Ask any Jewish person, Shabbos-observant or not, what a Friday night looks like. They will tell you – Mummy lights candles, Daddy might go to shul, there’s a white tablecloth on the table, challah, wine, chicken soup. The family gathers around the table – often several generations, maybe also with friends – the details don’t matter: the general outline is the same.
But what about people for whom Shabbos is not that picture-perfect storybook image? Single parent families are an obvious example – maybe it’s Daddy lighting the candles, or Mummy making Kiddush. Maybe there are no children. Or what about if Daddy and/or Mummy only rush home from work just in time to jump in the shower and struggle to make a delicious meal and a special atmosphere?
Even stay at home mothers are often stressed and frustrated by the time they light candles – too much food to prepare in too short a time, un-co-operative children, unappreciative husband…the possibilities are endless.
So how is this a taste of the world to come? And how can we make sure that, regardless of personal or family circumstances, everyone can share in this experience?
Every family’s Shabbos is different and every Shabbos within a family is different. A summer Shabbos is different from a winter one – the times of the beginning and end of Shabbos have a tremendous impact on the structure and mood of the day. A Shabbos after a busy week or a Shabbos on holiday don’t feel the same. The guests, the menu, the choice of conversation around the Shabbos table all have an impact on the Shabbos. When someone asks on Sunday, “So how was your Shabbos?” I’d be surprised if anyone ever says “It was horrible!” but the answer can range from a non-descript “Good, thanks” to “Wonderful, amazing, we had a really good time!” I’ve even heard friends who had spent a Shabbos with relatives in hospital say, “Actually, it was a really nice Shabbos.”
What is it that makes the difference, sets the atmosphere and enables us to appreciate Shabbos as a foretaste of the world to come?
For many people, it’s the opportunity to spend time with family and friends. Without the distraction of phones and computers, conversation flows. Whether it’s a catch-up on everyone’s week, current affairs, a look at the weekly parshah or a combination of all three, just sitting and actually engaging in face to face conversation, which many of us fail to do during the week, is very special. Shabbos is the time to make sure that no-one is sitting at home by themselves, feeling forgotten. Invite the single parents, older people, childless couples – not because they are a ‘chesed project’ but because they are interesting, real people, who will enhance your Shabbos table just as much as you enhance their week.
Delicious food always helps! The quantity of halachah which is devoted to the preparation of food on Shabbos and how to keep it warm, together with the frequent references to food and drink in the zemiros show that this is not just a modern concern. Shabbos is structured around the three special meals, each of which have their own character, traditional dishes and zemiros. The scene at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye, having worked hard all week to barely make a living, sits like a king at his Shabbos table, is no exaggeration. The concept expressed by Ahad Haam that “More than the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews,” is not just a clever aphorism. Shabbos has always provided an oasis of warmth and light, both physical and spiritual, for Jewish families, whatever their circumstances.
People are sometimes surprised at the emphasis on the physical side of Shabbos – delicious food, elegantly laid table, special clothes, family time. But by taking these physical gifts and using them to honour Shabbos – a treat, a special item of clothing, the best china – we are showing our appreciation of what we have been blessed with, and elevating them to the spiritual dimension. As the Abie Rotenberg song says, “Gonna spend the day together with the Holy One”. Whether we go to shul, engage in Torah learning, sing a zemer or enjoy creation in the form of a walk in the park, by doing it on Shabbos, we are “spending the day with the Holy One.” And that, I think is the key to what makes Shabbos special, and why it doesn’t matter whether a family looks conventional or not, if they eat chicken soup or lentil soup for Friday night or even if they use a white tablecloth! If your Shabbos activities are within both the bounds of halachah and the spirit of Shabbos, then by spending the day with God, “Man and his Creator” – that’s a real taste of the world to come.