The Jewish home is without a doubt the epicenter of Shabbat observance. Although much time is spent in synagogue on Shabbat, it is the many home rituals which serve as the vehicle through which Shabbat can be experienced to its fullest. Shabbat is a day set aside for prayer and study, but also for spending quality time with family and friends, enjoying sumptuous meals, singing Shabbat zemirot (Shabbat table songs) and stepping back from the hectic pace at which many of us live our lives today. Shabbat’s many restrictions, though they might seem daunting and imposing initially, allow us to create a sacred space in time in which we are able to enjoy life’s pleasures in a world in which time seems to be an ever more elusive commodity.
Lighting Shabbat candles
Eighteen minutes before sundown on Friday afternoon, we welcome in Shabbat with the lighting of at least two candles owing to the fact that Shabbat is referred to differently in the two versions of the Ten Commandments that are recorded in the Torah—first in Exodus and finally in Deuteronomy. We are commanded to both keep or guard Shabbat and to remember it. Although it is customary for the woman of the house to light the Shabbat candles, this mitzvah is also incumbent upon men. Although a minimum of two candles is required to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles, many have the custom of lighting one candle for every member of their household. We light candles eighteen minutes before sundown on Friday afternoon so that we can both add to Shabbat and also to ensure that we do not inadvertently transgress Shabbat by lighting a flame on Shabbat itself, as lighting a fire is prohibited on Shabbat.
Generally speaking, one says a bracha (blessing) and then performs the action associated with it—for example, before eating an apple, one says the appropriate bracha (Ha'Etz) and then eats the apple—but because it is forbidden to kindle a flame on Shabbat, the candles are lit first and as the person lighting says the bracha over the Shabbat candles, they cover their eyes so as to not gaze upon the flame. The bracha over Shabbat candles is: Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot or commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Shabbat light. Shabbat candles are most often lit on the table on which the family or household will enjoy their Shabbat dinner and are not to be moved.
After candle lighting, many will go to synagogue for Friday evening services. After services, a sumptuous Friday evening meal is enjoyed with friends or family. Because haknasat orchim or welcoming in of guests is a central value in Jewish life, it is not uncommon for guests to be invited to other people’s homes for Shabbat meals, either in advance or simply after synagogue, if it is learned that someone doesn’t have a place to go for a meal. We are commanded to enjoy three complete meals on Shabbat. The Friday evening meal begins by singing Shalom Aleichem, in which we welcome the angels of Shabbat into our home. It is traditional for men to sing Eishet Chayil (Woman of Valor) to their wives afterwards. This song is adapted from the thirty-first chapter of the Book of Proverbs. If children are present, the parents will next bless them. After this comes the recitation of Kiddush over a cup of kosher wine or grape juice. Shabbat lunch, which takes place after synagogue services on Saturday mornings, also begins with the recitation of Kiddush. One person makes Kiddush for all present at the meal. Customs vary as to whether one is to stand or sit while Kiddush is made. Many follow the custom of their family in this matter but if one does not have a family custom, one is free to make their own decision. Kiddush, which derives from the Hebrew word kadosh or holiness, is recited as a means of sanctifying Shabbat. The text of the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon Kiddush differs as well as that of Kiddush made on Jewish holidays. After Kiddush is made, everyone partakes of either kosher wine or grape juice. Most often, wine or grape juice will be distributed to everyone at the table before Kiddush so that people can partake immediately.
After Kiddush, it is customary to ritually wash one’s hands before eating challah, the special, braided bread that is an integral part of Shabbat and holiday meals. The rabbis derived the law of hand washing from Leviticus 15:11 and Psalms 26:6. In Hebrew, ritual hand washing is called Netilat Yadayim (lifting up or raising up of the hands). The water that one uses for this purpose must, according to Jewish Law or Halakhah be naturally-occurring, free of any other substance and not discolored. Simply running one’s hands under a faucet does not fulfill this mitzvah, for Jewish Law also requires that the water be poured over the hands using a specific vessel such as a cup. The rabbis derived this requirement from the fact that the Bible mentions Elisha pouring water over the hands of the Prophet Elijah (II Kings 3:11). Typically, Netilat Yadayim is performed by taking a cup and pouring water over one’s hands three times, beginning with the right and finishing with the left. The bracha to be made over hand washing is: Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us concerning hand washing.
HaMotzi and the Shabbat meal
Although this is not a universal custom amongst world Jewry, many refrain from speaking between the time that they wash their hands and the time at which bread is eaten. While waiting for others to wash, many will either sit silently or will sing a niggun, a wordless melody. Once everyone has washed, the blessing over the bread or HaMotzi is said by one person at the table. On Shabbat, one says this bracha over two whole loaves of bread, in commemoration of the double portion of Manna that G-d gave the Children of Israel on Fridays in the desert. The challot are covered either with a special challah cover or with an ordinary bread cover or napkin. After the cover is removed and the bracha has been made, the challot are either ripped or sliced and then passed around the table so that everyone can receive a piece. Once everyone has gotten some bread, the Shabbat meal can be enjoyed. Shabbat meals tend to be multicourse affairs, beginning with either a soup or salad course (and sometimes both), followed by a main course and dessert. Although it is traditional to have meat on Shabbat, this is not necessary. The reason eating meat is traditional is because on Shabbat, one should enjoy the finest food one can. When meat was seen as more of a luxury most couldn’t afford on an ordinary weekday, it was saved and savored on Shabbat as a means of honoring Shabbat. Today, many people still maintain the tradition of enjoying meat meals on Shabbat but many also opt for dairy or vegetarian meals. During the meal, it is traditional to talk about that Shabbat’s Torah portion and to sing zemirot, Shabbat table songs. Some of the more popular include Tzur Mishelow, Menuchah v’Simchah, Yom Zeh l’Yisrael and many others. These songs can be found in Benchers, booklets containing Shabbat blessings, songs and the Grace after the Meal or in most Siddurim (Jewish prayer books). The meal concludes with the recitation of the Birkat HaMazon—Grace after the Meal.