A Shabbat guide for first time guests – what you can expect at a Shabbat dinner.
Shabbat (Hebrew שבת) is the word that describes the Jewish Sabbath. Here is our Shabbat guide with some tips as to what you can expect at the Shabbat, Friday evening main meal. Whether you are at a Shabbat dinner in Brazil, Perth, Rome or Tel Aviv most of the Shabbat customs are the same. The prayers are identical but Ashkenazi Jews (from Eastern European descent and Sephardi Jews – of Mediterranean and North African descent) may have slightly different customs.
Hooray! You’ve finally been invited to your first Shabbat dinner in Israel. How exciting, but as a foreigner, and perhaps without Jewish roots, you might be a little anxious. Our Shabbat guide and tips are designed to help you through what might be an awkward experience.
Jews use the greeting ‘Shabbat Shalom’ when wishing their loved ones a peaceful and restful Sabbath. Greet your hosts this way.
What to wear on Shabbat?
Shabbat is likened to a bride and a queen. When you are honoring and meeting the queen, you would wear your finest clothing. So it is for Shabbat – wear your finest clothes. Men mostly wear a white shirt and women will don a special outfit. If you are visiting a religious family, modest dress is expected. For more in-depth information, read our article on traditional Jewish clothing habits.
What do we do at a Shabbat dinner?
As we said earlier when you arrive at your hosts greet them with the traditional saying “Shabbat Shalom” – have a peaceful Shabbat. They will respond with the same greeting. In many English speaking, Ashkenazi homes, they might say “Good Shabbos” this is an anglicized version of the Yiddish express “A gutte Shabbos”. Jewish people have traditional greetings and expressions for different events and occasions.
The Shabbat table
As your hosts gesture you to the dining table, the first thing that you will notice are two lit candles (or maybe even more). It is customary for a Jewish woman to light at least 2 candles to welcome the Shabbat. In many homes, an extra candle is often lit to honor each one of the family’s children. The candles are blessed, prior to sunset, earlier in the evening during a special candle lighting ceremony.
On the table you will also see a Challah, a traditionally braided, sweet, white bread loaf. While all the traditional Sabbath blessings are being said, the Challah will be covered with a decorative cloth. Once the blessings are complete, your host will break sections of the challah, dipped in salt and distribute them to the guests.
On the table, you will also notice, a bottle of wine. Not the Beaujolais or Shiraz you might have been hoping for, instead it is a sweet, almost syrupy, red wine. Grape juice is also popular. There is a blessing for the wine.
While abroad you might have heard someone say ‘Let’s have a glass of “Mannuschewitz’, They are referring to a glass of sweet, red, Shabbat wine made by this well known manufacturer which is often drunk by those who do not have a head for heavy alcohol.
Shabbat dinner etiquette & prayers
Before the Shabbat dinner is served, the man of the house will lead the group in singing some Sabbath welcoming songs; Shalom Aleichem (English: Peace be onto you) is one and Eshet Chayal (English: Woman of Valor) is another prayer which honors the woman of the house.
You will then be asked to stand (a tradition common in most homes) while the man of the house recites the Kiddush – the blessing over the wine..
After the blessing of the wine it is customary to wash ones hands – a small ceremony where water is poured from a jug and poured one hand over the other. A blessing for “Nitilat Yadayim” – washing the hands – is said by each person.
From this point it is forbidden to talk for a few minutes. After you have returned to the the table the master if the house will bless the bread and recite a blessing (Hebrew: bracha) called ‘Hamotzi’. He will then break the bread, sprinkle it with salt and pass it around. It is polite to partake of the bread and thereby be blessed for abundance for the upcoming week. Once you have eaten the bread you may resume talking.
Shabbat dinner menu
Shabbat is a celebration and the Friday night meal is the most important meal of the week. It is a festive meal and families will enjoy their traditional and favorite foods.
Shabbat food rules
If the family you are visiting observe ‘Kashrut‘; the biblical law which prevents the eating of certain foods and the mixing of dairy and meat based products, you will not be served dairy foods and meat foods during the same meal. Fruit and vegetables are ‘neutral’ and can be eaten with dairy products or meat products.
At the end of the Sabbath meal, grace after meals will be recited.
The Jewish Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycle. Shabbat and all Jewish holidays and festivals are observed from sunset to sunset.
Shabbat candles must be lit before sunset. It is a desecration of the Shabbat to light candles after sunset. Shabbat candles are lit 18 minutes before sunset.
We hope you found this Shabbat guide useful.
Shabbat shalom!! Have a peaceful, blessed and restful Sabbath.