The dinner table has an amazing ability to keep the family grounded, connected and centered around what matters most.
Sadly, for many families, the effort of gathering for a family meal on an ordinary day is just too much. Parents have to work late. Kids have soccer practice or band practice or dance practice. In the frantic effort to juggle schedules and make sure nobody goes hungry, it’s often easier to feed the kids fast food in the car, or to have everyone grab something out of the freezer on their way through the kitchen.
Though we know there’s something wrong with this state of affairs, we don’t always realize how serious the problem is. Turns out that family meals aren’t just about food; they’re about nourishment of all kinds. That includes physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual nourishment. Just ask the Jewish families.
For centuries they’ve been gathering around what is known as the Shabbat meal—to rest, celebrate and strengthen family ties. One can argue that regular Shabbat dinners is what helped the Jews preserve their identity during the many years of exile. In a sense, it was their survival mechanism. In a time when they didn’t have a temple or synagogue, or strong leaders, they had each other and their faith, and the Sabbath table is where their connection to God, each other and the faith of their fathers was renewed and reinforced.
I wonder what the rediscovery of this ancient practice of rest, renewal, celebration and remembrance will mean for today’s families. There’s plenty of evidence that points to the unparalleled power of families gathering around the dinner table to share a hearty meal and a heartfelt conversation.
For example, when the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse studied ways to keep kids from destructive behaviors, family dinners were more important than church attendance, more important even than grades at school. The Center has repeated that study several times since then, and every year, eating supper together regularly as a family tops the list of variables that are within our control.
AS YOU CAN SEE, THERE’S A LOT MORE TO FAMILY DINNERS THAN MEETS THE EYE.
Perhaps adding a Shabbat meal at least once a quarter or even once a month will make a big difference for you and your children as you gather around the table to enjoy each other’s company, reflect on all that God has done and provided for you, and give thanks for the blessings in your lives.
Since the task of adding a new ritual into your family’s culture and routine will most likely seem daunting in the beginning, here’s an easy to follow guide*, the first step that will hopefully set you on a life-changing journey.
We’ve been celebrating Shabbat as a family each Friday for the past nine years. We love it, and couldn’t imagine our week without it. If you’ve not come across Shabbat, it’s a Jewish ritual, a Friday night meal with prayers and blessings. Our two children, aged 4 and 5, join in with the songs, the actions and some of the Bible verses we say. We’ve shared it with lots of different people, Christian and otherwise, and we’ve adapted it as we’ve gone along to keep it accessible and relevant to everyone present.
Whenever I mention that we do Shabbat on a Friday, everyone always asks: “Why do you celebrate Shabbat? Are your family Jewish?” Now, while my granddad is Jewish, although not a practicing Jew, I first experienced Shabbat at the home of a family that kind of adopted me when I was a student. We first started celebrating Shabbat as a way of starting a day of rest as a family together. Nine years and two children later, we find it’s a good way to have a moment in time together as a family with God—a great ritual for developing faith at home.
The easiest way to explain what we do is to share our own mini-service along with some ideas of the principles we’ve found and how you might apply these ideas in your own family rituals. The words in italics are instructions and explanations, everything else is said out loud.
This meal marks the beginning of a time of rest as a family together. We stop and rest from our work, just like God rested from His work of creation. We celebrate the freedom God has given us, just as He brought freedom to the Israelites when He set them free from being slaves in Egypt.
Stating our intention is a great way to remember why we’re doing a ritual. It also helps visitors know what we’re doing. Sometimes I give or even send visitors a copy of our service sheet so they can read in advance what they’re getting into! I love how this welcome calls us to actively live in the rest and freedom which God gives us.
Light two candles and say:
I light the two Sabbath candles to remind us of the rest and freedom God gives us. As I light them, I welcome ‘Shalom Bayit’, peaceful harmony in our homes. We bless you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has given us Jesus, the light of the world. Thank You that whoever follows You will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life.
Waft the light three times towards yourself, representing more of Jesus’ light in your life. Then waft the light outwards three times, to represent spreading the light of Jesus into the lives of those around the table, your loved ones and the wider community. Say or sing this blessing together:
We bless you, Lord our God, king of the universe (x2),
Who has given us Jesus, light of the world.
We bless You, Lord our God, king of the universe. Hey!
Say this traditional Hebrew Sabbath greeting, which means ‘peaceful Sabbath’: