My husband, Marc, once read not to say “no” to your kids on Shabbat. He interpreted this as a way to endear children to the holiday and to Judaism itself. We have taken the idea and ran with it.
Our Fridays often begin thus: “Alexa, play ‘It’s Shabbat’ by The Maccabeats.” (Unless we request “Friday” by Rebecca Black, like in the Torah.) Celebratory tunes blaring, the opportunities to say “yes” rise immediately.
“Can I have another bowl of cereal?”
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“Sure! It’s Shabbat!”
“Can you pack peanut butter and jelly for lunch?”
“Of course! It’s Shabbat!”
“Can I have 100 bucks?”
“Why not? It’s Shabbat!”
Not really. Or should I say, not yet. The kids are not even 2, 4 and 6 years old. But I imagine it’s coming. This is the bed we’ve made. Not that we actually make our beds, though I understand it’s traditional to clean the house before ushering in the Sabbath. It’s also traditional, of course, to light candles and eat challah, and often we do – at the table, with grape juice and flowers and kippot.
But sometimes we spend Shabbat dinner by the pool eating from a pizza box, chanting the blessing over damp crust.
Sometimes we spend Shabbat tailgating in the parking lot of an ice cream place, dribbling Rocky Road all over our trunk.
Sometimes we spend Shabbat at a petting zoo/pizza joint/ice cream parlor/novelty shop, feeding carrots to goats and holding bearded dragons and perusing personalized keychains. (That it’s located in Florida is the only explanation I can provide for such a place.)
Last week, we had Shabbat dinner in a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant, waving pita bread and singing Hamotzi loud enough to turn heads.
Regardless, we always celebrate Shabbat together. Most of the time, I’m content with that. We’re a Jewish family reveling in being Jewish. We have cemented in our children that Shabbat is special. Largely because it somehow tends to involve pizza and ice cream. And that’s the thing: Sometimes I have misgivings about our unorthodox Shabbats.
“I feel like we’re doing it wrong,” I have fretted to Marc on more than one occasion. Are we watering down Judaism? Distorting it? Making it something it’s not to suit our lifestyle and preferences?
Objectively, yes. We’re driving, spending money, breaking almost every rule in the Book. So I suppose the real question is… is that so bad? In search of answers, I hunted down the text where Marc got the Yes Day idea in the first place: “How to Raise A Jewish Child” by Anita Diamant and Karen Kushner, who write: “Much of the time parents are required to be naysayers… Shabbat is the day to try and let go of reflexive or automatic ‘no[’]s’ and go out of your way to say yes.”
So Marc didn’t make it up. Good start. And actually, this idea has cut down on general naysaying. On the way home from a birthday party, after the kids have already had cake and chips and a juice box, when they ask to eat candy from their goody bags, I don’t say no. I say, “Sure! Next Shabbat!”
When they ask to go to the zoo on a Tuesday morning as we’re putting on their shoes for preschool, Marc doesn’t say no. He says, “Great idea! Let’s do it one Shabbat!”
All week, the kids come up with fun things we might do (or eat) on Shabbat. It’s something we’re perpetually looking forward to. Which is, in part, the goal, per Diamant and Kushner.
“Regardless of the particulars in your home, Shabbat becomes special – and holy – by being set apart from the rest of the week,” they write.
It’s the “holy” part that trips me up. Probably Dunkin’ Munchkins don’t count.
I once found myself telling an observant friend about our version of Shabbat and feeling kind of embarrassed. I couldn’t really gauge his reaction (amusement? Polite disapproval?), but I left the interaction uneasy.
Reading “How to Raise A Jewish Child” plays into that uneasiness a bit, detailing the rituals we don’t do consistently (or correctly or at all). But it also sees me – “Liberal Jews struggle with the criteria for what does and does not ‘belong’ on Shabbat” – and offers reassurance: “Remember that the Torah speaks of keeping Shabbat as a joy, not as a punishment. Build joy into Shabbat however you can.”
Still, is this the authors’ permission to give? If not, whose? A high priest’s? G-d’s? Should I ask my religious friend again?
Instead, I turned to Chabad.org, where I found some of what I expected: talk of morning service attendance and not turning on lights and a “specially prescribed manner” of hand washing. But also this: “Shabbat meals really can feature whatever you feel is festive and delicious.” And this: “No one can become a perfect Shabbat observer overnight.”
Overnight or otherwise, I don’t know that our goal ever was to become perfect Shabbat observers. When we got married, Marc and I chose a ketubah that says, “Together, let us build a home filled with loving affection, laughter, wisdom, generosity and respect. Let us weave our commitment to the Jewish people and culture into the fabric of our lives.” And that’s what we’re doing. Neither of us grew up acknowledging Shabbat, and making it a weekly celebration is our own (sugar-fueled) way of weaving Judaism into the fabric of our family life.
To gauge whether it’s working, I decided to ask my kids who, like most small children, do not pull punches.
“Sam,” I said one evening, handing my almost-6-year-old daughter her toothbrush. (I’m breezy.) “What’s your favorite thing about Shabbat?”
I was sure she’d say something about dessert (her little brother answered “marshmallows”), or maybe that weird (awesome) petting zoo place. She got to hold baby bunnies last time! Instead, spitting into the sink, she replied: “Spending time with my family.”
And then the angels sang. Because isn’t that the point? Isn’t that what will keep them coming back for more even as they grow up, even as Shabbat evolves for us, even as the yesses begin to couch more nos?
“Yes, you can meet your friends… after we light the candles.” Or even – gasp! – “Yes, you can use your phone… after Shabbat dinner.” Hopefully they’ll still value the family time (or at least the marshmallows).
Our current Shabbat traditions wouldn’t hold up in rabbinical court. But as I read, there’s time and space to become more observant if we so choose. Meanwhile, I’d like to think the Almighty might at least crack a smile at three small children shrieking, “Hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we give thanks to G-d for donuts!”
We’re not necessarily doing it right. But I’m enjoying the way we’re doing it, and so are my kids. I’m proud we’re doing it at all. So I guess what I’m saying, at least for now, is: She looked at her family’s Shabbat, and she saw that it was good.
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