Not Jewish? What We All Can Learn from Shabbat

Shabbat in Hebrew or the Sabbath in English is the seventh day of the Jewish week and a day of rest in Judaism. Shabbat is observed from sunset on Friday night until Saturday night. It is a festive day free of labors of everyday life and is a time to contemplate the spiritual aspects of life and spend time with family.

Many activities are prohibited on Shabbat according to halakha (Jewish law). They are mostly activities that are creative or that exercise control over one's environment. Activities such as planting, plowing, laundering, writing, or building.

Meredith Jacobs is author of The Modern Jewish Mom's Guide to Shabbat: Connect and Celebrate, Bring Your Family Together with the Friday Night Meal. Meredith wrote the book after realizing this tradition that she and her family are "supposed" to do just makes sense.


Meredith has a number of friends who aren't Jewish who have read her book and use many of the ideas for their family dinners. She is not Orthodox, but writes from the perspective that Jewish traditions serve as wonderful parenting tools.

Karla: What are some of the special meals and rituals that are done in the home during Shabbat? 
Meredith: The Friday night meal is my favorite. Primarily because we've made the commitment to all be home and around the dinner table together. Although I eat most dinners during the week with my children, rarely is my husband home from work in time to join us and many of those meals are rushed because of school work or after school activities. Friday night we linger.

I begin Friday morning (or Friday afternoon, depending on my schedule) by baking homemade challah. Challah is a traditional braided loaf. On Fridays, we are supposed to serve two loaves to represent the double portion of manna that fell in the desert during the time of Moses (it was a double portion because the Hebrews were forbidden from working on the Sabbath and had to gather manna for two days.) I top mine either with honey or my "everything" challah recipe - onion, garlic, poppy seed, sesame seed, salt - like an "everything" bagel. I could easily buy challah from a grocery store, but there is something really great about making it. It connects me with generations of Jewish women who have made the bread. But even more importantly, the smell of the challah baking transforms my home - makes it feel special.

That's the key behind the Friday night meal. We make it "holy". A great rabbi once wrote that on Shabbat, we create a "sacred space in time" for our family. Holy or sacred can be defined as "not ordinary" and that's what I try to do with my family's dinners Friday night - I elevate them.

We begin the meal by lighting two white candles, the Shabbat candles. Much like the lighting of the Olympic torch signals the beginning of the games, lighting of these candles signals the beginning of the Sabbath. The mother recites a special blessing over the candles, welcoming Shabbat. Then the parents bless the children. This is my favorite blessing and one that other families can easily incorporate into a designated meal. In Hebrew, we pray that our daughters be like Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah (the Jewish Matriarchs, who were known not only for their beauty, but for their wisdom and strength) and we pray that our sons be like Ephraim and Menasheh (the sons of Joseph who are said to be the first brothers in the Bible who don’t fight with each other!) My husband and I use this time to add a special message to each child, something we noticed from the week, something we want to reinforce. It’s a moment each week that we let our children know that we love them and are proud of them (and then give them a specific reason.) My children are currently at sleep-away camp and I time a letter to reach them each Friday morning with their “shabbat blessing”.

Then the husband blesses the wife and we say a blessing “kiddush” over the wine and one over the challah and then we eat dinner.

During dinner, I try to make certain we have different conversations than we do during the rest of the week. Rather than talk about what we did at school or at work, we talk about current events or even use the weekly Torah reading to discuss topics ranging from belief in God, to drug and alcohol abuse, to Facebook (it’s amazing to follow where the discussions began and where they finish!)

The Friday night dinner is also a wonderful time to invite other families over to join you. Although I love to reserve Friday nights for my family, it’s an easy invitation to give and a great way to get to know new friends because a major part of the tradition is welcoming guests to the table.

Saturday morning includes going to synagogue. I love having this time with my community. The synagogue serves a light lunch after services and it’s a wonderful time to catch up with everyone. Honestly, we don’t go as often as we should, but whenever we do go, we love it.

Although we are not “shomer Shabbat” meaning we do not follow all of the restrictions that are put in place to “guard Shabbat” or protect it from disappearing, we try to spend Saturday together and try not to do things like answer emails or do work or even run to the mall or do errands. It’s easier said than done!

Saturday night is a beautiful ceremony called “Havdallah” where we say goodbye to Shabbat. It takes only ten minutes to do and involves saying prayers over candles, bags of spice and wine.

Karla: You have said many of your friends who aren't Jewish have read the book and have used some of the ideas for their own families. Would you mind sharing one of those ideas with us?
Meredith: I think other families can take the core messages of Shabbat and incorporate them into their families' routines. Set aside one day a week to focus on each other. Set aside one meal each week and sit around a table set with candles, wine, bread and a beautiful meal and simply talk to each other. Bless each other - how often are our conversations with our children messages of "Did you do your homework?" or "Hurry up, we're running late!" How often are conversations with our husbands simply downloads of the day? Set aside a time each week to tell every member of the family you love them (especially husband and wife.) We shouldn't assume they know. It's important to say, it's important to know, and it's important for our children to hear. 

In addition to being an author, Meredith is a parenting columnist for the Baltimore Jewish Times and a radio host of "Connecting Family" on WYPR-FM. She also wrote a book with her daughter that is a guided journal for mothers and daughters called Just Between Us: a no-stress, no-rules journal for girls and their moms.

You can find more information about Meredith and her books at

Cross-posted with Simple Living Family

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