Beyond Thanksgiving: Gratitude at the Shabbat Table

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November 16, 2022

5 min read

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How to practice gratitude as a family.

I always dreaded the moment at the Thanksgiving table when, amidst the turkey and stuffing, someone would proclaim, with great enthusiasm, “Let’s go around the table and share something we’re thankful for!”

The things people said were so predictable and uninspiring you can script them yourself without breaking a sweat. “I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for my health. I’m grateful for the pumpkin pie (ha ha).”

To enjoy a meal with one’s family is absolutely gratitude-worthy. To do it in good health is massively gratitude-worthy. But to declare one’s gratitude for one enormous blessing, once a year, falls woefully short of how a Jew should behave.

The Jewish people are referred to in Hebrew as Yehudim, derived from the verb l’hodot, which means to thank. In a fundamental way, to be a Jew means to be grateful.

My own Jewish gratitude practice began some years ago when, at night, just before nodding off, I would thank God for 10 things I appreciated from that day. Thank You God that I found a parking spot downtown. Thank You God that I had time to finish reading the novel I was enjoying. Thank You God that my sister called today.

A few years ago, I published a Jewish gratitude journal called 100 Days of Thanking Hashem: Build our Spiritual Capacity for Gratitude, One Day At A Time. The journal guides users to notice and record the daily blessings, small and large, that God showers upon us at every moment.

This focus on gratitude carries over to our weekly Shabbat table. Every Friday night, my husband and I have a custom of reviewing the week that just ended and sharing something we're grateful for with others at the table. We do this with family, friends, Jewish and non-Jewish guests, adults, children - anyone who joins us for a Shabbat meal.

Somewhere between blessing the challah and serving the chicken soup, we ask everyone around the table to think about their week and share something that happened to them since last Shabbat for which they are grateful. “Extra points if there is a story associated with the gratitude,” we say.

When our youngest daughter got engaged recently, I knew that was going to be my gratitude that Shabbat. When sharing the story of her engagement, I focused on how miraculous it was that the couple even met, given that they were born and grew up 6,000 miles apart. Only God could have brought them together.

Some guests are initially paralyzed by the question, unaccustomed as they are to thinking about the many blessings they receive in any given week.

Others jump right in and tell a story of something heartwarming or life-affirming that happened to them. Something they were worried about that didn’t come to fruition. Something they were searching for that they finally located. A connection made with a stranger. And, because we live in Israel, not infrequently, a moment of holiness they were privileged to witness in the week that just passed.

We especially love it when children share their gratitude stories (even if they require a bit of prompting from their parents). The 14 year-old daughter of friends recently told us how she had just been accepted into a very competitive high school program and the entire table burst into proud applause.

The chemistry at some Shabbat meals is better than others and some guests are more open to sharing personally. When that happens, I’m prepared with a series of other questions that expand our thinking about gratitude. Name something that God has withheld from you for which you’re grateful. What’s something you’re grateful for that you used to have but don’t have anymore? What can you be thankful for that you want but don’t currently have?

Sometimes my husband and I feel a little like our forefather Abraham, encouraging our Shabbat guests to thank God, just as Abraham himself did after he served his guests a meal and they wanted to thank him. “Don’t thank me,” he would tell them. “Thank God who is the ultimate Provider!”

Only once, among the hundreds of guests that have expressed gratitude to God at our Shabbat table, did someone, a stranger with a reticent personality, outright refuse to participate. Sometimes a guest will pass until others have shared. Having heard a few examples, they will get the hang of it, pipe up and say, “I have something!”

One of my favorite aspects of this gratitude custom exhibits itself with returning guests. They come prepared! We often hear comments like, “I thought about this all week. Knowing we were going to share a Shabbat meal with you again this week, I found myself looking for a gratitude to share.”

Thank You God for Shabbat guests who sit around our table and share something wonderful that happened to them during the week that just ended. It’s always a highlight of our week!

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