Friday night at sundown, a transformation occurs in Jewish households across the country. As the sky becomes darker, our hearts become lighter. The anxieties from the past week melt away, and we enter the peace and joy of Shabbat. There are many wonderfully rich observances one can embrace.
Candles. Eighteen minutes before sundown, we light candles to signify the beginning of Shabbat. Ordinarily, a blessing precedes the action it is connected to. When it comes to candle lighting, we light first and then say the bracha. The candles signify the start of Shabbat, and one is not permitted to light candles during Shabbat. Therefore, we light the candles, cover our eyes, and recite the blessing. When we lift our hands away, it is as though we are seeing the candles for the first time.
Friday night dinner sets the stage for the rest of Shabbat. A traditional meal can last for hours with singing, learning and eating. There are several rituals to help elevate the experience of Shabbat dinner.
Singing. There is much singing throughout Shabbat, and there are many songs to choose from. When everyone is seated, we begin with Shalom Aleichem. It is a song to welcome the angels who escorted us home from synagogue. Following Shalom Aleichem, we sing Ashet Chayil (a woman of valor) – sung to women in praise of their righteousness.
Blessing the children. Traditionally, a father goes to each child, places his hands on his or her head and recites a special blessing. The boys are blessed to be like Ephraim and Menasha, the grandsons of Jacob who were destined to be role models for the Jewish people. The girls are blessed to be like Sara, Rivka, Rebecca and Leah, the matriarchs of the Jewish people. Children welcome this blessing each week, and it creates a powerful bond between parent and child.
Blessing over the wine. The Kiddush (meaning sanctification) is recited over a cup of wine, and everyone at the table drinks some. The blessing over the wine is a good example of a basic concept in Judaism to try and raise every action to a higher level. In addition to being a symbol of joy, wine helps melt away the tension of the week and lifts our spirits toward the peacefulness of Shabbat.
Washing the hands. This is not a washing for cleanliness but rather for spiritual purification. Each hand is wet three times, pouring water from the wrist to the fingertips. A bracha is recited as we raise our hands in the air. The blessing simply states that G-d has commanded us to wash our hands, but the images and intentions can carry us much further than that.
Blessing over the bread. After washing our hands, we do not speak until the blessing for the bread is recited. The Shabbat table has two loaves of challah, symbolic of the two loaves of Manna that fell from the sky when we were wandering in the desert.
The Challot are covered. Why? Typically, the blessing over the bread is the first blessing we make when sitting down for a meal. On Shabbat, we make Kiddush first. In order to show that we are not ignoring the proper order, the challot are covered so they do not become “embarrassed”.
The lifting of the challah cover often brings oohs and aaahs. The challah is cut and dipped into salt – a reminder of the bitterness in our history. As it comes around, everyone takes a piece before passing on to the next person. Then, the meal begins.
The meal. You can feel the elevation of a Shabbos meal from a weekday meal, and it’s not due to the fact that you waited so long to eat. There are traditional foods that enhance the meal – gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, or kugel. Often times, someone will prepare a Dvar torah, a commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Children will boast about what they learned at school. Singing and pounding on the table is also not uncommon!
Benching. After the meal, we take some time to bench. This is a blessing called the Birkat Hamazon – frequently sung in tune. The blessing is made up of four different prayers. The first, an expression of gratitude for our food. The second, a prayer of thanks for the land of Israel. Next, a blessing for Jerusalem, and finally a blessing to express our appreciation for G-d’s goodness.
Despite all the preparation, Shabbat can be a wonderful time to slow down and unwind. It’s a mandatory time-out from daily life. Any parent appreciates a child who is a good listener (life is so much easier). As G-d’s children, it’s a good idea to rest when G-d says “Rest”.