How to Have a Meaningful Shabbat Dinner
In addition to great food, wine and friends, the Shabbat meal has deep spiritual meaning as well.
The Sabbath meal is more than just good food and an opportunity for family bonding. It has specific practices associated with it as well. Here’s a short guide to the deeper significance of some of the elements of Shabbat dinner and other Jewish holiday meals.
The image of a woman lighting two candles to usher in the Sabbath is iconic in Jewish thought. Shabbat candles signify two key aspects of the day: they symbolize both honoring and enjoying the Sabbath – and are a potent visual reminder that for 24 hours each week, Jews live on a different plane, enjoying the spiritual side of life on Shabbat.
While many women light two candles, other women have the custom of lighting more. One common tradition is to light one candle for each member of the household. Some women prefer to light oil lamps. Shabbat lights are kindled at dusk, just before the start of Shabbat, and ideally they should last until the end of Shabbat dinner. After lighting the candles, Jewish women cover their eyes and recite the following blessing, bringing Shabbat into their home:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who Has Commanded us to kindle the Shabbat lights.
A White Tablecloth and Your Best Dishes
Shabbat is often called “the Shabbat Queen” and is compared to royalty. Just as we’d clean our houses and set a beautiful table if real-life royalty was planning to stop by, it’s customary to prepare for Shabbat as for exalted guests. Even if it’s just you and your kids sitting around the Shabbat table, there’s something lovely and magical about sitting down to a beautifully-set table and eating a meal that’s more formal than you’re used to. Shabbat meals have a very different feel than week-day meals and give us a chance to interact with one another in a different setting and on a deeper level.
Covering the Challah
Two loaves of challah (or any bread) adorn the table at Shabbat dinner and lunch, as a nod to what most people know as “Manna from Heaven,” which is talked about in the book of Exodus. In that story, the Jews in the desert received a double portion on Fridays, but none on the Sabbath, and the two loaves of challah are a reference to that.
Another symbol on the Sabbath table is an allusion to the service that took place in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (the Western Wall is the last remaining part of that building), which is the salt the challah is dipped into. Salt was an integral part of the service because it is a preserver, symbolizing the elevation of the physical meal into a spiritual realm, giving it eternal meaning.
The special Kiddush prayer we say over wine or grape juice on Shabbat is in order to: “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy.” By reciting the special Kiddush blessing over wine, we’re declaring that Shabbat is special to us.
[Click here for the Friday night Kiddush, traditionally said over a full cup of wine or grape juice.]
Fish has a special place in Shabbat menus. The Torah instructs us to rejoice on Shabbat: one way of doing this is to eat tasty foods – and in ancient times, fish was considered a major delicacy. That’s still true today, when many Jews make an effort to eat a fish course at Shabbat dinner.
One iconic Jewish fish recipe is gefilte fish. The name comes from Yiddish and it means “filled fish”: originally, ground and spiced fish was stuffed back in the fish skin before it was cooked. Not only is this a tasty way of serving fish, it also means there are no fish bones to separate out of the fish while it’s being eaten. Many supermarkets’ kosher food aisles contain frozen gefilte fish mixture, which can be baked or boiled – meaning that delicious gefilte fish is easy and quick to make, and can once again be a delicious part of Friday night dinner.
Inviting guests to share Shabbat dinner and other meals with us enhances the occasion and also fulfills the key Jewish precept of inviting guests. When we fill our home with guests, we’re emulating our ancestors, the biblical personalities, Abraham and Sarah, who were noted for their hospitality. In fact, the Torah explains they lived in a tent with openings on all four sides so that they could better see travelers from a distance and invite them into their homes.
We follow their example and invite guests into our homes as well. Whether we host a full house or just one or two special friends, sharing our Shabbat meals with guests is a way to enhance the moment and make our Shabbat meals extra special.
The Hebrew poet known as Ahad HaAm once said “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” The beauty, meaning and traditions of Shabbat have sustained us for millennia. A key part of that is Shabbat dinner and its many rituals, which continue to shape us today.