The Orthodox community has been asking itself how we should respond to the devastating 2013 results of the Pew report on Jewish Life in America. A number of the respondents have suggested that Orthodox Jews take it upon themselves to be more proactive in inviting unaffiliated Jews for a Shabbos meal. This suggestion was made by Rabbi Steven Weil at the RCA convention in 2014 and by Rabbi JJ Schacter in Jewish Action magazine of summer 2014, amongst others.
But who do these Orthodox rabbis think they are? Don’t they realize that they’re not the only ones doing Shabbos? I know many unaffiliated Jews who light candles and make Kiddush on Friday night. Yes, they might turn on the TV after dinner, but at least they’re doing something! Why should a Shabbos invitation help our assimilation problem?
The Megillah states, “On the seventh day, when (Ahasuerus) the King’s heart was gladdened with wine (he asked that Vashti be brought before him).”
The Gemara asks, “Until now, was his heart not gladdened with wine?”
Rava explains: The seventh day refers to Shabbat. On that day, when Jews eat and drink, they begin with words of Torah and praise of the Almighty; whereas when idolaters eat and drink, they begin with licentious talk.
And so it was in the feast of that wicked man (Ahasuerus): there were those who were saying “Median women are the most beautiful” and others who were saying “Persian women are the most beautiful.”
Ahasuerus replied, “The utensil that I use is neither Median nor Persian, but Chaldean.”
While it’s true that many Jews have some sort of family dinner in honour of Shabbos, is it truly a Shabbos dinner? Rava teaches us what a Shabbos dinner should look like. “Words of Torah and praise of the Almighty” – that turns Friday night into Shabbos!
How does your Shabbat table sound? Is it a time to catch up on politics and current affairs or is it infused with spirituality? Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes that the Shabbos meal should be all about teaching Torah to your children. He says, ‘I don’t care if you have a dozen adult guests sitting around the table. They have to know what Shabbos is about. And they will be impressed and moved when they witness a true, holy Shabbos table.’
That’s certainly not an easy task for any of us. We feel compelled to talk about other things, to engage our guests in talks of business, world travels and hobbies. But even if you must, remember that it is only incidental to the primary subject matter of the Shabbos table, “words of Torah and praise of the Almighty.”
“Praise” means singing zemiros (Shabbos songs) – we have booklets dedicated to that exciting part of Shabbos! And, thank G-d, today we have no shortage of accessibility to “words of Torah” – there are numerous books in English on the parsha (Torah portion of the week), as well as countless divrei Torah (Torah talks) on the web that you can print off before Shabbos!
And of course, if it’s all about the kids, you need to make sure that your Torah is age-appropriate. One of our favourites at home is Torahific! by Rabbi Maimon Elbaz. Each week he asks questions about the parsha and then provides kid-friendly answers from our great commentators across the millennia. We also look forward to hearing the kids give over their own divrei Torah. When you first do it, it feels a little weird making the guests listen to your seven-year-old read off her parsha sheet for five minutes, but after a few times you realize how inspired they are watching this kid become passionate about Torah.
Shabbos is not just Friday night dinner! Make Shabbos Shabbos! You will be inspired! Your kids will be inspired! Your guests will be inspired! And Shabbos is what makes us special and holy!