The Shabbat meal is one of the most important spiritual experiences in Judaism. It combines elements of joy with heartfelt prayer. It connects the present with the past, building bonds among living generations while also joining those living with those from times long ago. It is a beautiful, fun, uplifting experience.
There is no one correct way to conduct a Shabbat meal. Different Jews have different traditions, sometimes adopted from their country of origin or movement of Judaism, or sometimes enacting a practice unique to a family. Whatever Jews do for the Shabbat meal, it’s different than all the other meals of the week.
Here are some steps and suggestions for creating a wonderful Shabbat meal.
Step 1: Preparation
The most important step to creating a spiritual Shabbat meal might be prepared. The thought and effort taken in advance of the meal lead to a more fulfilling experience.
Preparation includes thinking about who will attend the meal. Certainly, the Shabbat meal is a time for the family to gather together. But a happy Shabbat table often includes friends and members of the community. It’s a mitzvah (good deed) to invite someone new to the Shabbat table and to extend hospitality to those who otherwise might observe Shabbat on their own.
Setting the Shabbat table is another important part of preparation. As much as any other occasion in Judaism, the Shabbat meal is an opportunity for hiddur mitzvah – the beautification of the commandment. God commanded Jews to keep and remember Shabbat, and the more Jews make the completion of this commandment beautiful and special, the greater the experience.
Shabbat tables are things of beauty themselves. It’s the time to take out the good china, silverware, and tablecloths. Some use white tablecloths for Shabbat, reflecting the idea of holiness inherent in Shabbat. The place settings themselves are the same as usual, except that every participant needs a cup or glass of wine or juice. The table also needs the items listed above.
Many Jews have these items with special designs or designations for Shabbat. Reserving these items solely for Shabbat use adds to the specialness of the Shabbat dinner. They are available in Judaica stores and online in a wide variety of different styles.
The meal also requires a significant amount of preparation. The Shabbat meal should be sumptuous, usually with several courses. The food served varies from place to place, largely depending upon the cultural background on the family. Traditionally meat was a part of the meal, since many people didn’t eat much meat during the week, and the inclusion of beef or chicken made the meal more special. Today, a Shabbat dinner is more likely to rely on a special recipe or traditional menu due to our greater consumption of meat.
Step 2: Gathering and Singing
The Shabbat meal begins with friends and family greeting each other and coming to the table. Everyone wears nice clothing – this isn’t usually the time for an ordinary dress like jeans and sweatshirts. A finer dress adds to the specialness of the moment. The participants greet each other by saying, “Shabbat shalom – Shabbat peace.”
As the participants come to the table, they often sing melodies to welcome Shabbat. Some of these melodies are nigunim – tunes comprised of syllables like “bim,” “bom” and “lai” that have no literal meaning but capture the sacredness of the time through their feeling and repetition. Other songs include Lecha Dodi – the welcoming of Shabbat like a bride, Mah Yafe HaYom – How Beautiful is this Day, and Ki Eshmeira Shabbat – Because I keep Shabbat, God keeps me.
Step 3: Lighting the Candles
Shabbat officially begins with the lighting of the Shabbat candles. Many Jews use two candles – one to “remember” Shabbat and one to “observe” Shabbat, reflecting the different words used in the two separate recitations of the commandment in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Some traditions call for using seven candles, while other families begin with two candles, and then add a candle for each child in the household.
The woman of the house usually performs the lighting of the candles. If no woman is present, a man lights them. She lights the candles, then waves her hands over them and covers her eyes as she says the blessing:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
halachah – traditional Jewish ritual law. Usually, Jews say a blessing, and then perform an action. They can’t do that here, because once the lighter says the blessing, Shabbat has begun, and fires can’t traditionally be lit on Shabbat as prohibited work. Instead, the lighter covers her eyes and says the blessing on the lit candles, then uncovers her eyes and perceived the light for the first time, satisfying all concerns.
Step 4: Blessing Over Wine or Juice
Judaism’s symbol of joy is the fruit of the vine – usually wine or grape juice. Jews drink it after saying a blessing on every special day or occasion in a practice called Kiddush – creating holiness. Jews often “make Kiddush” using a special decorative cup made of silver or other fine material to beautiful this ritual. On Shabbat, it’s traditional to use a sweet wine reflecting the sweetness of the day.
Everyone at the table has some wine or grape juice for Kiddush. The leader and all the participants raise their cups, and the leader says the prayer. For the purposes of this quick guide, I’ll provide a shorter version of the prayer:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Borei p’ri ha-gafen.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Everyone then drinks a sip from their cup.
Step 5: Blessing the Children
One of the warmest traditions of the Shabbat meal is the blessing of the children. This is traditionally done by the father, although many Jewish households today have both parents perform the blessing. The parent(s) place his/her hands on the child’s head and recite the blessing.
For daughters, the parent says:
Y’simeich Elohim k’Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah.
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
For sons, the parent says:
Y’simcha Elohim k’Ephrayim v’chi’Menasheh
May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.
The blessing for girls invokes the merit of the Jewish matriarchs from the Book of Genesis. The blessing for boys invokes the merits of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, who Jacob specifically blessed and who kept Jewish customs alive during Joseph’s time in Egypt according to Jewish tradition.
For both sons and daughters, the parent then recites the priestly blessing:
Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yish’m’recha;
Yaeir Adonai panav eilecha vichoonecha;
Yisa Adonai panav eilecha, v’yaseim l’cha shalom.
May God bless you and keep you;
May God shine on you and be gracious to you;
May God’s Precence be with you, and may God grant you peace.
Step 6: Hand Washing
Some Jews perform a ritual hand washing prior to eating. This isn’t a hygenic washing, but a spiritual purification. The leader, and sometimes the participants, use a special two handled cup for this ritual, first rinsing the right hand and then the left. The separate handles allow both hands to remain pure after one is washed. After both hands are washed and they are dried on a clean cloth or towel, the Leader says:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu, al n’tilat yadayim
Step 7: Blessing over the Bread
The final blessing before eating the meal is HaMotzi, the blessing over the bread. Jews eat a special, sweet egg bread called challah on Shabbat. The challah is braided and often has raisins to show it is special and enhance its sweetness. Usually, the Shabbat table has two challot (plural of challah) representing the double portion of manna God gave to the Israelites when they journeyed through the desert from Egypt to The Promised Land. Many Jews eat the challah with salt on Shabbat, representing the salt that accompanied sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Some Jews use a knife to cut the challah. Others don’t use a knife, believing the challah to represent the sacrifice and the knife to represent a weapon of war which shouldn’t touch the sacrifice.
Until now, the challah has been covered with a decorative cloth. The Leader removes the cloth, holds the challah, and says:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, ha=motzi lechem min ha-aretz.
Everyone then eats a piece of challah, and the meal is served.
Step 8: After the Meal
Singing and conversation may continue after the meal. However, every meal ends with Birkat Ha-Mazon, the blessing of thanks to God for the food.
Jews from different movements use different versions of Birkat Ha-Mazon, and some of these versions are quite lengthy. Different versions may be found on the internet, especially on the websites of the different movements, allowing you to choose the version best suited to your needs.