July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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There are moments in our lives that we wish could be bottled and sealed to be preserved for years and decades to come. All too often, these experiences are hard to “catch” as they are unplanned, spontaneous, spur of the moment and there is no mechanism in place to preserve them.

The Shabbat table, both leil Shabbat (Friday evening) and Shabbat day are weekly opportunities to create memories, family bonds and special experiences that can be preserved for many years to come.

The Vilna Gaon, R’ Eliyahu Kramer, known as the Gra, explains that there are two mitzvot associated with our observance of Shabbat and our attitude toward this special day. The terms oneg Shabbat and kevod Shabbat, the pleasure and honor of Shabbat, are well known to us. What, however, is the difference between them? The Gaon elucidates the distinction by distinguishing between Shabbat itself and Erev Shabbat—the day of Shabbat itself and the Eve, or the afternoon before, the onset of Shabbat.

The honor of Shabbat, kevod Shabbat, takes place before Shabbat, while oneg Shabbat,

the pleasure of Shabbat, occurs during Shabbat proper. Clearly, there are mitzvot that begin before Shabbat and extend into Shabbat itself—Shabbat candles; there are mitzvot unique to Shabbat itself—Kiddush, and there are mitzvot that are only before Shabbat—cooking, cleaning, etc.

This distinction, I believe, is helpful in our approach to the Shabbat table experience.

We must ask ourselves before Shabbat, what have we done to prepare for the Shabbat table? I am not only referring to shopping, food preparation, setting the table and the like; rather, I also believe there needs to be preparation on the part of the parent to have a plan or framework to the sequence of events that will unfold over the course of the meal.

The second aspect, the pleasure of Shabbat, is the meal itself, which, if planned properly, with the right parameters in place, will be an enjoyable one for all.

Below is a list of ideas I have culled from colleagues and personal and professional experiences. This list is by no means exhaustive and is just a “jumping off” point.

One important thing to bear in mind: Have fun by creating meaningful experiences for your children, extended family and guests. The opportunity presents itself each week; with proper planning and the right procedures in place, you will be able to create memories for you and your children to cherish for years to come.

Suggestions for the Shabbat Table

Erev Shabbat helpers: Involve the kids even before the meal by assigning them/letting them choose from a list a task. Allow kids to rotate; hang the chart up on Thursday night.

Encourage kids to use their own creativity: How to place napkins, different ways of putting out flatware, they choose the tablecloth, the type of grape juice.

Assign every child a different course to help; this becomes “their course.” They know everyone is counting on them to serve this part of the meal.

Allow each child to choose a favorite drink or food to be served. Again, rotate their area of choice. They will more likely become invested in the “meal” if they are a stakeholder in it.

Be prepared by reviewing the parsha before Shabbat: Ask your child for their dvar Torah or parsha book so that you can be familiar before their presentation of the material. Some children are also reticent to share independently; by your foreknowledge you may be able to reel them in to share, or at least ask them for information

Parsha materials should be on the table before the meal starts: This sets the tone for the meal and there is no last minute searching or “I forgot where I put it.” Children themselves should be responsible for it.

Set ground rules: One person talks at a time, questions are only to be answered by the person it is directed to.

Be transparent with your kids: Why are you making such a big deal about Shabbat table discussions?

Teach by example: You prepare a dvar Torah to share or prepare a story.

Classroom is for school: Shabbat table is a time to connect with your kids. The discussion should not be perceived as a grilling session or an oral test. Ask questions in a casual way, rephrase them if necessary and use hand motions to help them with the answers.

Use other modalities: Have kids spontaneously act out scenes from the parsha, create a jingle or song, play a game of “I Spy” or “20 Questions” related to the parsha.

Zemirot: At least one at each meal (Shir HaMaalot does not count)—even if your family is not musical; again, allow children to choose on a rotating basis.

Flexibility: Allow children to go away from the table at certain intervals, with the knowledge that they need to be at the table for certain parts of the meal—not only the food (dessert) but the discussion time as well.

Only positive: Be judicious when giving out consequences related to Shabbat. We want our kids to associate Shabbat with only good. Taking away dessert or not allowing a child to stay up for Kiddush or Havdala as a consequence does not help make the positive connection we want our kids to have toward this day. Choose something else.

Focus: Adult should be at the table during discussion time (not serving/cleaning up) so that the child knows they are really listening and genuinely interested.

Know your audience: If you have another family over, grandparents or other guests, strike a balance; discuss with your kids before Shabbat a plan so that the table time still retains the character of a regular Shabbat but also meets the needs of who is there. Consider the needs of your children when inviting company over.

Take the show on the road: Even when you are on vacation or invited out, continue with as much of what you do at home as possible. This will create continuity, which children crave—structure and routine. More importantly, it will show the importance you give to the time spent at the Shabbat table.

By Rabbi Nachum Wachtel

 Rabbi Nachum Wachtel is the RYNJ Judaic Studies principal, lower school.


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