I hear so often about what Shabbat isn’t, a day without technology, without driving, with no work talk, no politics talk (in our home, at least), no showering, no no no, that I forget to remember what Shabbat IS. This seems to be the case for many of us. Even more, Shabbat can be whatever you need it to be, at any stage in your life. For my family, the joy of hosting has always been a huge part of it. My husband and I used to host large meals regularly for the years before our family started growing, and we learned a lot during those times. Even though currently we don’t host regularly because of our small children, I was asked to write down some tips on how we lead our Shabbat table, so here goes!
We love hosting meals because we love bonding over food, and using the Kedusha of the day in order to get to know our friends better and have strangers turn into new friends. It’s taken a lot of work and conversation for us to figure out how to host, and it’s something that keeps evolving as our family life and priorities change. It has been a lot of trial and error with feet in mouths, and still is. A few years ago, my top priority was having deep discussion at our Shabbat table. I loved getting at what makes people tick, their deepest hopes and desires. In short, my catchphrase when getting to know someone profoundly was “What do you live for?” It was often the first question out of my mouth once names had been shared. Needless to say, my probing questions earned some notoriety, and unfortunately my attempts to get to know people sometimes ended up backfiring:
“So, how did you two meet? I would love to hear your story!” Well, maybe the seemingly scandalous details of their meeting wasn’t something they wanted to share in front of their kids. Ulp. Nice going Andrea. “What is the one thing you want to change about yourself most this year?” Maybe the alcoholism battle is a little TMI for a first-time guest whose name I’d already forgotten. Yikes.
Back to the drawing board.
How could we keep our Shabbat table discussions and questions relevant, deep, but not intrusive? Not everyone is as comfortable sharing the deep parts of themselves as we are, so how to navigate? On one of our long drives to visit family, my husband and I came up with some questions to ask ourselves which would hopefully help us become better hosts. We realized that while we’ve been guests at countless inspiring Shabbat tables, that in the end, we had to be genuinely Grinberg instead of imitating others. But where was our voice in all this? What are we capable of? None of us can do it all, as much as we may want to. We can’t have all the deep, relevant discussions in one meal, we can’t invite every single person we know, and we can’t serve all the delicious, beautiful food at once without making our guests sick and overwhelmed. What did we want most for our guests? In short, what are our Shabbat table dealbreakers?
These are the questions we asked ourselves, and some of our answers. Ever since figuring this out, we have had much more joyous meals, and I highly recommend asking yourself similar questions, whether you are single or in a family of 15, doing potluck meals, cooking everything from scratch or serving gorgeously catered gourmet food. Please keep in mind that these are our answers, from our paint-peeling-off-the-ceiling apartment, two kids ages 5 months and 2 years, usually only 3 hours to cook before candle lighting, current lifestyle. Yours will be different. They also may make us sound much more organized, intentioned, and well-planned than we actually are every given week. The cool thing is that when you have this stuff figured out, you can deal with almost everything and trust that no matter what happens, it will always be a fabulous time.
How do we want guests to feel when entering our home?
Comfortable. Invited in, but not awkwardly in the center of attention with all eyes on them. Welcomed but nothing ceremonious. Our lives not hidden from their eyes but instead feeling like they become a part of our activity. Embraced and swept up. Appreciated and loved.
How would we like people to feel during the meal?
Wanted. Knowing how grateful we are that they are here. Hungry. Hungry for more. More wisdom, more knowledge, more connection. More food. Elevated. Excited about life.
What do we want people to leave with?
Refreshed, not lethargic. (This affects what food we serve and how long we let our meals go on). Inspired. Empowered. Loving Shabbat. Feeling bigger, better, and more whole than they did upon arriving. Most of all, we realized that it is much better for our guests to leave thinking about one inspiring thing instead of overwhelming them with so much deep Torah and discussion that they end up shutting down and forgetting it all.
How many people should we have over?
