Potluck Shabbat!

Image: An assortment of foods in colorful bowls. (Photo: fotosunny/Shutterstock)

I’m so excited! I love inviting my students to a potluck Shabbat evening, and I’ve sent out invitations for later this month.

I thought I’d share my “to-do” list here, in case any readers are interested in inviting friends for a potluck Shabbat. Hospitality is a mitzvah, remember – this is something you can do that will enrich your life, enrich your Shabbat, and build your community.

If you are thinking, “Oh no, my house is cluttered!” I will share with you that I am a haphazard housekeeper and practically a Queen of Clutter. I have decided not to let that stop me. If some room needs to be off limits, I shut the door.  If they see that I’m cluttery, well, that will let them feel better about their own housekeeping!

  1. Decide who to invite. If you are anxious about entertaining, keep it small. If you are comfortable feeding numbers, go for it. Either way, decide if you are also inviting significant others and children. If your house isn’t baby-proofed, you should warn parents about that.
  2. Choose a way to send invitations, and how you’ll keep track of numbers. I used Eventbrite, since I was inviting 36 people plus possible family folks. You might choose an online invitation service like Evite, or just do it via email or paper invitations. Or phone calls (for that retro feeling.)
  3. Plan your menu. I generally make a vegan main dish (black beans and brown rice  this month) and have challah, wine, and grape juice. I invite guests to bring a vegetarian side dish, salad, or dessert. I personally do not like to try to track what everyone is bringing, so we get what we get. I usually have a box of cookies ready if no one brings dessert. If you are not a cook, cheese pizza makes a nice main dish.
  4. Make your grocery list. Be sure to add to it paper napkins and plastic silverware and cups if you will need them. Also butter and/or honey for the challah.
  5. Check your kiddush cup or other ritual objects well ahead of time. Can you find them? Do they need polishing or de-waxing? Have you got Shabbat candles and matches?
  6. Got pets? Decide what their situation will be during the evening. Also, warn guests who may be allergic that you’ve got them.
  7. Have extra serving utensils ready. It’s amazing how many people get here and then realize they didn’t bring forks to serve their salad.
  8. Decide where people will put the food when they arrive. I have them put it directly on the table. Some people then sit at the table, and if there are more than 12 people (the max I can seat at one table) then I make sure I have chairs for the rest. They’ll spread out in the living room and on the patio.
  9. Plan some place where people can put coats, etc. I usually have them put them on my bed.
  10. Make sure you have a bentcher or other text for the blessings. Don’t rely on memory unless you are really sure of it.

On Friday:

  1. Set the table.
  2. Have the food ready. Be sure to have wine, grape juice, and water on the table.
  3. Welcome your guests!

One other thing it’s good to decide ahead of time; do you want help with clean up? What specific jobs can people do to help you with it? That way, when someone offers, you’ll be ready with something for them to do. I usually put a pot of water on the counter for silverware, so it is not piled in with everything else in the sink.

The first time I did hosted Shabbat dinner for friends, it felt like a huge big deal. I was nervous about the house, the food, the everything. And then, as my disabilities became more of a challenge, I quit doing it for a while, until the idea of a potluck occurred to me. Now I look forward to these evenings, which let my students get to know one another in a way they can’t in the classroom.

Shabbat shalom uv’tei avon!  

(Peaceful Sabbath and bon appetit!)

 

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Shabbat: A Time to Check In

Image: Two children’s hands linked by their little fingers. One has chipped nail polish. (cherylholt/pixabay)

One of Judaism’s profoundest lessons is the importance of human relationship. Our Tanakh begins with the story of a lonely God, who arranges a world full of plants and animals and human beings. Then God realizes that “It is not good for the human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) and God creates an ezer, a companion to ease the human’s loneliness.  (Ezer shares a root with the verb la’azor, meaning “to help, assist, succor.”)

Adam and Eve ate together from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and they were expelled from the Garden together. One of their children murdered his brother, but their names were linked forever: Cain and Abel.

The stories in the Bible are stories about relationships: Noah and God, Abram and God, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Rachel and Leah were the siblings who didn’t kill each other, although I have wondered if it ever crossed their minds. Was Jacob ever in a genuine relationship with anyone, or did he stand by and play them off, one against the other, first his wives and then his children?

Not all relationships are love relationships. Nathan rebuked David. Ezra rebuked the remnant of Israel. Ruth loved her mother-in-law but it is less clear that Naomi loved her back. Bezalel and Oholiab were partner-builders in Exodus 31; I wish we knew more about them.

