Gatherings from The Kitchn

A Guide for the First-Time Shabbat Guest

Image Credit: Alexis Buryk

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.

Image Credit: Alexis Buryk

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!

Image Credit: Alexis Buryk
Image Credit: Alexis Buryk
  • 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.

Image Credit: Alexis Buryk

Some Helpful Shabbat Terms

Image Credit: Alexis Buryk

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.

Photographed by: Alexis Buryk
Follow Alexis on Twitter & Instagram