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Hosting at the Shabbat Table

Posted on: September 7th, 2023 by The Family Dinner Project Team

This reflection was contributed by Mona Fishbane, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of  Loving with the Brain in Mind: Neurobiology & Couple Therapy.

Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) is the highpoint of our week. All the other days are oriented toward Shabbat — shopping on Monday, starting cooking Tuesday or Wednesday. I ask my husband, “Honey, can you chop and saute the onions?” From that modest beginning, soups, rice pilafs, quiches, vegetarian chopped liver all spring (our home is vegetarian). Rather than doing all the preparation in one day (I’m too old for that!), I “sneak up” on Shabbat cooking, doing a little each day to prepare for Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch.

I grew up with Shabbat as the center of family life. Mom was a wonderful cook, and we usually had guests Friday night. I imbibed her confidence in hosting, from cooking to welcoming guests to the timing of when to serve each course. Mom learned this from her grandparents, in whose home in a Polish shtetl she spent much of her childhood. Mom’s grandfather would come home from synagogue Friday night, bringing guests who needed a place to eat. Mom’s grandmother would peek from an upstairs window as he walked up the street, counting the people with him. She would run and set the table for the exact number of guests. Everyone felt welcomed. Shabbat hospitality is a multigenerational legacy I inherited, and have passed on to my children. Even the dining room table to which we invite guests has intergenerational resonances for us: It is the same table where my husband ate Shabbat meals in his parents’ house. Each Shabbat I reconnect in my heart with my beloved late mother-in-law amid memories of her delicious cooking.

One of my favorite parts of Friday night when our children lived at home was blessing each of them with the Priestly blessing, invoking the Divine light to shine upon them. Now they give this blessing to their children. Even now, if our children and grandchildren join us, this blessing is a highlight before the meal.

Inviting guests, and imagining possible conversations, is part of the fun. Will we invite one couple, good friends, deepening connections through personal sharing and study of the weekly Torah portion? Will we explore the challenges of aging, offering each other support and wisdom? Or perhaps we’ll invite a group of people who don’t know each other, anticipating the possible inter-connections and flow of energy among our guests. We are particularly attuned to new people in town who would welcome an invitation. We ourselves were new in town a few years ago, and were blessed with hospitality and friendships that blossomed around Shabbat tables.

One of the treats of being a guest in another’s home is discovering new delights for the palate, requesting the recipe, trying it out. One of my own favorites is cholent, a combination of veggies, beans, barley and meat (in our home, vegetarian meat) that cooks overnight in a crockpot, moistened with broth, wine, honey, ketchup, and barbecue sauce. I put it up just before lighting the Shabbat candles Friday evening. When we wake on Saturday morning, the aroma of cholent permeates the house, filling me with gratitude and anticipation.

On Shabbat we are free of devices and distractions. During weekdays, phones ring or ping, computers beckon. I juggle the to-do list, addressing the practical aspects of our lives. And then, just before we light Shabbat candles, all devices are turned off. I breathe a sigh of pleasure, relief, and anticipation of 25 hours of peace. Going to synagogue, reading, studying, and sharing time with friends and family are on the agenda–not paying bills or doing errands. The 19th century thinker Ahad Ha’am taught, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” We are sustained by these 25 hours, as we refocus, refresh, refuel.

The blessings before and after eating transform this physical act into an opportunity for gratitude. In one of my classes on Hasidic texts, I learned to formulate an intention after eating for how I want to metabolize this food. Food consumed turns into energy; to what do I want to devote the energy from this meal? Gratitude and intentionality are central: Aware that we have been given the gift of food, we seek to transform our intake into actions that are beneficial in the world. At the Shabbat table, a meal is not just food; guests are honored, and a spiritual focus informs the physical act of eating. For the gifts of Shabbat, friendship, good food, and the presence of the Divine, I am grateful every week.

I can affirm Ahad Ha’am’s insight: Shabbat sustains me, gives me space to breathe and slow down, a 25 hour break from the hubbub and intensity of daily life. A day without watching the news or checking social media and emails, a break from devices and distractions. A table laden with delicious food, surrounded by beloved guests, cultivating a spiritual focus. What a blessing.