When I was growing up, “Shabbat” meant Shabbat dinner. We didn’t do it every week, but I loved it when we did: I reveled in the exotic beauty of it all: the golden braided challah, the scent of my mother’s chicken soup. I enjoyed the novelty of eating in the dining room for a change, and relished the magical moment when my mother would light the battered silver candlesticks her grandmother had brought over from Poland.
Years later, I recalled the beauty of those Friday nights when I learned the famous Midrash that explains Shabbat. The story goes that before the Jews received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they demanded to know what their reward would be for keeping its commandments. “Heaven will be your reward,” God told the Jews, “How do we know that Heaven is so great?” the wary Jews inquired. God came up with the plan: “I’ll give you a sample,” God explained: “Every week, I’ll give you Shabbat, a taste of the World to Come!” The Friday nights of my childhood truly seemed to contain those kernels of spirituality, beauty, and love.
Yet it never lasted. When the last of the candles flickered out, when the final plate had been rinsed and put into the dishwasher, Shabbat seemed over for us. My brother and I would flip on the television, or head out to meet up with friends. Some weeks Shabbat lingered over into Saturday morning, if we decided to go to synagogue. But by lunchtime, when I was usually firmly ensconced in the food court at the local shopping mall with my friends, Shabbat felt well and truly over.
Years later, when I started hanging out with more religiously observant Jews. I was amazed that most of the rituals of Friday night—the covered challah, the Kiddush over wine—were all replicated again on Saturday during lunch. In college, I attended festive lunches at Hillel and enjoyed them. Once I was out in the real world, however, the thought of preparing the nice Shabbat dinners I enjoyed, and then again serving a huge lunch the next day, seemed daunting even a little ridiculous.
It was years before I thought otherwise. One day when I was 30 years old, my entire view of Shabbat lunch changed in a flash—literally. I was newly married and newly pregnant too. A couple my husband and I had met recently invited us for Shabbat dinner; after work, we picked up a bottle of kosher wine and headed over to their place. The routine was familiar, a comforting repeat of a thousand Shabbat dinners I’d had before. We lit the candles, blessed the challah, and the wine, and made small talk with our new friends. When it was time to go, we thanked them warmly, and made our way out into the summer night.
Suddenly, a huge flash of lightning lit up the street. We heard the deafening roar of thunder, the sky opened up, and we were soaked. Utterly drenched. Slowly, my husband and I picked our way down the street through the downpour. After a minute, our host ran after us; “Do you want to spend the night?” he asked. Glancing around at the unbelievable storm, we nodded gratefully and headed back inside.
The next morning, I felt like I was back at the sleepovers I used to enjoy when I was a kid. There was nowhere we needed to be; we were all well rested and in a great mood. Our conversation, which had seemed a stilted the night before, flowed. The rainstorm was over and the day was gorgeous: we all went to synagogue together and stayed together through lunch, not parting until late afternoon. “That was fun,” my husband said with a happy yawn when we finally arrived back home. I agreed, and we decided to experiment with extending Shabbat later into Saturday, savoring slower Saturday afternoons, from then on.
That decision went along with some other changes we gradually made through the years, deepening our connection to Shabbat and taking on more of its observance. Gradually, we learned to love the slower pace of Shabbat lunch: unlike Friday night dinner, Saturday lunch always seemed more leisurely; we weren’t tired from a long day at work, and I loved the way lunch would often morph into afternoon fun like taking a walk or playing games with our kids.
Many years later, when we moved to a religiously observant neighborhood, I was shocked to find that Friday dinner—long the defining Shabbat experience for me —wasn’t when people socialized. Invitations for Shabbat dinner were met with blank stares; “we’re so tired after work” my new neighbors explained. Instead, they invited us over for Shabbat lunches: long, multi-course meals that included singing and divrei Torah; guests and socializing; and the chance to connect with others in a deeper way than I’d ever seen before.
The Torah twice tells us to “rest” on Shabbat. First it tells us not to work, but later, the Torah repeats this concept but with different words: “six days shall you accomplish your activities, and on the seventh day you shall rest…” What is the difference between merely not working and resting? For years the distinction eluded me.
By refraining from my ordinary activities on Shabbat, I always felt that I was making Shabbat a special, holy day. It was only gradually, as I learned to savor the special atmosphere on Shabbat, that I began to realize “resting” isn’t quite the same as merely not working. “Resting” means something deeper: a commitment to enjoying the day; a determination to use our Shabbat to access a level of spirituality that escapes us during the week.
That’s a lot of meaning to put on one meal, but Shabbat meals always were different. As a kid, Shabbat dinner was my moment to glimpse something holy and eternal each week. As an adult, Shabbat lunch gives me something even more: the chance to truly relax, to connect in a leisurely way with others, to revel for a whole day in the beauty of resting.