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Home » Festivals » The Shabbat Table

The Shabbat Table

Written by Zev on July 26, 2009 – 10:27 pm -

A Shabbat table with a glass of wine, gold candlestick holders and challah in the background.

Honoring the Sabbath day, known as Shabbat in Hebrew, is considered the most important observance in Judaism.

The order to celebrate Shabbat originates in the ten commandments handed down to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The fourth commandment (Exodus 20: 8-11; Deuteronomy 5: 14-15), translated from Hebrew, reads “Remember [observe] the Sabbath day and keep it holy”.

For Jewish people, the celebration of Shabbat honors God for creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh day. Jews around the World celebrate the day of rest and relaxation in many ways, each according to how they interpret their religion.

Shabbat commences at sunset on Friday evening and ends on Saturday at Sunrise. The duration of Shabbat should be around 25 hours, and according to the Torah, Motzeh – the end of Shabbat – begins when there are three stars in the sky.

Much of the celebration around Shabbat involves dining. A lot of care and thought goes into planning and preparing not only the Shabbat meal but also the table that it will be served on.

Since Shabbat is the day of rest, preparations for begin for it towards the middle of the week, with the mother of the home usually involved in planning the menu, and if there will be a large number of guests for Shabbat, who will be preparing what to eat. Once that issue has been settled, the mother of the family will devote whatever time is needed to prepare the family home so that there is no need to cook or clean on Shabbat.

As the onset of Shabbat approaches, the mother of the family will light two candles which remain lit for the entire 25 hours of Shabbat. The Torah instructs that should any candle extinguish them for any reason, it cannot be relit. The reason for lighting candles on Shabbat is to create an atmosphere of “peace in the home” as the Torah scribes hoped that the extra lights would prevent the strife and contention of praying and eating in the dark could cause.

The role of lighting the Shabbat candles goes to the mother of the family. She will place them in a set of candlesticks, usually made from silver, and whilst lighting them will whisper a prayer for her family whilst waving her arms in a manner that is designed to beckon the Shabbat into her home.

In recent years, since the advent of electricity, electric lights are switched on before Shabbat and remain lit for the duration. The timer switch has made keeping the home lit less of a financial burden, with lights being switched on and off without the need to press a switch, which is forbidden under Jewish law during Shabbat. Despite all this progress, the tradition of having lit two candles at the Shabbat Table remains as strong as ever.

The Shabbat meal is undoubtedly the family gathering of the week. Because it is forbidden to travel on Shabbat, families tended to live in close proximity to one another as well as to their synagogue. This meant that families and friends could walk to each other houses as well as to and from the synagogue. Whether by accident or design, this fact meant that the Shabbat meal invariably signaled a fairly massive gathering of family members and friends, ready to sit down to pray, sing and enjoy a good meal together.

After returning from Synagogue the family positions themselves around the table, which is usually long and narrow. Before the meal can be served, Kiddush is recited, and wine sipped from a special Kiddush cup. At one time, the quality of wine served at the Shabbat table was very low level. However, in recent years, with the revival of interest in wine making in Israel, many fine kosher wines are now available, making the mitzvah if drinking wine at the Shabbat table a much more pleasant experience.

Another centerpiece of the table will be the traditional Challah bread served on Shabbat. The Challah bread, usually bedecked in a velvet or satin cover represents the manna that fell from heavens as the Jews wandered the deserts after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to Torah, Manna did not fall on Shabbat instead the Jews received a double portion on Fridays to tide them over. Challot can be readily recognized by their traditional braided style.

After the Shabbat meal has been served and enjoyed, the family will enjoy signing a series of traditional songs that celebrate the Shabbat. The hearty singing can continue for hours will signal the end of the evening. Family and friends who live nearby will set off for home, and guests who have come from out of walking distance will settle down to pass the night.

Shabbat morning begins with a visit to Synagogue for prayers followed by another Kiddush. Before lunch, weather permitting, families usually take a stroll around their neighborhood, stopping to chat with friends and acquaintances, before wending their way home for Lunch.

Although it is never mentioned in the Torah, Shabbat has become synonymous with serving Cholent for lunch. Cholent is believed to have originated from the Ashkenazi Jews. In order to fully observe the rules of Shabbat, over the centuries it became tradition to prepare a kind of stew that could be cooked in advance, and retain its taste for almost a whole day. The Cholent is cooked in a large metal pot which is brought to boil on Friday before Shabbat. It is then kept warm on special hotplate or electric stove until it can be served at lunchtime.

Whilst Shabbat was meant to be a day of rest, reflection and prayer, as is the case with most of the Jewish festivals, it has also developed to become a celebration of family togetherness and enjoying good food, good wine and good company.

Despite the fact, that traditions and laws have become less stringent and many Liberal Rabbis have proclaimed that it is possible to operate light switches on Shabbat, and even drive a car, the sanctity of the special day has remained untarnished.

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