For 32 years he has begged me. For 32 years he has encouraged me. For 32 years he has helped cook and clean, hoping that would do the trick. And for 32 years I have disappointed him.
My husband wanted to set the Shabbat table on Thursday night. He believed that, even if the rest of the house was a mess, setting the table would introduce the Shabbat atmosphere into our home. He would have done it himself, but I always made excuses.
“The kids might pull off the tablecloth with the dishes!”
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Or, “My silverware is waiting to be washed.”
And then there’s: “What good is a set table when a child-tornado is expected to touch down on Friday morning?”
The truth is, every Shabbat for the past 32 years has been a challenge for me. It took me years to get used to all the ins and outs of Orthodox Shabbat observance. Plus, the table was always full of homework, laundry and bills. And with seven children – and later, more than twice that many grandchildren – in a small Israeli apartment, you can probably understand my reluctance (or, as I like to call it, my balabusta-block) to set the Shabbat table any earlier than after candle lighting.
Then along came the lottery.
My daughter told me about this wonderful project started by a woman who recently lost her father. As a merit to his soul, she created the Shabbos Project: You send in a picture of your Shabbat table before midnight on Thursday and are entered into a lottery. One week, the prize was a Playmobil set, then a towel set, then a free wig-setting from a hairstylist.
I’d only won a lottery once before. It was dinner for two at a restaurant. I can still taste the cherry-covered cheesecake we had for dessert. I didn’t expect – or have a deep desire – to win this one. But I was inspired by the famous Jewish idea “mitoch shelo lishmah, ba lishmah” translated (which always grievously lacks from the original) as: “Through repeatedly doing something not for its own sake, one eventually does it for its own sake.”
If I brought a little of Shabbat into the weekday, week after week, for the sake of a prize then maybe, just maybe, I would eventually bring Shabbat in for its own sake. Interestingly, this is also a form of behavioral therapy: The promise of an intermittent reinforcement (e.g., a Playmobil set) eventually brings about the desired behavior (getting ready for Shabbat early).
So, one Thursday night, I chose my royal blue tablecloth together with purple glass dishes, accented with slim, crystal wine glasses. Oh, and the ever-important colored napkins. Napkins on a Shabbat table are like the tie on a bar mitzvah boy: they’re what make them unique. I chose black with a purple floral arrangement. I turned on the spotlight in my living room; my Shabbat table was stunning. But more importantly, it was ready on Thursday night! The lottery accomplished in one evening what I couldn’t accomplish in 32 years.
That was the beginning of a whole new side of me, one that merged art and religion. Throughout the week, my daughter and I debated cloth versus paper napkins; do placemats distract or add to the aesthetic appeal of a tablescape; should we continue to risk using the delicate glass kiddush cups (minus one that my granddaughter dropped)? These decisions helped us to further honor Shabbat.
It is well-documented in Jewish scripture that bringing the Shabbat atmosphere into the house early has a few worthwhile perks.
The Zohar (foundational Kabbalistic text) tells us that Shabbat is called “Shalom.” On Shabbat, God pours down shalom (peace) on the Jewish people, sending the Angels of Peace to bless every house. The one who receives Shabbat early, receives “shalom” early.
“Tosefet Shabbat,” extending Shabbat into the weekday, is a segula (a spiritual act that can cause spiritual or material benefits) for livelihood, finding a partner, health, children and, yes, shalom bayit (peace in the home). Ideally, the house should be prepared and the food cooked by midday on Friday.
Phew, for a person who barely jumps out of the shower a few minutes before candle lighting, being ready before midday is a little much for me. While I accept the fact that I’ll never have the house completely ready for Shabbat early — it’s just not programmed into my hard drive — at least, for the sake of shalom bayit (and a new Playmobil), I can have a beautiful Shabbat table ready.
I did not win the Playmobil. Nor did I win the towels.
On the third consecutive Thursday I sent my daughter a picture of my table featuring a golden tablecloth. Black and gold napkins with hamsas (protecting hands) rounded off the display.
“Beautiful!” She gushed.
“Cool,” I thought. Not only will I win prizes, but I’m becoming a famous interior decorator on our family WhatsApp group.
“Your wig or mine?” I replied.
I didn’t win the wig up-do, either. And I didn’t really mind.
The word for lottery in Hebrew is “hagrala.” The word “goral,” meaning “destiny,” has the same root. Even if I don’t win the hagrala, I hope that my destiny has been enriched because of my newly improved Shabbat table, set before the clock strikes midnight.
As a young mother, sometimes I was proud of myself for just finding a clean(ish) white Shabbat shirt. As a grandmother, I am happy to say that I have graduated to beautifying the mitzvah of Shabbat, while simultaneously bringing peace to my marriage.
Last week, my husband helped me to lay the tablecloth. We both agreed there’s nothing like good, old-fashioned white. With psychedelic pink and purple napkins, to make it unique.