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VII.     Shabbos: Judaism Illuminated

          To anyone becoming more involved with Judaism, probably the most valuable experience is Shabbos.  Its proper observance within an appropriate environment provides a uniquely expedient opportunity to appreciate the beauty and sanctity of Jewish life through experiencing it first hand.  Few Jewish experiences offer the beginner as lucid a vantage point from which the beliefs, ideals and values of Judaism are so immediately apparent and so brilliantly illuminated.

Throughout Jewish history, while Torah learning has been the Jew’s internal engine and life force, Shabbos has been the Jewish family’s fortress, protecting its belief and faith. As the oft quoted saying goes, ”More than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews.” It has proven true throughout all the ages, when the Jews abandoned Shabbos they quickly assimilated into the prevailing dominate culture. 

The Jews’ acknowledgement of Hashem as the Creator and Sustainer upon whom we are totally reliant, as well as our commitment to infusing the material world with holiness and spirituality is all readily perceptible on Shabbos.  In addition, the very laws of Shabbos themselves, which so greatly succeed in shutting out the intrusiveness of the mundane world, make up an ingenious demonstration of how Jewish ideals are clearly manifest through Jewish law.

          The opportunity to glimpse so clearly these attributes of Judaism in such a concentrated way, make an authentic Shabbos experience an absolute "must" for the Jewish newcomer.  In fact, we recommend it as the ideal Jewish experience with which to inaugurate your Jewish expedition.

          Let us proceed to guide you through the Shabbos experience by means of a question and answer approach.

 

What is my best opportunity to view Shabbos?

          As we've already noted, it is the religious laws of Shabbos, which create the beauty and pleasure of the day. It is, therefore, imperative that the beginner find a Shabbos observant family who keep those laws, with whom to spend Shabbos.

In addition to experiencing the "real thing", there are several other important benefits that can be gained spending Shabbos with an observant family.

Firstly, it is certainly the most effective means of learning.  Observation and first hand experience are indispensable tools in acquiring working knowledge of any kind; Judaism is no exception.  One can study for months the details of myriad Shabbos laws and still not be as certain about them; watching them being done properly just one time brings clarity and understanding.  It is crucial to see how Jewish law is observed to be assured knowledge learnt is properly applied.

Secondly, it is also important to spend Shabbos with a family for the social benefits.  While there is great importance attached to personal reflection on Shabbos, it is also meant to be a time for happiness and sharing.  It is necessary to interact with other Jews and to share the beauty of Shabbos with people you feel close to.  Judaism is intended to be observed with others, not in solitude.  Much of the joy of Shabbos comes from the time you can spend with people you care about; a luxury our hectic, fast paced society, rarely affords us the rest of the week.

          Thirdly, it's important as a beginner to be able to experience the different customs of Shabbos and Judaism.  For many people who didn't grow up observing Shabbos in their own homes, it's essential to see how different families celebrate.  They can then determine how they will one day conduct Shabbos with their own families, incorporating what they've experienced at the homes of others.

Finally, if you’re foolish enough to stay at home by yourself and attempt to keep the myriad laws of Shabbos by referring to a “Laws of Shabbos” book, know that you are doomed to failure; you’re guaranteed to extract all the joy and beauty from the Shabbos experience.  Needless to say, it is not recommended.

          Now that you're convinced of the necessity of experiencing Shabbos with a family, let us present you with some basic  information and a few simple rules to follow to help insure your Shabbos experience will be enjoyable for both you and your hosts.

 

          How do I get invited?

          If you're puzzling over how to secure an invitation for Shabbos, deterred by the notion that a family would have to be crazy to welcome a perfect stranger into their midst for an entire day - stop worrying!

What you are heretofore unfamiliar with, is a very beautiful mitzvah in Judaism known as "hachnosas orchim", loosely translated as hospitality but meaning so much more.  Hoping to fulfill this mitzvah, many Jews not only welcome the opportunity to have guests but actively search them out.  In fact, Shabbos guests are often in much greater demandthan Shabbos hosts.

The only thing a potential guest needs to do, is to make himself available.

Contact a Jewish outreach organization. Tell them that you would like to experience Shabbos. This type of organization should be your first option because they do this regularly.

They will probably want to meet you in person and do an intake interview. Be cooperative: they really want to help you.

After asking where you live they will either get in contact with an appropriate Sabbath-observing family they know in your vicinity, or put you in touch with your local synagogue rabbi. In the latter case, the rabbi will most probably want to meet you first before making Sabbath arrangements.

The arrangements will initially be for a Sabbath meal and, if things go well at that meal, many more invitations are bound to follow.

