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Shabbat & Good Health

February 25, 2014 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

According to latest research, Shabbat improves mental, physical and emotional health.

One day a week, I do everything right. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve drawn from some recent scientific studies.

A weekly celebration of Shabbat – with its special meals, traditional foods, and break from the weekly grind – seems ideally positioned to improve mental, physical and emotional health, at least according to some of the latest research.

The results of a 16-year study at Columbia University on the effects on children of family meals were clear: researchers “consistently found that the more often children have dinners with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children.” Parents who sit down to meals with their kids are more likely to know their kids’ teachers’ names, be familiar with their children’s friends, and keep up with what’s going on in their kids’ lives.

The benefits to eating together might be even greater for spouses. Researchers at the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project found that setting aside time to have dinner together - even just once a week - strengthens the bonds between husbands and wives, and helps them get to know each other, as well. Shabbat, with its weekly meals and regular reminder to take the time to enjoy each other’s company, is a great place to put these recommendations into effect.

Here are some suggestions to start incorporating Shabbat family meals in your own weekly schedule.

  1. One of the main benefits of dining as a family is the chance it gives us to focus on each other. Try turning off distractions like TV, phones and computers during the meal. Let everyone know that for a certain period of time, while they’re sitting at the table, they have your undivided attention.

  2. Special touches like using nice china, serving home-cooked foods, or getting dressed up subtly signal that there is something distinctive about these meals. Fostering a slightly more formal atmosphere can encourage people to linger at the table, talking and enjoying the meal instead of rushing off the moment they’re finished.

  3. Rituals can also help make Shabbat meals seem more familiar. Traditions like making Kiddush over wine or grape juice and blessing Challah can help kids (and adults) feel the meal is about more than just the food. Having regular family traditions on this day can also help family members feel they “own” Shabbat, that it’s theirs to enjoy and feel comfortable with.

Break from Technology

Many of us feel that we’re too connected to our phones, computers, and the like. In fact, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that American children spend basically all their waking hours – outside of school – using an electronic device.

A recent study spells out some of the benefits to taking a break from all this electronic stimulation. Harvard Business School Professor Leslie A. Perlow had a team of busy, high-powered consultants take turns turning off their phones for the night, once a week. While she faced huge opposition to the experiment at first, she soon found that the participants soon reported greater happiness, satisfaction with their work-life balance, and feelings of empowerment.

Shabbat can try to give us a space to replicate this experience ourselves. Here are a few suggestions to try breaking the tether of electronic devices once a week.

  1. Go outside. Shabbat is a wonderful day to connect with nature. The origin of Shabbat is that God created the world in six days, and then rested on the seventh. Try using your Shabbat to appreciate the beauty of the world around us: taking a walk outside can help get us out of our usual screen-focused habits.

  2. Try focusing on your inner self. Shabbat is traditionally a time to concentrate on our spiritual side. Whether it’s through going to synagogue, praying on your own, reading a Jewish book or article, or another special activity, spend some time this Shabbat thinking about the bigger picture.

  3. Enjoy the chance to talk with people face to face. Make a conscious effort to have a “real” conversation, without distractions or interruptions.

“Mediterranean” Foods

A bold new study also points to some benefits in traditional Shabbat observance, or at least many of the traditional foods enjoyed on it. Spanish researchers found that patients significantly reduced their chances of heart attacks and strokes by following a “Mediterranean” diet rich in beans, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and wine: precisely the types of foods that make up many traditional Shabbat dishes. Click here to learn more about the Mediterranean Diet and for some great recipes as well.

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