We have a big table. When we started hosting at this current table, we aimed to fill it, which usually was about 11-14 people. But we’ve realized that if we really want to get to know someone, that less is be more. I’ll never forget the one time we finally had a close married couple over on their own, and got to hear her life story after countless times of having of hosting them in larger groups. My life was forever changed by her words and we likely would have never heard it at a larger table.
Who should we invite?
Want singing to be a big part of your meal? Gotta have people that can and like singing. Have women that might want to hum along but are sensitive to Kol Isha? Invite men that sing loud and proud so everyone is comfortable. Single friends? Maybe not two of the opposite sex amongst couples and families unless you want them to think you are trying to set them up. Friends struggling to conceive having trouble being around other kids? Maybe not with the family that just had triplets. While we can’t know everyone’s sensitivities, it’s always good to think ahead about any potential conflicts to avoid hurt feelings. All of this sounds obvious but as someone that loves to say “Yes for sure come over!” I’ve realized that sometimes it really is better to help someone find alternate plans rather than sit at a table where she may be uncomfortable.
My husband and I thrive on deep, meaningful discussion but realize that not everyone is necessarily comfortable with that, especially when put on the spot with introspective discussion questions. When figuring out how we wanted to host, we tried to form a way to guide and lead our table, but also allow our guests to bond and connect organically. Since we know that our lives are also affected by the passing of time, and of the Torah portion of the week, we hoped to have our discussion be inspired by that, but not in a “ok now it’s time for the obligatory Torah talk guys, let all the fun conversation cease.”
So we started brainstorming relevant and deep questions that would be the catalyst for connected discussion. Besides asking people for their names, where they’re from, and some fun facts about themselves, at every Shabbat table we ask a round table question (yes, we do this with each other even when we are not hosting.) These questions leave room for answers that could be short and simple, or long and in-depth, depending on how much someone wants to share. A question that will inspire conversation. That doesn’t feel intrusive, but instead inviting. Answers that would not only allow us to get to know each other better, but get to know ourselves as well. We usually ask this right after a short Dvar Torah from my husband when the first course is on the table and guests are helping themselves to salads and dips. Here are some examples:
- (The go-to) What is something or someone that you are grateful for and why? (Related to pretty much every Parsha)
- Tell us about a time when it felt like someone was against you, but really this person was rooting for you, building you up, helping you become a better person. (Ezer Kenegdo – Bereshit)
- When was a time when you had to leave your comfort zone? (Lech Lecha)
- When was a time when it seemed like things were bad, but it all actually turned out to be good? (Purim, Yosef, et al.)
- Share an inspiring story about you or someone you know standing up for what you believe is right even though it might have been scary at the time. (Miriam and her father)
- Tell us about a time when you were wrong about someone. (Tisha b’Av – Sinat Chinam)
- What is something that you hope to improve on this year? (pretty deep, but hey, Elul is coming)
- An alternative if not the right atmosphere for the above: tell us something that you wish for everyone at this table for the upcoming year.
- Speak about a miracle in your eyes, however big or small. (Hanukah)
- Share a time when you didn’t give up, even though you wanted to. (Moshe in Egypt)
- Tell us about a time when you felt uncomfortable with what the crowd was doing, whether or not you followed them. (Golden calf)
- When was a time when you wanted something with all your being, but then realized that it wasn’t for you? (Moshe wanting to go into the land of Israel)
My husband and I try to discuss our ‘question of the week’ before actually sitting down at the table, but more often than not we don’t get a chance, and one of us usually comes up with something good on the spot (or we ask two questions!)
The most important thing we have done lately is revising our priorities by being realistic. This means being realistic about our lives, what we can give, what our expectations are, and what we can do for our guests. For a while we stopped hosting regularly because we couldn’t give in the same way that we used to before having kids, but soon realized that we missed it and needed to start again. As I said above, you cannot do and be everything. You cannot give your guests a vibrant, exciting, and loud Shabbat experience while giving your children the joy and attention they crave while also expecting it to be intimate and quiet.