If, for whatever reason, these organizations cannot place you, feel free to call an orthodox synagogue or a yeshiva directly and let them know of your interest.  Most likely, they will go out of their way to help you. They can set you up with member families or even the rabbi.

Once you have the name of a family and are calling or being called to arrange your Shabbos, keep in mind a few things:

Don't leave anything vague or unspecified. Generally speaking, a Shabbos invitation can be: 1) for a meal only (Friday night dinner or Saturday lunch), or 2) first meeting at the synagogue for the Friday evening service followed by dinner; or 3) spending the entire shabbos with the host family i.e. the full 25 hours, starting with candle lighting (before the onset of shabbos) until the ‘havdalah’ service, a little after nightfall on Saturday evening (which concludes shabbos). Make certain you know what is included in the invitation.

Finally, be sure to mention any sort of special needs you may have before you come.  It can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for a host to serve a beautiful roast that required hours of preparation, when the guest announces that he is a vegetarian.  Of course, one should not read off a list of demands to the prospective host, but it's better to tactfully let them know about any special needs you have, before you arrive.

         As you'll most assuredly find out, securing a Shabbos invitation requires little more than a few simple phone calls and at most, a couple of brief meetings.

 

          What will happen?

          In order to maximize the Shabbos experience that awaits, it is wise to be familiar with the Shabbos routine.  Although, intended as a day of rest and pleasure, it can prove a little wearing to the uninitiated.  The following sample itinerary represents a "typical" Shabbos.  Undoubtedly, different places will follow a somewhat varied schedule, but this example is universal enough to allow the beginner an idea of what to expect.

 

Arrival

          Let's begin even before the beginning.  A guest should be careful to arrive at his host's home anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes before Shabbos starts.  Earlier than that and you're in the way; later than that, can cause anxiety.

When you do arrive at your hosts, be aware that erev (time preceding) Shabbos at many homes can resemble a cyclone.  Everyone in the family is involved with some type of Shabbos preparation and they're all frantic to finish and be ready before all work ceases at sunset.  For this reason, it is most preferable that you arrive at your host's home already showered, dressed and ready for Shabbos.  Coming with your own preparatory needs will just add to the general pandemonium; we strongly recommend against it.

 

Welcoming the Shabbos: Candle Lighting and Sunset

          Shabbos begins officially when the women of the house bentsch licht, light and make the blessing over the candles.  This typically happens 18 minutes prior to sunset, and at that time all work ceases for the women of the house; the men may still do work until sunset. At sunset all work must cease for all and the home becomes "Shabbosdik"; a perceptible calm begins to pervade the house.

Around this same time, the men head off to shul for the afternoon service, kabalos Shabbos (welcoming the Shabbos) and finally, the evening service. Women usually do not attend shul Friday night but there is certainly nothing wrong with them going if they wish.  Each of these services are relatively short (15 to 20 minutes) and easy to follow.  It is highly recommended that the novice try to arrange for the use of an English prayerbook in order to follow what's going on.

 

Friday Evening Meal

          When everyone has returned from shul, the family gathers around the "set table" and sings two songs: ‘Sholom Aleichem’ - Welcoming the angels that accompany them home and Aishes Chayil - a song in praise of the Jewish woman.

The meal itself then begins as the man of the house sanctifies the day of Shabbos by reciting Kiddush (the sanctification blessing) over a full cup of wine.  Typically everyone is given a small amount of this wine to drink.

Everyone then makes their way to the sink in order to ritually wash their hands (Netilas Yadayim) before eating the special Shabbos ‘challah’ (bread). Because these two activities are related - ritual washing of the hands and eating challah - speaking between them is prohibited until you have eaten some of challah.  After the ritual washing of hands and its accompanying blessing, the man of the house recites the HaMotzi blessing over the challah, cuts the challah, puts some salt on it and distributes it to everyone at the table.

  At this point, most of the rituals are completed and the evening gives way to the serious business of indulging your appetite with various culinary delights. This feast is usually punctuated with singing and discussion of the week's Torah portion and will probably last a good deal longer than any other dinner you have attended. 

After dessert and before wondering how and why you ate so much, the concluding blessings called birkat hamazon (grace-after-meals) are recited.  Here also, it is well advised for a beginner to make use of a bentscher (booklet containing grace-after-meals) that includes an English translation and transliteration in order to understand and appreciate these blessings.

          The remainder of the evening's activities are varied, but all are pretty "laid back".  Many Jews are quite content to slip into bed early and take advantage of the restful nature of Shabbos.  Others will study Torah or just relax and talk with friends and or family; something the rest of week rarely, if ever, seems to allow. 

 

          Shabbos Morning

          After a good night's sleep, people awake, put on their Shabbos clothes and head off to shul. The Shabbos morning services are comprised of three basic parts and can be somewhat lengthy (anywhere from 2 to 3 hours).  Besides the morning service, the additional sections include the public reading of the Torah and a service called mussaf.  If possible, secure a siddur which includes an English translation and try to recruit a more experienced synagogue goer to help keep you apprised of what's happening.  (Without these two aides the morning can seem interminable.)  In most shuls, it is customary for the rabbi to speak on Shabbos morning.  At best this can be a real Shabbos highlight or at worst will help you to get even more Shabbos rest.

 

Shabbos Day Meal

          Upon returning home, the family reconvenes at the center of most Shabbos activity, the dining-room table.  The procedure is similar to that of Friday night.  A shorter version of Kiddush is recited, hands are washed ritually, hamotzi blessing over the challah is made and, once again, an array of delectable Shabbos dishes are consumed amidst intermittent singing and Torah discussion.

One such delicacy traditional for Shabbos day, unique to the Jewish people, cholent, constitutes the main course and the piece de resistance.  It mostly resembles a stew, as it is composed of meat, potatoes, beans and barley; and is spiced and or flavored by innumerable other ingredients indigenous to the family serving it.  Its main characteristic though, is that is has been left warming since sunset of the previous night.  This unusual method of preparation, not only accounts for its distinct and recognizable flavor but is also a practical illustration of Jewish law.  Shabbos is intended as a day of pleasure, which means a hot meal.  Since cooking on Shabbos, however, is prohibited, Jews prepare this dish so that it is already cooking before sunset, and then leave it warming until it is served the next day.  Perhaps it is the cholent's origins in the complex laws of Shabbos that give it such a lofty and revered place on the Shabbos table. 

Birkas Hamazon (grace after meals or ‘Bentsching’ in Yiddish) follows the meal.

 

          Shabbos Day Menucha

          Once the second meal is concluded, Shabbos afternoon is dedicated to a concept called "menucha", loosely translated as rest.  There are a number of activities consistent with this theme: napping, studying, talking, taking a walk - all of which can be enjoyed on Shabbos afternoon.  During this time one can really appreciate the sense of peace Shabbos creates.  It's the time when nothing is scheduled and a Jew relaxes and uses for pursuits the hectic, pressured weekdays don't permit.  This sense of calm and isolation from the intrusions of the world can seem a bit disarming to the novice and may take some getting used to.  Since we generally live in a fast paced world that bombards our senses, Shabbos menucha can be a very drastic and, perhaps at first, uncomfortable change of pace.  Don't let that discourage you however, there isn't an observant Jew who doesn't enjoy and look forward to Shabbos menucha.  Most Jews develop a kind of Shabbos biological clock, which adapts readily to heavy meals, afternoon naps, and early bedtimes.

 

          Mincha, Shalosh Seudos and Maariv

          About an hour or so before sunset, the pace of Shabbos is stepped up a little as the day starts to draw to a close.

At this time men return to shul for the Mincha (afternoon) service.  It is a relatively short service and includes a preview of the Torah reading for the coming week.

The third meal called Shalosh Seudos (or Seudah Shlishit) generally follows mincha.  It is usually a light meal, intended more to fulfill the mitzvah of eating three meals on Shabbos than satiating any hunger.  Shalosh seudos is often partaken of in the Shul (synagogue), although many people prefer to return home.  There is no kiddush, but one does ritually wash and says hamotzi over the challah.  The Birkat HaMazon is said just as Shabbos is ending and is followed immediately by Maariv (the evening service) that marks the end of Shabbos.

 

          Havdala

          Of course Shabbos is far too important to allow it to end without some acknowledgement or fanfare.  Its departure is marked by a brief but dramatic ceremony called Havdala (separation).  In it, we make blessings over wine, spices, and fire before declaring the separation between the holy and the mundane.  With that final reminder, we extinguish the candle in some wine spilled off from the cup and wish one another well for the coming week.

         

When to Leave

          Once Shabbos is concluded, it's generally best to thank your host and to leave promptly.  Most people become very busy immediately after havdala and need to tend to matters other than entertaining.  Be considerate of that and, unless you have been invited to stay longer, a quick departure will not be seen as impolite.

          You can generally tell how much your host enjoyed having you by measuring how much you enjoyed being there.  Should you require a more concrete indication - "please come back again" from your host is a good sign.

Don't be reluctant to follow up on their offer.  While every Jewish home creates its own singular Shabbos atmosphere and it is beneficial to gain a variety of experiences in order to broaden your knowledge and to appreciate the rich gamut of Jewish life; we strongly recommend that when you've found a place where Shabbos is enjoyable and comfortable, frequent it. Many beautiful, life-long relationships are established between guests and those with whom they shared Shabbos!

These relationships, besides serving as a way to experience an authentic Shabbos, can provide the beginner with an invaluable resource for exploring Judaism. In fact, often times one’s Shabbos host can also serve as one’s teacher or rebbe. 

 

Common Sense Tips &How to Get Invited Back

          While the custom of hachnosas orchim (hospitality) is very much present in the Jewish world, making Shabbos invitations plentiful and easily obtainable, be advised that a guest who proves to be difficult will find them quite scarce.

Now that you're prepared for what to expect from Shabbos and from your host, it’s fitting that you take note of what is expected from you.  Don't get nervous; these expectations are minimal and can probably be summed up with a concept you're probably acquainted with, even if the term sounds foreign - "derech eretz" i.e. common courtesy.

This is an extraordinarily important concept to be familiar with and to practice; not only on Shabbos and not only in someone else's home, but always and in every facet of life.  Exercising derech eretz means to conduct yourself politely, pleasantly, and with consideration to others.  In Yiddish this is called acting like a Mentsch.

          As a Shabbos guest, your behavior should be similar to that which would be expected in most social situations: be polite and complimentary, try to be helpful and don't impose or attempt to run the show.

Remember every Shabbos table is different: some sing a lot, some speak about the Torah portion, and some will discuss Jewish community issues.  Try to adapt yourself to your host’s style.  Allow your host to lead - you follow!

The expression:  "When in Rome, do like as the Romans do," is most appropriate for a Shabbos guest to keep in mind.  This even applies to customs like standing or sitting during Kiddush.  Unless it's halachically inappropriate, one should do as his host does.  (If it is halachically inappropriate, one probably should not be there in the first place!)

A word about children.  Chances are great that your hosts are going to have some.  Try to enjoy them - where that's not really possible, at least be patient and tolerate them.  Remember they are the pride and joy of your hosts.  Just as you wouldn't say the soup is awful, so you shouldn't express anything disparaging about the children.  The truth is they are not only a big part of the Shabbos experience (parents getting time to be with children) but they are also a most treasured and prominent part of Jewish life.  If you don't already, learn to like them.

Leave nothing to chance regarding your arrangements.  As mentioned previously, Shabbos invitations generally include meals and lodging if your coming from outside the host’s neighborhood; make sure you've coordinated these plans before your arrival. 

Advise your host ahead of time of any specials needs you may have (especially dietary).  Most hosts would much prefer (and some even welcome the opportunity) to accommodate your needs than to have you sitting at their table unable to partake in the elaborately prepared meal as you politely attempt to assure them that "salad is plenty".

          As we mentioned earlier, try to time your arrival to be between thirty to sixty minutes prior to candle lighting.  Given the customary erev Shabbos pandemonium, you should arrive already showered and dressed.

          Many guests feel obliged to bring a small gift.  This is not at all necessary, although it is a nice gesture.  The most common gifts are flowers for the Shabbos table or a bottle of wine.  Be certain that if you bring the latter it is certified kosher, as should be the case with any other food items you choose to bring.  Be sure to present them with the gift before Shabbos to avoid any halachic complications.

          While these tips are intended to prevent some possible Shabbos faux pas, try not to be overly apprehensive.  Many newcomers consider Shabbos with trepidation, conjuring up a day rife with mysterious strictures and halachic booby traps set to trip at the merest wrong move.  Indeed, the laws of Shabbos are complex but nobody expects the beginner to be fluent with them.  Don't feel intimidated; a host family will certainly be indulgent towards the "classic" mistakes and should you happen to accidentally switch off the bathroom light, they will manage to endure.  In fact - and get ready for a real shocker – sometimes even a veteran Shabbos observer can also inadvertently slip up.  All that is expected of a guest is to make a polite earnest effort, not halachic expertise.

It shouldn't take too long before you start to develop a real love and appreciation for Shabbos yourself.  You'll begin to understand how it really is one of the foundations of Jewish life and a source of great pleasure.

If you didn’t enjoy this Shabbos experience, it’s possible the fit with the synagogue or the host family was just not right. We urge you to try to be placed in other communities and with other families. If after several attempts (where you have made a serious and genuine effort) you still don’t find Shabbos an enjoyable experience, your future as an observant Jew is pretty "iffy".  Most likely though, you'll start to wonder how you were ever able to live without it.

Last updated on: 10/20/2017
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