Five years ago my husband and I completely ignored Shabbat for the last time. Eager to arrive at our friend’s 30th birthday party, we kissed our (then) 3-year-old son and baby girl goodnight, gave the sitter cash for pizza, and made for the door. By then we were hosting traditional Shabbat dinners most weeks. I liked the idea of a weekly ritual that brought our family together, but I didn’t want to feel shackled to it either.
As we walked away our son yelled after us, “But what about my Shabbos dinner?”
I panicked. How had this happened? I never attended Shabbat dinners growing up, never went to a Jewish camp, and I certainly never went to youth group functions where I might have celebrated Shabbat with peers. How had I produced a child who counted on this ritual every single week?
I avoided my husband’s smug (I imagined) expression as we drove to the party. He’d been arguing for a while that Shabbat dinners would give our family a much-needed break from the regular activities of the week. I hated to admit it, but the truth was that our semi-Shabbat observance had already taken on a life of its own. I actually liked the way my week would organize itself around Friday nights. Who was coming? What would I make? And I saw that we were giving our kids a deep connection to a tradition that had nothing to do with attending synagogue, which was not exactly one of my favorite activities.
Despite the parts of our Friday nights that appealed to me, I always pushed back when my husband thought we should decline any particular invitation on the grounds of Shabbat. Since we were not “religious,” I didn’t feel right claiming Shabbat as our “thing.”
I broached the subject in the car that night.
“So let’s say we do this from now on,” I said. “What am I supposed to say to our friends? We’ll run the dishwasher, use the lights, and drive to your house for Shabbat dinner, but we won’t attend your kid’s birthday at Bouncy World?”
My husband insisted we were entitled to carve out time for our family without worrying whether other people would understand or approve. I kept returning to my same old argument. “But we’re not Orthodox.”
To that he replied, “So what?” He made his usual case. No, we wouldn’t be following the exact halakhic rules of keeping the light in the refrigerator off until sundown and so on, but there was still value in setting aside Friday nights (and Saturdays, which we added the next year) for enhanced family time. We didn’t have to be Orthodox to recognize the wisdom of a day of rest. What was another t-ball game, he asked. What was another afternoon at Chuck E. Cheese?
Thinking of our son begging for his kugel, I agreed to try. Five years later (not to mention two more kids), I’ve come to appreciate the serenity of keeping things simple on Shabbat. Saturday afternoon is definitely the only day, for example, when I sit down with the kids to play board games. I’m certain many parents find the time to do this without Shabbat, and I applaud every one of them. Personally, I find it impossible on the regular days of the week with school or camp, piano lessons, soccer games, dinner meetings, and other obligations to find enough hours in a row for that kind of hyper-focus on all four kids. If for some bizarre reason I miss the frenetic dividing and conquering that makes up the typical weekend in many households, I always have Sundays to get my fill.
So sure, Shabbat at our house doesn’t acknowledge all the technicalities of the most observant Jews out there. Nevertheless, for one night and one day each week when we step off the treadmill of our plugged-in, over-scheduled life, I feel pretty good about this gift we’ve given our kids. Yes, we’ve taken away the occasional bowling party, but I have no doubt that what we’ve given them in return is impossible to measure. Unless, of course, you measure in pounds of challah, roast chicken, and kugel.