How to Survive Your First Shabbat Dinner
So you’ve been invited to your first Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) dinner and you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. First of all, don’t worry! This article will explain everything you need to know, and any additional questions will likely be welcomed by your hosts. Shabbat dinner is both a religious and cultural occasion, so if it's your first time, you may want a little background information before you attend.
If you’ve been invited to Shabbat dinner on Friday night and aren’t exactly sure what Shabbat is, this article provides a quick and easy elucidation.
When Should I Arrive?
If your host hasn’t specified a time, ask them what time they want you to get there. If you are expected before Shabbat comes in, ask to be included in the candle lighting! It's always special, especially the first time you experience it.
Tip: Shabbat dinner isn’t one of those occasions when it’s good to be fashionably late.
What Should I Wear?
This is a difficult question to answer because it really depends on the family that you are visiting. If you know that they are religious, dress in smart, modest clothes. If the family is non-religious, anything goes. I would wear something casual and smart because you can’t go wrong with that. Just remember that whatever you wear you should be comfortable. You will be eating a lot!
What Is an Appropriate Host/Hostess Gift?
If your hosts are religious, they are not allowed to accept a gift that has been carried to their home after Shabbat has come in, so if you do plan to bring a gift, be sure to arrive before the candles are lit. I always like to ask my hosts what I can bring, and if they say "nothing," I usually bring something anyway!
If you know that you’ll be there before Shabbat comes in, flowers make a lovely gift. Keep in mind, however, that religious people musn't handle cut flowers on Shabbat, so keep that in mind. If you are planning on bringing food or wine, don’t bring anything homemade and do make sure that what you bring is kosher.
Other nice hostess gift ideas include books and tchotchkes (Yiddish for a trinket, bauble, or small novelty item).
Is There Anything Else I Should Know?
If your hosts are religious, don’t bring your telephone with you unless you really have to. Even then, keep it in your bag on silent. If you see a pen and a piece of paper lying about, resist the urge to scribble or write a note, because writing (or handling tools) is not permitted on Shabbat. Keep your money and car keys stashed in your bag. While you are not required to "keep Shabbat" like your hosts, you will be in their home during Shabbat, and it shows respect if you keep to these rules while you're there.
What Should I Expect?
As I mentioned, Shabbat is different in every household. The more religious the family, the longer the prayers will take. If this is your first Shabbat dinner, you'll most likely find the Hebrew songs and prayers strange, but don't be shy to ask your hosts what everything means—afterward. They might even explain to you as they go along. During the prayers and blessings, you should refrain from talking. Of course, you’re welcome to add an "Amen" with the rest of the family.
Many families start the meal off with Shabbat songs and the “Shalom Aleichem” hymn to welcome the angels who visit the home during Shabbat. They may then go on to recite the Shabbat blessings over the wine and the challah bread.
Just a heads-up—before reciting the blessing for the bread, the diners (although in some less religious homes it’s only the person who reads the blessing and whoever else wants to) performs a ritual handwash followed by a blessing, and from that time until the blessing of the challah bread is made, they do not talk.
Once the blessings are over, the fun begins. This part of the evening is just like any other large dinner you might be used to (think of it as a weekly, Thanksgiving-sized meal)—there will be food, drinks, laughter, and pleasant conversation.
At the end of the meal, religious families usually read grace. They might even have an English booklet for you to read, too.
Have you ever participated in a Shabbat meal? If you haven’t, I hope you found this informative. I’d love to hear about your Shabbat experiences in the comments!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Carol Morris