It is Friday night. A palpable majestic aura pervades your home. The table is set beautifully, the food is scrumptious, and your family members are thoroughly enjoying. Laughter and positive energy abound as everyone is engrossed in the conversation. While taking this all in, a smile spreads across your face and you think to yourself: this is my ideal Shabbat meal. You offer silent appreciation to Hashem: Thank You for providing this special time for me and my loved ones.
If only this were so. While many families derive pleasure and satisfaction from their Shabbat meal experience, for many families the above scene has become a foregone, no-longer-attainable, dream. Perhaps you think, “We are just not that type of a family” or “There’s no way to get our kids interested in meaningful discussions.” The good news is that there are specific steps we can take to make our Shabbat meals more engaging and pleasurable. We are fortunate to experience Shabbat every single week, and making small shifts will fundamentally transform the quality of interactions at our Shabbat meals.
The American Psychological Association’s publication, “Monitor on Psychology” (October 2019), featured an article about the Family Dinner Project https://thefamilydinnerproject.org, founded by Anne Fishel, Ph.D. in 2010. The Family Dinner Project encourages families to have meals together and addresses the challenges that many families have regarding time and scheduling, food preparation and conflict at the table. Through this initiative, close to 50,000 people have signed up to work on improving conversation and communication over regularly scheduled family dinners. Research shows that family dinners are great for body and soul, with many specific mental health benefits, including lower rates of substance use, less depression and anxiety, and the positive benefits of kids feeling more connected to their parents and subsequently being more resilient. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress and to cope with any type of difficulty that may come their way. Some studies show that having regular family dinners is a better predictor of academic achievement than doing homework or engaging in sports or art. It is important to note that the cognitive and behavioral benefits of family dinners are due to the warm and inviting atmosphere at the table. If a parent is intoxicated or there is conflict and yelling at the table, the benefits are lost.
Since our Shabbat meals are part of our religious lifestyle, we have already conquered the scheduling problem and some of the food issues. The time and place are set, family members are generally in attendance, and most families have the know-how to prepare, or the resources to purchase, delicious Shabbat meals. However, there remains great variability with the quality of interactions around our Shabbat tables. While some families have Shabbat seudot that adults and children look forward to and absolutely love, others have meals that are much less enjoyable, and at times a source of tension and frustration.
Every good homemaker knows that the perfect meal doesn’t plan itself. It takes planning the menu, ensuring there will be food that each of the participants enjoy, cooking and finally serving the food. People put a lot of effort into ordering the dips, coordinating the mains and sides, and being creative about desserts. But how much planning goes into figuring out how to involve all participants in the meal? Do we consider the topics to be discussed? Do we think about how to best share a Torah thought in an interactive and engaging manner? Do we contemplate how to engage adults, teenagers and younger children in the same conversation? In all likelihood, we are thoughtfully planning the guest list and the cuisine, yet we are not planning the most important part of the meal: the content. Everyone knows that as much as we all love great food, the people and the quality of the interactions are what make for a truly enjoyable Shabbat meal.
While every household is different, and their ideal Shabbat meal will be varied, the starting point will be the same. Each of us should evaluate our Shabbat meals and determine what improvements can be made.
Here are some fundamental questions for the head(s) of household to consider:
What are my values and expectations for a Shabbat meal? What does my ideal Shabbat meal look and feel like? Should my meal be long or short? Guests or no guests? Tons of Torah or not? More upbeat zemirot tunes or stick to the traditional ones? More zemirot or less? Require children to remain at the table or not? Encourage telling jokes, riddles and having fun or promote more thoughtful deep conversations?
Households that have two parents thinking about these issues might be surprised to find out that they have very different visions about what their dream Shabbat meal would look like. It is not uncommon that an individual’s picture of a Shabbat meal is based on their own experience as a child attending their family’s Shabbat meal. After all, they experienced that Shabbat meal thousands of times, which most certainly leaves an imprint. In some cases, people vow to create Shabbat meals that are radically different from their own upbringing. Perhaps an individual experienced an inspirational meal somewhere that left an impression on them and now they have the goal of creating similar experiences for their family. It is crucial that parents acknowledge, to themselves and to each other, the different expectations they have and agree to try different approaches to see what best suits their family.
One final point is to understand that the objective is not for you, as head of the household, to impose your idea of the perfect Shabbat meal on your family. The goal is for the meal to be pleasant and enjoyable and designed to accommodate the unique personalities of your family members, and the regular participants, at your Shabbat meals. Your goal is to help promote these interactions. We can’t expect our creative ideas and meaningful conversation-starters to just arise during the meal, but with the right planning we can work toward seriously enhancing our Shabbat seudot. Just as a successful menu is achieved through advance planning and practice, the pleasant and engaging Shabbat meal comes only with preparation and a willingness to try new ideas.
Specific strategies for addressing the above issues and improving our Shabbat meals will follow in the coming weeks.
By Dr. Chaim Nissel