How to Host a Shabbat Dinner and Why You Should–Even if You Aren’t Celebrating

by Ariel Okin

Originally published online in Vogue, March 9, 2017. Republished with the author’s permission.

IMG_4400About halfway through each week, I implore anyone and everyone to “come over for Shabbat.” My requests are often met with blank stares or responses of “but I’m not Jewish?” from friends and coworkers.

While I am Jewish, I’m not Orthodox or extremely observant—yet the rituals of this Friday night tradition have become so much more than a religious experience to me. What’s better than winding down the week at home filled with your favorite people and the scent of a chicken roasting in the oven?

But it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian, agnostic, atheist. Shabbat—the concept of spending quality time with friends and family while taking a break from scrolling on Instagram—is for everyone. It is an ancient antidote to our modern ailments.

Rabbi Benjamin Spratt, Associate Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom and Rabbi-in-Residence at Rodeph Sholom School, says Shabbat is essentially an act of mindfulness. “Many of the practices associated with Shabbat help us be more present and aware for the blessings in our lives. The custom is that the tone of the conversation should be different; it’s a time where we focus only on gratitude. Many people look back on their weeks and highlight those good moments—even something as small as acknowledging the food or the drink we put in our mouths.”What makes a Shabbat dinner different from all other dinners? Having meaningful, connecting conversations that are different from

What makes a Shabbat dinner different from all other dinners? Having meaningful, connecting conversations that are different from the every day.“

There’s audacity these days in expressing gratitude—cultivating gratitude in our lives takes courage and effort. We often don’t willingly move ourselves to deeper conversation, and that’s why it’s helpful to have a dinner that’s supposed to be different from other dinners,” Rabbi Spratt says.

Man Repeller founder and author Leandra Medine says observing Shabbat has always been an integral part of her life. It’s a ritual that she shares with her followers and has become a particularly wonderful way to unwind.

“That Friday evening subway ride [uptown to her parents’ or in-laws’ apartment] is actually the highlight of my weekend—I don’t use my phone on Shabbat (even though I do turn on lights and use other forms of electricity), so this ride has sort of become emblematic of the beginning of my weekly technology cleanse. Once we’re seated at the table, we speak briefly and superficially about our weeks and then get to the guts of whatever is on our minds,” Medine says.

“I actually don’t think you have to be Jewish to install this sort of boundary in your week; you just have to stick to it and set expectations so people know when they can and can’t reach you. It really nourishes the soul to step away from social media for a little bit. Kind of the way choosing a book over a movie does—hard at first, but you’re always better for it.”

Below, five ways to incorporate acts of mindfulness and gratitude into your Friday night meal.

Disconnect
One of the hallmarks of Shabbat is disconnecting from technology for 24 hours, from sundown on Friday evening to just after sunset on Saturday. While some don’t stop using electricity completely, shutting off cell phones and taking a break from Netflix is the bread and butter of a successful Shabbat dinner, bringing back the lost art of conversation and encouraging guests to be fully present. Sound familiar? This month’s National Day of Unplugging was inspired by this same concept.

Take a Pause
Allow yourself to create some space between the hectic flow of the work week and the beginning of the weekend. Pausing to acknowledge that one phase of the week has ended and another is beginning is a nice way to usher in the evening.

Embrace a Moment of Gratitude
Studies show that people who write down or speak about what they’re grateful for tend to have lower stress levels and are overall more likely to feel happier than those who don’t. Even Hillary Clinton relies on this strategy for keeping her grounded in hard times. With so much negativity in the world, it’s important to celebrate those moments of light. Plus, it’s a wonderful conversation starter at a dinner party.

Set a Beautiful Table
In Judaism, Shabbat is referred to as a “queen,” whose regal presence graces every Jewish home for the duration of the day. To welcome the spirit of the evening properly, it’s customary to set a beautiful table, complete with candles, flowers, and even a proper tablecloth.

Savor a Delicious Meal
Whether you cook or order in (no judgment!), the actual meal is central to the Shabbat experience. In American households, a roast chicken with potatoes and carrots is usually the star of the show, but at a modern Shabbat table, there are no rules. Play around with different recipes or themes: Who says you can’t have a falafel or taco night?

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