July 16, 2024
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There are several schools of thought concerning the family Shabbat table. One position is that this is primarily a learning occasion. Children and guests are expected to discuss the weekly parsha and offer insights and novel commentaries. Table talk is primarily about Torah topics. This works well in situations where the entire family doesn’t eat dinner together daily or have time to catch up on what’s happening in school during the week. It also cuts down on loshon hara. A second approach includes Torah discussions, and allows the family to catch up with one another in a less structured, informal manner. A third approach, observed particularly when guests join the family table, may include a d’var Torah or even some z’mirot, but much of the discussion concerns shul or national politics.

My primary concern here is the children’s takeaway. If children experience Torah and parsha discussions at their family table they will be more inclined to have them at their tables when they are married. The same goes for z’mirot. If all they hear are recaps of the past week on CNBC, Fox or The Jerusalem Post or the latest shul gossip, there is concern on several levels. The sanctity of Shabbat is not enhanced by these discussions, but more critically, how equipped are children to absorb the content and leitmotifs of any local, national or international political debate? Granted some children will simply leave the table when they are finished eating, especially the younger ones. However, older children certainly hear and absorb their parents’ positions as well as those who may (sometimes vehemently) disagree.

Open discourse on any topic is to be encouraged. Children should be encouraged to participate in these discussions. Ideally families should eat dinner together during the week. That way more intimate conversations can take place within the family and perhaps nuanced positions can be clarified without the presence of friends and other Shabbat guests. However, we understand the realities faced by working parents. “Ah, but man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” (Robert Browning)

When it comes to the weekly parsha or an upcoming holiday our children are generally prepared to share and participate. If the table discussion veers off to current events in Israel, the country, the community or the world, do we really feel it is appropriate for children to hear passionate arguments about subjects they may know little about? How are they to understand that not everyone is happy about the results of the Israeli election? How can they deal with the fact that our president generates much angst, both pro and con? How should they react when people show disrespect to elected officials? How can they possibly understand the current rhetoric on a wide range of issues? Do we as adults take the time to discuss contemporary issues with our children? Do we present both sides of volatile issues or only our own perspective?

This goes back to a topic we’ve discussed before. How much time is spent in our day schools discussing current events? We do not live in a hermetically sealed biosphere. Our children have access to various media outlets and contemporary affairs will filter down to them. Do our children know how government works? Are they taught civics? Is the average day school student in middle school or high school able to discuss the different political parties in Israel or the U.S.? The Lookjed educational forum for Jewish educators from all over the world has had a number of serious discussions about how we teach about Israel. Do schools only depict a monolithic portrait reflecting a school’s or a teacher’s point of view, or is there a more open discussion, warts and all, of the various issues affecting Israel internally and in the world? The same can be said about national politics.

We ask a lot from our schools and our teachers. However, as parents we too have an obligation to talk to our children. It’s hard enough to navigate childhood. If Torah is the centerpiece of the Shabbat table, then there is less of a challenge. But the truth is that kids hear things and we have a responsibility to make sure at home and at school that they are prepared to deal with the harsh reality we call living in the world. Children will often parrot what they hear at home. We must be cognizant that unfiltered opinions, whether offered by parents or guests, will at some point be repeated. A wise teacher once told a parent that if she would not believe everything her child told her about school, he would not believe everything the child says about home.

I was visiting Rav Dovid Lifshitz, zt”l, in his apartment during the Six Day War. The newspaper was spread across his kitchen table with pictures of maps and accounts of Israel’s rapid progress as well as casualty reports. Normally when I visited him there were only seforim on his table. He told me that there is an imperative (based on Deut. 32:7) to know and to understand what is going on in the world, especially as it concerns the Jewish people. Wise words indeed.

By Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene


Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator, administrator and consultant.

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