If you’re new to Judaism or looking to learn how to incorporate more Jewish practices into your life or how to share them with a loved one who is not Jewish, Shabbat is a great place to start. It’s the Jewish holiday that happens every week, encouraging you to take time to rest and relax, to enjoy family and friends and to put all those to-do lists, work and daily worries aside. Shabbat offers time for much needed perspective after a busy week, a spiritual day that feels different than every other day. There are infinite ways to celebrate this weekly holiday and just as many reasons to create this safe, easy space in your life. (See video: https://youtu.be/rk_newaI_B8)
What is Shabbat?
The concept of Shabbat comes from the very first chapters of the book of Genesis in the Bible, when God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh.
Shabbat begins at sun down on Friday night and ends on Saturday evening, traditionally when the sun has set and three stars are visible in the night sky. Jewish law and tradition also dictate a wide variety of other practices, each with their own blessing, including lighting two Shabbat candles, drinking wine and eating challah, a special and delicious egg bread.
Around the world, every community, every home, has their own Shabbat traditions. There is not one single way to celebrate Shabbat, so don’t worry that you’re going to do it incorrectly. Shabbat can be a time to eat a special meal on your own, with a partner or with friends, think about the past week and the week ahead, feel gratitude for those around you and just to breathe. People of all faiths are welcome to join in your Shabbat rituals.
Where do I start?
First, remember that Shabbat is always there for the taking and that it does not require special food, flowers, clothes or music. Though, the idea is to set this day apart from the rest of the week, so have fun with it. If dressing up yourself or your table is fun, do that. If making your meal extra special is your kind of fun, do that. Take one step at a time, start small: one blessing, one moment to feel grateful for something that makes this day different from all the other days of the week.
Many people also choose to celebrate Shabbat with their synagogue communities on Friday nights or Saturday mornings (see this booklet: What to Expect at a Synagogue). This can be a great way to feel connected to others and enhance your Shabbat experience. There are also many traditions and rituals that have evolved that you can include in your home celebration. Remember that all these traditions and rituals were created to enrich and enhance the celebration of Shabbat. They might feel foreign to those who are new to Shabbat, but you can learn together. Some might work for you, some might not. They are a good place to begin, but you can surely add your own traditions or ideas. Shabbat happens every week, no matter what, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to figure out what works best.
Many people choose to begin by creating a special Friday night dinner. With the pressures of long hours on the job and lengthy commutes, appointments, plans with friends, etc., having a relaxing dinner is a great start to Shabbat and the weekend. Everyone has different traditions for their Shabbat meal. Just remember, the goal of Shabbat dinner is not what’s on the menu, but rather the intention of the meal. So roast a chicken, order a pizza, host a pot luck with your friends, go out to your favorite restaurant and appreciate the time you have together. Shabbat is a wonderful time to celebrate your own cultural diversity or that of the people around you. Have fun, try your hand at hosting or arrange a picnic and invite friends to bring dishes that reflect their cultures. Find interesting multicultural recipes here.
Traditions and Rituals
Friday evening is a time to awaken all your senses around the dinner table. But before you eat, tradition tells us to pause and acknowledge that this evening is different. We set two candles out and as we light them we invite Shabbat to enter our home and surround us with rest and joy. Use this pause to take a deep breath and try to be present for your special Shabbat meal.
Some people observe the custom to light the candles and then cover your eyes while saying the blessing. This gives you a chance to see the world transformed by the light of the candles when you open your eyes at the end of the blessing. Some wave their hands over the candles as if scooping up the holiness of the flames. Either way, the physicality of the act can make the moment extra special. One does not need to be Jewish to join in the blessings on Shabbat. You can also find more comprehensive information about the holiday and blessings in this guide.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy and commands us to kindle the light of Shabbat.
Once we welcome Shabbat by lighting the candles, it is traditional to offer blessings to those around us who are sharing Shabbat with us. If you are getting some much needed alone time on Shabbat, take a moment to think of the blessings in your life and enjoy an evening of solitude and relaxation. While it is customary to bless children on Shabbat, offering your guests a blessing no matter their age is a lovely ritual. Below is a traditional Hebrew blessing from the book of Numbers in the Bible, but if it doesn’t speak to you or you aren’t comfortable with Hebrew or with God language, feel free to offer your own special words of blessing to your friends and family.
May God bless you and keep you
May God’s light shine upon you and be gracious to you
May the presence of God be with you and give you peace.
Blessing over the Wine/Grape Juice – The Kiddish
Judaism often sanctifies and celebrates joyous occasions with wine. Whether with your favorite vintage or a sweet cup of grape juice, we are reminded to always find joy and reasons for gratitude each week. Many people use a special cup, often called a Kiddish Cup, for Shabbat wine, as another way to make Shabbat different from other days of the week.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Blessing over the Challah – Ha-Motzi
Challah is special bread for Shabbat. It can come in many shapes and sizes and even flavors. It can be fun to make but you can certainly also pick it up at many local grocery stores. If you can’t find it locally or just are having a busy week, you can use any bread product.
Some of us choose to tear the challah apart and pass pieces around to each guest after saying the prayer. Others prefer to slice the challah and pass it around on a special Shabbat platter.
Before blessing and eating the challah, it is traditional to wash your hands. This ritual washing reminds us that eating has spiritual potential. It reminds us of how fortunate we are to have food and to be together to share it.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.
Once the blessings are said, sit back, relax and enjoy your Shabbat meal on your own or with those around you. Take the time to think about and/or ask about everyone’s day and really listen to the answer, plan a walk outside after dinner or the next day, think about the things in your week you’d like the leave behind and those things you are looking forward to in the week to come. Smile, laugh, breathe and relax. On Shabbat we have the opportunity to just be, to have the opportunity to appreciate the many blessings and wonderful people in our lives.
Finally, on Shabbat we greet each other by saying Shabbat Shalom, which means, Have a peaceful Shabbat. So however your Shabbat looks, may it be a day of rest and peace for you. Shabbat Shalom!