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Creating a Shabbat Ritual

Thursday, November 7, 2013
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The Shabbat set-up at the Raphael house.

In 2007, my husband went on a business trip where he heard a speaker discuss what it meant to his family to keep the Sabbath. Inspired by the concept of using Shabbat to strengthen the family, he made a proposition:

"I think we should start keeping Shabbat."

Pause.

Oh, Lord no.

"Honey? What do you think? I want us to start keeping Shabbat."

Honestly, I was not as interested in keeping Shabbat as I was in keeping my sanity. I was working full time at CHOP and had a toddler and a baby at home. The idea of preparing an elaborate dinner on the regular or losing a weekend night that could potentially include grownups was too much for my fragile, sleep-starved brain. I saw Shabbat as an interruption in an already interrupted life. If I had to add one more task to my crowded week, I would surely end up inside the clothes dryer curled up like a cocktail shrimp.

At the same time, I didn't want to discourage my husband from wanting to turn up our Jewish volume, even though he was more interested in the family ritual aspects of Shabbat than the religious ones. So we talked about what The Raphael Family Shabbat should look like. Did we want an unplugged sundown-to-sundown Shabbat? A never-go-out-on-Friday-nights Shabbat? A try-this-for-two-weeks-and-give-up Shabbat?

We both felt that our Shabbat should be on the permissive side. We wouldn't use cell phones all evening, but could watch TV after dinner. And we decided that once our boys got older, they'd still have to be home for Friday night prayers and dinner, but we'd allow them to go out with friends afterwards.

For my husband, this was all uncharted territory. Friday night prayers had not been a part of his childhood, whereas it was a large part of mine. When my sister and I spent weekends at my Nana Pearl's house, we always lit the candles. My father was pretty vigilant about us being home for "Shabbos," even on prom night. Senior year, my date and I stood in the dining room as my dad went through his ritual, closing as he always did with the Mourner's Kaddish and a request to thank God for everything he had given us that week and everything he had taken away. Would I similarly mortify my sons when I palmed their heads and blessed them in front of their prom dates?

Probably. But just as my father had his Shabbos rituals, I wanted to create my own. Using my experiences as a base layer, I thought about how I wanted to dress up our Friday night. And, since I work in marketing, I thought of how I could pitch Shabbat to my kids so that they didn't think of it as a drag.

Marketing idea number one: The challah. I wasn't going to offer these kids ordinary bread. I wanted it to be like a dessert. It was clumsy at first – I was teaching myself how to make challah and trying to figure out how to create a Shabbat-worthy dinner in 30 minutes (thank you, America's Test Kitchen). 

Two: Actual dessert. Since my husband and I don't serve dessert during the week, Friday night is guaranteed dessert. And, more importantly, we don't hold said dessert hostage in exchange for vegetable intake. You get dessert whether you clean your plate or eat one bite.

Three: Television. Monday to Friday afternoon, there is no TV or any other screen. Friday after school, the kids are allowed to watch a few shows that they have been jonesing for all week. This allows me to cook with complete focus, since Shabbat dinner can never be cereal or take-out or reheated take-out or macaroni and cheese from a box. My standby is a whole chicken roasted like my Nana Pearl used to do, with herbs, butter and a big fat pierced lemon inside.

Our actual dinner is probably not that different from so many others. I set the table with our wedding china and ready the Shabbat items: Challah covered on the challah board, wine poured in the Kiddush fountain, candles snug in my Nana's candlesticks, matches at the ready in my decorated matchbox case from Israel. 

We begin with a few deep Shabbat Breaths. We bless the candles, then the children. That's my favorite part (not theirs) because I love the idea of asking God to make my boys like Ephraim and Menashe, who were the first brothers in the Torah to live without sibling rivalry. Instead of murder, trickery or selling one another to slavery, Ephriam and Menashe were buds who got their kicks on good deeds, which is why Jacob blessed them first, before any of his own sons. 

I keep waiting for this blessing to work. Sometimes my boys fight during the blessing. 

Then we say Kiddush and Motzi. And we all sit down together to eat. Everyone is home. No karate. No music lessons. No sports. No late nights at the office. Phones go in the glass "Phone Bowl" (also known as "Phone Jail") near the front door.  

As our Shabbat has evolved, I've learned that it's not an interruption in any way. It's the opposite, actually. Shabbat is cohesion. It sews our week together. 

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