We know that Shabbat dinner is a mitzvah. But with all the hustle and bustle of young families from Sunday to Friday — from drudgery at work, to school hours for the kids, to after-school activities — it’s easy to think that the last thing we want to do at the end of a long week is to participate in another scheduled event. But I’m here to tell families, especially those with young children, that the practical and spiritual benefits of setting aside time for Shabbat dinner could be just the boost our households need.
By intentionally setting aside and sanctifying this time for family, we can bond with each other through joy and meaning, develop character traits in our children through critical engagement with Jewish history, and enrich their lives with memories they will treasure forever.
Here are some tips for young families to consider to enhance their Friday night dinner experience:
1. Tell stories.
Tell stories about your family history, tell stories about your own life, or maybe say something inspired by the weekly Torah reading. Tell fun stories and invite all family members to share their own stories.
Research by psychologist Marshall Duke, relayed by Bruce Feiler in “Secrets of Happy Families”, found that such storytelling helps children develop an “intergenerational self” and that a sense of rootedness in the family gives children the resilience to stay strong in tough times, because they know they are part of a bigger story. Marshall calls them bubbemeises, grandmother’s stories. “Whatever problem the child has,” he says in the book, “the grandmother has a story for him, even if it’s made up!”
In a culture where family dinners have become increasingly rare, Shabbat is a time to step back, take refuge from the deluge of the week, and reclaim the things that matter most to us.
2. Host guests, but not too often.
Like the Shabbat dinner itself, welcoming visitors is a Jewish value. Above all, kids may find it fun to have their friends – or maybe their grandparents – mark Shabbat as a special occasion. Likewise, you can entertain interesting new guests, and children can learn the importance of providing space for those who would benefit from being hosted that night.
In my experience, it’s important not to overdo it, though. Shabbat dinner should first and foremost be about family bonding, and we don’t want to sacrifice that by putting it all on the visitors. One possible model is to host guests about a quarter of the time. With less than that, we may not open our space enough to others. But with so much more, we may not be preserving our space enough to keep it dedicated to the family unit. In our house, sometimes we will host other consecutive weeks, and other times we will spend several weeks without hosting at all. Each family can feel the needs and rhythm of their own home.
We all inevitably experience instability in life, but we know that we can come back to this peaceful and comforting base every week.
3. Look at rituals.
Friday night can be filled with special practices: lighting candles, singing songs, blessing the children, and having kiddush, to name a few. Each of them has real depth and meaning, and the more we learn about them, the richer our experience with them can be. These rituals can be anchor points in a family’s week. We all inevitably experience instability in life, but we know that we can come back to this peaceful and comforting base every week.
For those of us who didn’t grow up with these practices, it can seem daunting at first. But there’s no better decision than to start where you are. If you don’t know how to do them, you should learn, because they aren’t too difficult. You can familiarize yourself with each of them in just a few hours with countless online resources. A better way might be to join another family in your community for Shabbat and learn from them.
Today, most American Jewish children do not frequently attend a synagogue, attend Jewish summer camp, attend Jewish school, or attend a youth group. Whether your children do these things or not, Shabbat can promote their growth and form memories for a lifetime. Even if your family’s life isn’t steeped in Jewish activities throughout the week, the children will have those Jewish memories to draw upon as they grow up.
Repeating the ritual is the anchor of Shabbat comfort, but we don’t want it to become stale and predictable. There is a concept in the Jewish tradition of chiddush, or novelty. We can always seek to bring something new to the experience. Maybe you can play a board game, like charades, phone calls, or whatever your family likes, or tell jokes that will bring the family together. Some participants might find meaning in a walk around the block in the middle of a meal or some other movement-oriented activity.
Shabbat should also be a time to vary from the mundaneness of the week. Maybe there’s a special treat that you don’t allow your kids to have all week, but they can have it on Friday night. At home, my youngest daughter loves salt and vinegar chips, and she knows Shabbat is the only day she has them. The meal, too, can be unique and separate from the rest of the week. Whether you do it yourself or order takeout, it should ideally be something everyone is passionate about.
5. Dreaming of a fairer world.
On Shabbat we live, for a little while, as if the world and all the chaos that surrounds us no longer needs our work — it is already perfected. Shabbat should be our Garden of Eden, our refuge from a stormy world. Rather than dwelling on our problems, we have the opportunity on Shabbat to taste a perfected world, inspiring optimism for a better future.
Once we have experienced this, we can come back recharged to work on the imperfect world after Shabbat.
With all the energy we put in during the week, the urge to crash on Friday night is very real. But with just a modest amount of planning and energy conservation, we can create a special moment that imbues us with lasting meaning and gives the whole family something to look forward to all week.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of the Beit Midrash Valley, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and President of Shamayim and the Founder and President of YATOM. The opinions expressed here represent the author and do not represent any organization with which he is affiliated.