Martin Buber famously taught us that moments of genuine connection between human beings (“I/Thou relationships”) are a mirror of the relationship between the human being and God.  We human beings have a profound need for the Other, someone not ourselves.

It is tragic that we also have a profound fear of the Other. The person who is not me can be a friend or an enemy: an ezer or a Cain. The only way to find out is to take a risk, and to keep taking the risk of relationship. Those who will not take a risk, risk being alone.

This Shabbat, let us take stock of our relationships. How long has it been since my last I/Thou moment? How long since I took the risk of really listening to someone else?

Shabbat and Capital Punishment

Image: A Judge’s Gavel. (Public Domain)

Parashat Vayahkel-Pekudei begins with an alarming statement:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day. – Exodus 35:1-3

After this bombshell, Moses continues to tell the Israelites the directions for building the Tabernacle without saying anything more about Shabbat or capital crimes. What?!

Commenters including Sarna point out that this brief mention of the regulations of Shabbat echoes a longer passage about Shabbat in Exodus 31: 12-18. Both passages about the Sabbath stand paired with passages about the building of the Tabernacle.  The text is making two points here:

  1. Keeping Shabbat is very important, more important than any work, even such work as the building of a sanctuary for God.
  2. Jews have two holy sanctuaries: one in space and one in time. Our sanctuary in space was the Temple in Jerusalem. Our sanctuary in time is Shabbat. This juxtaposition in Torah is the source for the “cathedral in time” in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poetic The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. 

As for the death penalty:

We have an account in Torah of a man who was executed for violating the Sabbath. In his case:

Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. Then the Eternal said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death—as the Eternal had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:32-36

Notice that this is much later – in Numbers! – and yet “it had not been specified what should be done to him.” Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that they were waiting to see precisely what sort of death penalty was required, since there were four possibilities. Only when Moses consults with God do they learn that the punishment is stoning. Whatever is going on here, Moses and the Israelites gave this matter great seriousness, wanting direct confirmation from God before proceeding.

Many centuries later, the rabbis would write down their understanding of the rules they had received from God for capital punishment. They had strict requirements for it, without which the sentence could not be carried out:

  1. There must be 2 eye witnesses to the crime who were willing to testify.
  2. Those witnesses must be willing to participate in the execution.
  3. Those witnesses must have warned the accused before the crime that he was about to commit a capital crime.
  4. Valid witnesses must be adult Jewish males not related to the defendant or one another.
  5. The court had to consist of 23 learned rabbis.
  6. Each witness must be examined separately. If there were any discrepancies in their testimony, no matter how minor, the court must acquit.

And then in Sanhedrin 17a, we get yet another requirement:

Rav Kahana says: In a Sanhedrin where all the judges saw fit to convict the defendant in a case of capital law, they acquit him. The Gemara asks: What is the reasoning for this halakha? It is since it is learned as a tradition that suspension of the trial overnight is necessary in order to create a possibility of acquittal.

The rabbis seemed to feel that if the court was unanimous, then there was so much emotion running high that it was inappropriate to go forward with a conviction; best to sleep on it. The rabbis were worried that a unanimous court had something wrong with it – vengeance, perhaps?

At any rate, we learn from all of this that in our tradition, while the Written Torah appears to speak lightly of execution, in fact the Oral Torah – the larger context of tradition –  is extremely cautious about capital punishment, so cautious that it is hard to see how they ever managed to convict anyone of a capital crime.  (It is also worth noting that after the Romans took control of Judea in 63 BCE, the Sanhedrin no longer had the power to carry out such a verdict. The whole discussion was theoretical.)

At any rate, don’t panic at the beginning of Exodus 35. While the peshat [simple meaning of the verse appears to say that people should be executed for violating the Sabbath, our tradition does not advocate capital punishment.

That said, there are parts of the soul that come to life when we keep Shabbat, and that cannot survive without it:

More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. – Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, poet, philosopher, 1856-1927)

 

 

 

 

 

Opening the Gates to Shabbat

Image: Iron gates opening to a stone path. (Tama66/Pixabay)

If you have ever been to a Shabbat dinner, or to a Reform service, you will recognize the prayer Kiddush Leyl Shabbat (Kiddush for Shabbat Evening) by the tune, as in this YouTube video by Rabbi Justin Kerber:

Kiddush Leyl Shabbat is a blessing. It begins with the regular blessing over wine and then moves on to bless Shabbat specifically. I like to think of it as a “toast to Shabbat” that I make every Friday evening.

