A Guide for the First-Time Shabbat Guest
Making guests feel comfortable is my primary goal at any dinner party I host. On Shabbat, that can be a little tricky. On top of the typical considerations — things like food allergies and guest compatibility — there is just a lot of stuff that happens during Shabbat dinner that can be confusing to people who have not experienced it before.
Of course, every Shabbat dinner is a little different. Some folks are very traditional and follow all the rules; others, not so much. Meanwhile, each family develops its own customs and special touches. If you are heading to your first Shabbat dinner, don't be afraid to ask questions about what is going on! Your hosts will be thrilled to fill you in. But if you want a little leg up before you go, check out this pocket guide for a crash course in Shabbat dinner 101.
What Is Shabbat Dinner?
Shabbat arrives every Friday at sunset and continues through the following day until the sun sets completely. It commemorates the seventh day of Biblical creation, when the Torah says God stopped to rest and appreciate his creation.
Traditionally, Jews mirror this divine day of rest by abstaining from cooking, driving, spending money, checking their Instagram feeds, and engaging in the 39 types of broadly defined "creative work" identified in the Torah. Instead, they spend time together, sing, learn, reflect, and eat celebratory meals — the first of which is Shabbat dinner!
What to Expect at Shabbat Dinner
The Friday night meal is the heart of the Shabbat celebration, and lots of hosts go out of their way to create a meal that feels distinct and special from the rest of the week. Most likely the candles, which are typically lit and blessed right at sunset when the holiday begins, will already be burning brightly. But some families begin their dinner by lighting candles and saying the blessing together.
Before the dinner begins, your hosts might invite people to join in a few songs and blessings over the wine and challah — a preamble that sets the festive mood. Depending on how religious your hosts are, this could last anywhere from five to 15 minutes. In more observant homes, people ritually wash their hands just before blessing and eating the challah. As a guest, you will be invited to do this too, but are not obligated, of course!
- Tip: People tend to refrain from speaking after hand-washing until the blessing is said and the challah is passed around the table. So if someone just nods and half-smiles but doesn't answer when you ask, "So, what do you do?" right after they wash their hands, don't take it personally!
During dinner, the mood will be like any other dinner party: lots of talking, laughing, passing around food, and contented pats of the belly. Some families take a break from eating between the main meal and dessert to sing. As the evening winds down, dinner might just end like any other. But many families will pass out small booklets called benschers that hold the text to Birkat Hamazon — a grace said after the meal is over — and sing that together as well.
Some Helpful Shabbat Terms
- Shabbat/Shabbos: These terms mean the same thing (the Sabbath), and are used interchangeably. The first is the Hebrew pronunciation, and the latter is Yiddish.
- Kipah: This is the traditional head covering, also called a yarmulke, worn by men, and in some households, women. Less observant Jews don't wear them at all, but your hosts might ask that you wear one during the meal. Don't worry about trying to find one to bring with you, though — they will almost certainly have a drawer of extras you can choose from.
- Shalom Aleichem: This is a song typically sung just before the blessings over wine and challah are said. It welcomes the "angels" of Shabbat to the table. It has a lovely tune, and sets a beautiful tone for the meal.
- Kiddush: This is the blessing said over the wine.
- Motzi: This is the blessing said over the challah (ceremonial braided bread).
- Bensching/Birkat Hamazon: It is a Jewish custom to bless food both before eating it, when you are hungry, and after, when you are satisfied. This blessing of thanks is said after the meal is over.
What to Bring (and What Not to Bring!)
In most cases, unless the host specifically asks you to bring something, you do not need to arrive with anything aside from a good appetite, curiosity, and conversation. But for those of us who don't like to show up empty-handed, here are a few pointers.
- DO bring wine or chocolate. An extra bottle of wine goes a long way, and nothing says thanks for having me! like chocolate. In either case, find out in advance if your hosts keep kosher. If they do, make sure to look for a kosher certification symbol on any food or drink you bring.
- DON'T bring home-cooked food. For non-kosher keepers, home-cooked food might be a completely welcome addition, but be sure to clear whatever you are bringing with your host in advance to make sure it goes with what they are serving. If your kitchen is not kosher, it is best to avoid bringing cooked food into a kosher home. Your hosts will certainly appreciate the gesture, but might not be able to serve the food on their dishes. It is awkward for you and potentially embarrassing for them — better to just avoid the whole scenario!
- DO bring a house gift. A pretty set of dish towels or hand soaps, or a delicious scented candle are all lovely.
- DON'T bring flowers. Fresh flowers are usually a go-to house gift, but on Shabbat, religiously observant people cannot put the flowers in water. (It violates one of the 39 categories of prohibited work on Shabbat.) If you do bring flowers, make sure to bring them in a vase that already has water in it, or bring a potted plant.
- DO bring your singing voice. Singing is central to many Shabbat dinners, and every singer is welcome. (Yes, even the tone-deaf ones!) Don't worry if you don't know the words — many of the songs sung on Shabbat are wordless melodies you'll pick up quickly.
- DON'T bring your cell phone. Texting or taking a call is rude during any dinner party, but using cell phones is prohibited during Shabbat. So leave your phone at home, or stashed discreetly in your purse. I promise you can live without Instagram for two hours — you might even enjoy the opportunity to go analogue for an evening! If you absolutely have to make a call, excuse yourself to the bathroom or backyard.