You’re going to your first Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner. Perhaps you are worried: 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 as the evening progresses. 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.” I cannot over-stress this: be on time!
3. DON’T WORRY ABOUT HEBREW. The dinner may begin with candle lighting and blessings over wine and bread. If you are not Jewish, you do not have to participate, just listen quietly and observe. If you feel awkward just listening, you have the option of saying “Amen,” (ah-MAYN) at the end of prayers.
Don’t worry that you do not speak Hebrew. No one expects you to know it at your first Shabbat dinner! There may or may not be Hebrew prayers or songs in Hebrew. As for singing, if you don’t know the words, or don’t sing much, that’s OK. Enjoy the singing and don’t stress over it.
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 keep the tone friendly! Off color jokes and off color language are completely out of place at the Shabbat dinner table. When in doubt, save it for another time.
5. SAY THANK YOU. Write your host afterward and thank them for including you. Email is common these days, but if you would like to make the best possible impression, a written note is best. When you host your own Shabbat dinner (or a similar event from your own tradition) return the invitation!