not to be perfect. Failing to create the imagined Shabbat can make you less likely to observe at all. If instead, you consider Shabbat a lovely punctuation to each week that arrives whether you are ready for it or not, you can meet the opportunity on whatever terms life presents each week. Some Fridays will be fancier than others, but every Shabbat is special.