It’s come to my attention that there are two national campaigns in progress to draw attention to Shabbat this week. The National Jewish Outreach Program has declared this coming Friday night and Saturday the 15th annual Shabbat Across America. And Reboot is spearheading its second National Day of Unplugging from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday.
When I first heard about Shabbat Across America a few years ago, I must admit, I was a bit confused. After all, Shabbat happens every week. It’s not something I normally think of as an annual event. And it happens all over the world, not just America. So what’s so special about this Shabbat that it’s been declared a national holiday? What are the different ways it can be marked? And which of those will work for families with very young children or parents expecting their first?
But like the project of building a physical sanctuary, a sacred space, carving out sacred time takes a lot of work; ideally work that is shared among a family or community. So how do we carve out that time in our lives? How do we draw the boundaries to protect it? How do we enrich that sacred time with meaningful moments and powerful experiences?
1. Prepare – Space becomes sacred because of the experiences that happen there, because it is set aside for a particular purpose. Time becomes sacred because of what we do or do not use it for. In order to make Shabbat special, we need to prepare. First we need to get done anything that we do not want to have to pay attention to during Shabbat. Wrap up projects that are calling to be done, come to a stopping point in your work, answer important emails, so that you don’t have to think about them. Preparation can also help us appreciate the different nature of the day, to facilitate the experiences we want to have. Maybe this means straightening up or cleaning the house, dressing in special clothes, buying or gathering flowers, or doing a pre-Shabbat art project with the kids.
2. Stop rushing – Parents’ lives can feel very busy. It can seem like we’re always running late, rushing kids to get moving, needing to change a diaper when we’re about to walk out the door. People who are not yet parents are busy too with work, school, or other commitments. However you structure Shabbat for your family, when it starts, give yourself permission to just be, to do what you need to do, to experience time without the need to control it. So what if dinner is a little bit later than expected? Maybe bed-time happens a little bit later. It’s okay. Traditionally, Shabbat begins with candle lighting. This can be a ritual of release from rushing. The family can gather to light candles, say the blessing, then take a deep breath, breathe in the calm, the permission to take time as it comes, and wish each other a Shabbat Shalom, a peaceful Shabbat, while appreciating the glow of the candle light.
3. Eat a special dinner together as a family – Plan a special family meal on Friday night. What makes it special is up to you. Maybe you will prepare foods you particularly like, or maybe you’ll give yourself a break and order in. Maybe the table will be set differently in honor of the occasion, or maybe you’ll ban smartphones from the meal. Maybe you’ll introduce a ritual to check in and reflect on the week with your family. Or maybe you’ll make the meal special by eating with friends, or extended family. My three-year-old, Zalmen, asks every week, “Will we have guests?” “Will we be guests?” Who will be the guests?” Actually, we’ve had melt-downs over the occasional lack of guests, but the point is sharing Shabbat with others can feel really special for us and for children.
4. Bless the challah, the wine, and your children – The Friday night meal traditionally starts with blessings over wine and challah. Taking the time to appreciate the food we have to eat is one way of being present in the moment. Challah and grape juice feel like special treats for children as they grow and notice the weekly pattern. The ritual around eating these special foods enhances the special experience.
And while we’re appreciating the blessings in our lives, there are blessings for our children as well. Many Jews today feel uncomfortable giving a blessing, and even more uncomfortable if they have to make it up. The traditional blessing for girls begins “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” the four matriarchs, each with her own particular strengths and her own role in molding the Jewish people. For boys the blessing begins “May God make you like Efraim and Menashe,” Joseph’s sons, the first example in the Torah of brothers who get along with each other. The blessing for sons and daughters continues with the blessing the priests in the Temple used to give all the Jewish people, “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s presence shine on you and be gracious to you. May God turn towards you and bring you peace.” This blessing expresses a hope that our children be enthusiastic members of the Jewish people, that they be blessed with safety, ease,confidence, and peace. It’s a good blessing.
Some parents add their own particular blessing as well. It’s an opportunity to think about what it is that you wish most for your child, what you would give them if you could give them anything. If you are expecting a child, or if you have a new baby, it’s a good time to start thinking about what you would want to bless them with. Maybe you’ll make it explicit with a personal blessing you offer them each Friday night. Or maybe you’ll develop your own understanding of what the traditional blessing means to you. We have many opportunities, as our children grow, to bless them, with our words and with our actions. And if we start when they’re very young, there’s a chance they will internalize blessing we give them each Friday night and treasure it as they grow into whoever they will be.
5. Sing – Shabbat is a day to enjoy, to have fun. No matter what you think of your own voice, children love music and babies love hearing their parents sing. And the reaction your baby gives you when you sing for him or her can melt your heart and lift your spirit. So make time to sing on Shabbat, after dinner at the table, during the bed time routine or anytime during the day. You can choose traditional Shabbat songs or set aside some of the songs you particularly love as special for Shabbat. Why not start singing your baby Shabbat songs while you’re pregnant? You may find that your baby is born loving Shabbat!
6. Give yourself permission to be in the moment – We’ve become a society of expert multi-taskers. Take some time to uni-task. Focus on your family, your partner, your children, yourself. Plan to do something together, or let the day take its own course, but whatever you do, give it all of your attention. You’ll enjoy the day more and your children will appreciate your full presence.
7. Find a way to relax – Giving your children all your attention can take a lot of energy. Take turns with your partner napping. Take a relaxing bath. Do some family yoga. Put your kids in a stroller or carrier and go for a walk. Make it a priority to have some time in your day where you feel refreshed, and renewed, so that when you leave your sanctuary in time and return to your everyday routine, you feel ready to bring a taste of this way of being into your week. It feels natural during pregnancy to set aside time to take care of yourself. It can be hard to remember to maintain the routine once the baby is born, but it’s worth the effort to help you appreciate your time, yourself and your family.