I was raised Catholic, but genetically I’m half Jewish, and I’m now a Swedenborgian. If you don’t know what that last religion is, let’s just call it a mixture of mystical Christianity and Buddhism. But that’s beside the point. A dear friend who is 100% Jewish invited me to a Shabbat or sabbath dinner, which is what observant Jews do on Friday nights.
You probably know the basics – candles are lit, bread – yummy sweet braided Challah bread is broken and consumed, sweet Kosher wine tasted. Just as creation started with the words, ‘Let there be light!’ so does the Shabbat begin with the lighting and blessing of the candles at sunset. And after that, short prayers are read or sung. I was given a book to read with the translations and to follow along – I was told I did a pretty credible job of sounding like I knew what I was struggling to pronounce.
This was not a kosher meal, so there was no need to separate meat from dairy. However as I’m a pescatarian a spirited discussion arose over Dairy versus Meat restaurants in Israel, and how I would fit right in at a Dairy restaurant, where fish is served. We had noodle based kugel, we had salad, we had roasted veggies, we had a chocolate flour-less cake that was to die for delicious, and fruit salad. But the point here isn’t what we ate, or that this was nominally inspired by religion. The point is a warm, friendly, in-home Friday night dinner designed to celebrate faith, friendship, and food. One without the carbon footprint waste of driving someplace.
And why don’t we do this more often? That was the question of the night for this group of friends and family, gathered around a long table in my friend’s home. It’s a question well worth repeating regardless of your religious or non-religious affiliation, of whether you live in a big city with plenty of distracting social options, as I do, or whether you live in a small town with only the television set to prevent you from settling into a social meal.
Personally, I think the country, the world, and certainly individual communities, would be much better off if the ritual of a Friday night – or any night of the week – gathering of family and friends were somehow magically mandated. We had no place to go, no movie to catch, no waiter to appease, no art show to attend, no episode of The Walking Dead to watch.
Instead we had that centuries old custom, the thing that Shabbat meals have always included, conversation. And with the meal already out on the table, even the hostess could relax. We roved from art in galleries and created in garages, creative impulses, films we’d seen, travels we’d taken, to remembering past gatherings, family weddings, friends’ birthdays, children’s parties, shopping trips for special occasions long past. There was both a feeling of elegy and a promise of the future - places we’d been, memories we shared, and new memories we want to make, places to travel.
To go places, you need to be present in the moment. And celebrating this dinner was a great way to be present and remember and plan. That’s a ritual worth shaping, week after week.