Someone has invited you to your first Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner. Maybe you are “meeting the family” for the first time. Or maybe it’s just a friendly dinner. But you are not sure about the religious aspect: what’s expected? Here are five suggestions to help you be a great Shabbat dinner guest:
1. ASK QUESTIONS: Every family has their own customs about Shabbat dinner. Some are very formal, some equally informal. Asking a few questions ahead of time is essential:
What should I wear? Dress will differ from household to household, so ask. You don’t want to be the only one at the table in blue jeans, or in pearls, for that matter!
May I bring anything? The answer to that may be “Yes, bring —-” or it may be “just yourself!” If you are asked to bring something, be sure and ask if they would like it to be kosher, or if there are any restrictions you should know about: allergies, etc. Better to ask than to show up with something lethal, right? And even if the answer is “just yourself” it is nice to show up with flowers. Not required, but nice.
Finally, it is fine to ask questions about the prayers, the food, or the objects you see. Some things (a kiddush cup, for example, or a recipe) may come with family stories.
2. BE ON TIME. Your hosts may be juggling the hour of sundown, service times at their synagogue, hungry toddlers or other variables. Shabbat dinner is not a time to be “fashionably late.”
3. DON’T WORRY ABOUT HEBREW. There may or may not be Hebrew prayers or songs in Hebrew. If you feel awkward just listening, you have the option of saying “Amen,” at the end of prayers. As for singing, if you don’t know the words, you can tap your feet, or clap your hands, or just listen appreciatively. The dinner may begin with candlelighting and blessings over wine and bread. If you are not Jewish, you do not have to participate, just listen quietly and observe. Don’t worry that you do not speak Hebrew; many American Jews do not. It is a wonderful thing to learn Hebrew, but no one expects you to know it at your first Shabbat dinner!
4. COMMUNICATE! Shabbat dinner is not just about food. It is also about taking time to enjoy one another’s company. Treat each person at the table as if you expect to learn something important from them. Contribute to the conversation when you have something to say. In many Jewish households, friendly dispute is welcome at the table, but do keep the tone friendly! Off color jokes and off color language are out of place at the Shabbat dinner table.
5. SAY THANK YOU. Write your host afterward and thank them for including you. When you host your own Shabbat dinner (or a similar event from your own tradition) return the invitation!