Recently our Introduction to Jewish Experience class did a text study on the words, because these ancient words can open doors for exploring the meaning of Shabbat. Here is an English translation, with a few notes in italics to spark your thoughts:

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Some people refer to this first blessing as the “short Kiddush.” No, actually it is the blessing over wine, and it is a blessing you can say over any glass of wine or juice from vine-grown fruit. Kiddush is specific to Shabbat, and includes the blessing for wine. So for that part of Kiddush, keep reading:

Praise to You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe
Who sanctified us with commandments, and favored us, 

Eternal is a name I substitute for the four-letter name of God that Jews do not pronounce. Other choices are HaShem (the Name) and Adonai (my Lord.) What name do you prefer to use for God? Why that one?
What does it mean to be “sanctified with commandments”?
How do commandments make us holy?

and with love and intent gave us the holy Sabbath,
as a reminder of the work of Creation.

see Genesis 2:1-3. God rested on the seventh day. Why did God rest? Does God need rest? 

As first among our holy days,

Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday

it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.

Shabbat not only recalls Creation, it recalls the Exodus as well.  What is the connection between Shabbat and freedom

You chose us and set us apart from the nations.

see Genesis 12:1-3  How does keeping Shabbat set us apart? How does it draw us closer?

In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.

What associations do you have for the words “in love and favor” and “inheritance”? What does this suggest to you about Shabbat?

Praise to You, Eternal, who sanctifies Shabbat.

What about this prayer intrigues you? Is there anything in it that disturbs you? What does it mean to you? What does Shabbat mean to you?

Shabbat table
Shabbat

Image: A loaf of challah, a pair of candlesticks, and a kiddush cup full of wine. (Shutterstock)

Shabbat, Shalem, and Shalom

Image: A sunset. (annca/Pixabay)

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world… – The Sabbath, p. 10, by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Heschel sets up a dichotomy: “the tyranny of things of space” versus “holiness in time.”  The former is a straightforward concept: we work during the week to fulfill our needs for survival: food, water, clothing for warmth, a place to rest, safety, etc. If we are fortunate, our labors move us up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to less basic needs, to things such as a sense of belonging and esteem: a place in the community, and a sense of worth. Maslow caps his pyramid with “self-actualization,” which he described as the human need to become the most that one can be. All of these things are centered on the self, and they are indeed good and necessary things. We cannot continue to live without meeting our most basic needs, and a life with only minimal survival needs met is a hard life.

However, a Jew seeks more, to be “attuned to holiness in time.” This means that on one day a week, we stop our constant striving and instead, we listen. Instead of making and doing, we pause and reflect. Holiness in time is not about survival. Rather it is the wellspring of shalem and shalom, wholeness and peace, two words from a single root.

We cannot acquire wholeness or peace. They are not commodities to be bought and sold, made or manufactured. Instead we discover them, and they discover us. In this case, “discover” is truly dis-cover, to un-cover, for once we find them, we know that wholeness and peace, shalem and shalom, were there all along.

This Shabbat, let us open our hearts to peace and wholeness. Allow for  the possibility that shalem and shalom already exist within us, only we have been too busy to perceive them. Once the busy-ness has ceased, once the yammer of news and entertainment have stopped, once our striving for food and shelter and diversion has paused, the truth of creation will open before us.

Shabbat Shalom: No Nagging, Please!

Image: The word “nagging” in black, with a red “NO” sign imposed upon it.

How do you begin to keep Shabbat, if you didn’t grow up with it?

Here’s how I began to keep Shabbat more than 25 years ago.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. It seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.’” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

This is an update of a post from several years ago.

What Does “Shabbat Shalom” Mean?

Image: A family celebrating Shabbat. (GoldenPixelsLLC/Shutterstock)

From the search strings used to get to this site recently: “Meaning of ‘Shabbat Shalom’?”

“Shabbat shalom” is a Hebrew greeting for the Jewish Sabbath. Its literal meaning is “Sabbath of Peace.” 

Shabbat [the Sabbath] officially begins at sundown Friday and continues to sundown Saturday. You will usually hear the greeting or read it online from Friday morning onwards through sundown Saturday.

Informally, the phrase means, “I wish you a nice Sabbath.”

It is pronounced shah-BAHT shah-LOAM.

You may also hear “Gut Shabbes,” which is the same wish in Yiddish. It is pronounced GOOT SHAH-bes.

The proper reply is to repeat the phrase in Hebrew or Yiddish. If you are not comfortable with that, a good second choice is “Thanks, you too!”