How To Be a Good Shabbat Guest.
A guide to making your visit more pleasurable for you and your hosts.
Every family loves having sleep-over Shabbat guests.
But there is a reality you should be aware of: Families with children can entail a lot of juggling. Between laundry, Shabbat cooking, taking kids to the doctor… by the time Shabbat rolls around, everyone (especially the parents!) is looking forward to a bit of a break.
That's where you, the Shabbat guest, come in. How can you be a good guest, while making your visit even more pleasurable? Try following these basic guidelines:
1) Beforehand: Be sure to inform your hosts ahead of time of any dietary requirements -- allergies, vegetarianism, etc. Most hosts would prefer going to the extra effort to prepare what you will eat, rather than have you sit there and go hungry in their home!
2) What to Bring: Bring a gift. The safest thing is flowers, or wine if you're familiar with your hosts standards of kashrut. You could also bring something to help keep the kids entertained -- a ball or card game. Just make sure it is something the kids can play with on Shabbat (i.e. it's not muktzah), and also be sensitive that it's in the spirit of a Torah home (i.e. no Ninja Mutant Turtle toys).
3) When to Arrive: Do not arrive three minutes before candle-lighting. One of your host's many Shabbat preparations is to make sure their guests are settled in and taken care of with sheets, towels, etc. If you arrive at the last minute, you're adding to the rush and tension. But don't come too early, either -- parents and children may be taking a nap, or washing the floor. The best time to arrive is 45-60 minutes before candle-lighting. This gives you enough time to get settled, and you can use the spare minutes to offer to help -- setting the table, holding a baby, playing with the kids, etc.
4) At the Table: The Mishne Brura says it's a mitzvah to invite students for Shabbat because they add Divrei Torah to the Shabbat table. So don't disappoint: Have one or two Divrei Torah prepared. Don't worry -- it doesn't have to be a genius innovation. Just share something you learned about the parsha, or a personal experience that you found inspiring. And don't wait to be asked; you can simply chime in.
A corollary to this is: Don't talk about sports, movies, or politics (unless your host brings it up). Many families try to keep their Shabbat conversation to words of Torah. Be sensitive to the atmosphere!
5) Help around the house: Though it may seem like everything in the house is under control, families (particularly with small children) need all the help they can get. In other words, don't sit back the entire meal while your host does everything. After the meal, help clear the dishes. (Be careful to first ask on which countertop they belong, as not to mix milk and meat.) Also, avoid throwaway phrases like, "Do you need help"; people will politely say, "No, thanks," when in fact they do need the help.
6) Davening: Whether you are aware of it or not, the children of the house look at adults -- you included -- as a "role model." It is discouraging for the hosts, and not the best example for the kids, when you go late to davening… or skip it altogether. You may want to bring your own personal siddur, since the family (or shul) may not have the kind you're used to.
7) After Shabbat: Havdalah is not your signal to race home. Havdalah means that your hosts have to give baths, prepare school lunches, wash the floor, and, you guessed it: wash piles and piles of dishes. Volunteering 20 minutes to wash dishes makes a big difference and shows your appreciation. And offer to take the sheets off your bed and put them in the laundry bin.
8) Follow-up: Saying "thank you" as you head out the door is nice. But much nicer is to articulate your appreciation for the accommodations, delicious food, and even how adorable the children are! And the next time you see your host, be sure to again express how much you enjoyed Shabbat. Want to be a really big tzaddik? Take one minute to call (or email) and say thank you.