Here are some other ideas and things we do that enhance our Shabbat meal experience:
Kiddush – did you know that having someone else say a Bracha for you is no small thing? While some families that come to us like to make their own Kiddush, most people choose to go with my husband’s. For both the person listening and the person saying it, it is a chance to achieve unity and connection, especially since Kiddush is supposed to elevate us to yet another level on Shabbat. In order to get us into the right frame of mind, my husband reminds everyone that he is going to do his absolute best to say it in honor of every person, and that we please help him by having our hearts and minds together in order to bring the Kedusha of Shabbat into our home and to the table.
Don’t assume everyone knows what’s going on – since we have lots of guests from different backgrounds and levels of observance, we do our best to explain as we go, translate Hebrew words and so on. But most importantly, we try to let everyone know that they should feel comfortable asking any question no matter how silly it seems, and know that usually by asking that question, they are answering it for more than just themselves.
Passing food – we have a big and wide table, and tell everyone that our rule is that if you take food for yourself, you need to offer it and/or pass it around to make sure everyone gets a chance to sample the culinary delights. I started doing this after a few meals of realizing that some food didn’t even make its way to the other end of the table.
Guiding conversation – we want our table to feel natural and unstaged, yet know that it’s often hard to keep the conversation meaningful and connected, while avoiding stressful weekday topics (work, politics, gossip, etc.) and we feel very strongly about keeping these topics away from our guests’s experience in our home. We try to monitor the quieter moments at the table (when the food is just being passed around and eaten) in order to nudge the conversation and discussion into the holy and relevant. That way we can avoid feeling controlling and interrupting if the conversation takes a downward turn. It often takes us not eating ourselves until a little later in the meal.
Have extra warm clothing and pillows on hand – we don’t have individual hand towels nor fancy flatware, but we have a bin with warm scarves, hats, sweatshirts etc. that we picked up from a thrift store (washed, of course) that we offer to guests without the obligation of returning in case the weather takes a turn for the worse. We also offer pillows to make chairs more comfortable, or for tired guests to take a nap after the meal ends but conversation continues.
L’chaim! We strongly believe that alcohol can be an incredibly powerful tool when used in a holy context. Having a l’chaim between courses, asking our guests to give each other blessings and good wishes, and offering a nice variety of tastes helps us feel more comfortable and connected, and we try not to skip it.
Thanking our guests – believe me, as someone that feels uncomfortable with people going above and beyond for me, we want to make sure our guests know that they are doing us a favor by being at our table. We feel that beautiful food without someone to share it with is a tragedy, and a home without new faces or harmonious voices talking about deep subjects is void. Our guests make us truly happy, we love having them, and we want them to know this.
Accepting help – this is a big one, and I know it has been written about before on Hevria. Whether it’s accepting extra food for the meal, assistance in the kitchen, childcare, a guest giving a Dvar Torah, or cleaning up, I’ve actually made a mental list of things that I can ask someone to do when they offer. It contributes to our guests feeling like a part of our family, helps everything run immensely smoother, and makes our meals so much more joyous.
Saying no – family time is important. So is couple time. Our regular guests know that we want them to always feel comfortable asking whenever they would like to come over for a meal, but we don’t host more than one meal per Shabbat, and sometimes not at all. We tell them to always feel free to invite themselves, and that we will not overextend ourselves just because they asked. Our friends know that we are able to say no if it is not a good time, and that is essential for our Shalom Bayit and everyone’s peace of mind. And especially now with the way our lives our set up, we are no longer having the big meals that we used to, and that’s okay.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful. We have found that the most important thing is taking the time to have an actual conversation with yourself, your spouse, your family, or whoever you are going to be hosting with, about your hopes, desires, and expectations. And make it an ongoing conversation, because priorities change and what someone is able give may shift from week to week. I know that if I didn’t feel that my husband was on the same page, that we would never be able to enjoy hosting as much as we do.
May you be blessed with joyous Shabbat meals, incredible guests, delicious food, inspiring conversation, and most of all, a chance to reconnect to our creator, ourselves, and each other. Shabbat Shalom!