The dinner table has an amazing ability to keep the family grounded, connected, and centered around what matters most.
Sadly, for many families, the effort of gathering for a family meal on an ordinary day is just too much. Parents have to work late. Kids have soccer practice or band practice or dance practice. In the frantic effort to juggle schedules and make sure nobody goes hungry, it's often easier to feed the kids fast food in the car, or to have everyone grab something out of the freezer on their way through the kitchen.
Though we know there's something wrong with this state of affairs, we don't always realize how serious the problem is. Turns out that family meals aren't just about food; they're about nourishment of all kinds. That includes physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nourishment. Just ask the Jewish families.
For centuries they've been gathering around what is known as the Shabbat meal—to rest, celebrate and strengthen family ties. One can argue that regular Shabbat dinners is what helped the Jews preserve their identity during the many years of exile. In a sense, it was their survival mechanism. In a time when they didn't have a temple or synagogue, or strong leaders, they had each other and their faith, and the Sabbath table is where their connection to God, each other and the faith of their fathers was renewed and reinforced.
I wonder what the rediscovery of this ancient practice of rest, renewal, celebration and remembrance will mean for today's families. There's plenty of evidence that points to the unparalleled power of families gathering around the dinner table to share a hearty meal and a heartfelt conversation.
For example, when the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse studied ways to keep kids from destructive behaviors, family dinners were more important than church attendance, more important even than grades at school. The Center has repeated that study several times since then, and every year, eating supper together regularly as a family tops the list of variables that are within our control.
As you can see, there's a lot more to family dinners than meets the eye.
Perhaps adding a Shabbat meal at least once a quarter or even once a month will make a big difference for you and your children as you gather around the table to enjoy each other's company, reflect on all that God has done and provided for you, and give thanks for the blessings in your lives.
Since the task of adding a new ritual into your family's culture and routine will most likely seem daunting in the beginning, here's an easy to follow guide*, the first step that will hopefully set you on a life-changing journey.
We’ve been celebrating Shabbat as a family each Friday for the past nine years. We love it, and couldn’t imagine our week without it. If you’ve not come across Shabbat, it’s a Jewish ritual, a Friday night meal with prayers and blessings. Our two children, aged 4 and 5, join in with the songs, the actions and some of the Bible verses we say. We’ve shared it with lots of different people, Christian and otherwise, and we’ve adapted it as we’ve gone along to keep it accessible and relevant to everyone present.
Whenever I mention that we do Shabbat on a Friday, everyone always asks: “Why do you celebrate Shabbat? Are your family Jewish?” Now, while my granddad is Jewish, although not a practicing Jew, I first experienced Shabbat at the home of a family that kind of adopted me when I was a student. We first started celebrating Shabbat as a way of starting a day of rest as a family together. Nine years and two children later, we find it’s a good way to have a moment in time together as a family with God—a great ritual for developing faith at home.
The easiest way to explain what we do is to share our own mini-service along with some ideas of the principles we’ve found and how you might apply these ideas in your own family rituals. The words in italics are instructions and explanations, everything else is said out loud.
This meal marks the beginning of a time of rest as a family together. We stop and rest from our work, just like God rested from His work of creation. We celebrate the freedom God has given us, just as He brought freedom to the Israelites when He set them free from being slaves in Egypt.
Stating our intention is a great way to remember why we’re doing a ritual. It also helps visitors know what we’re doing. Sometimes I give or even send visitors a copy of our service sheet so they can read in advance what they’re getting into! I love how this welcome calls us to actively live in the rest and freedom which God gives us.
Light two candles and say:
I light the two Sabbath candles to remind us of the rest and freedom God gives us. As I light them, I welcome ‘Shalom Bayit’, peaceful harmony in our homes. We bless you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has given us Jesus, the light of the world. Thank You that whoever follows You will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life.
Waft the light three times towards yourself, representing more of Jesus’ light in your life. Then waft the light outwards three times, to represent spreading the light of Jesus into the lives of those around the table, your loved ones and the wider community. Say or sing this blessing together:
We bless you, Lord our God, king of the universe (x2),
Who has given us Jesus, light of the world.
We bless You, Lord our God, king of the universe. Hey!
Say this traditional Hebrew Sabbath greeting, which means ‘peaceful Sabbath’:
Principle 1: Have physical elements as symbols of spiritual realities
Lighting candles is one of four physical symbols we use, along with water, bread and wine. Physical symbols make rituals a multi-sensory, intergenerational way of sharing faith together. We find that giving meaning to physical symbols helps people at all stages of the journey of faith come close to God in a way other things may not do. Lighting the candles with these words and actions gives an opportunity to welcome the goodness of Jesus into our lives and the lives of those around us. As with each symbol, it would work to just take this first section as a standalone ritual: light a candle over dinner or breakfast or even before watching a film together and welcome God into your home.
The Bible says that only those with clean hands and pure hearts can stand in God’s holy place. We wash our hands with water and ask Jesus to make our hearts clean.
Take it in turns to wash your hands in a bowl of water, or pass it on. As we wash our hands, we can say our own sorry to God either out loud or silently, or we can use these words:
I wash my hands to the Messiah, the hope of glory, to serve Him only.
Principle 2: Invite everyone to join you, but make it optional
Our second symbol, water, provides a weekly time to say sorry to each other and to God and to be forgiven. We make sure it’s optional, and visitors are invited to pass it to the next person if they prefer. However, we’ve found most people have taken the opportunity to wash away negative things from their lives, and many have apologized to family members either at the table or later in the evening. I thought that the imagery of washing your heart clean might be too abstract for young children, but I’ve found that somehow it connects with them. This simple ritual of washing could also be done at bath time or whenever you have water handy.
These two loaves represent the double portion of manna the Israelites collected in the desert. It is a symbol of the work of the worker. As we break this bread, we remember Jesus and His body which was broken. We bless You, Lord our God, king of the universe who gives us bread from the earth.
Break one loaf and pass pieces around for everyone to eat.
Principle 3: Allow space and time to make connections
The bread is a symbol which intentionally makes connections between two big Bible stories. Although you could use two slices of cut bread, I love baking and so usually make fresh bread, which has the added bonus of filling the house with evocative smells as we prepare for Shabbat. We’ve had traditional honey flavored challah bread and focaccia, and currently share chocolate naan bread, a family favorite! One way you could do this is to choose your family favorite bread and pause once a week before you share it together to thank God for Jesus and all He means to you.
Pour the wine and juice and hold the cups and say:
Wine and juice are symbols of joy and celebration. We drink this wine and juice to celebrate all the good things we have in life and to remember Jesus. We bless You, Lord our God, king of the universe, who gives us the fruit of the vine.
Pass around the cup and invite everyone to sip the wine and juice.
Principle 4: Keep it the same then add variance
One of the things about a ritual is that it needs to be repeated. In some ways, it’s better to have one simple, short thing which you repeat than something long and complex which you only do once as somehow in the repetition we find depth and richness we don’t find the first time. Or even the first 20 times! We’ve also found it’s fun to find ways to take Shabbat with us when we’re away—we’ve even done it on a plane, although not with real candles! Once you’ve repeated your ritual lots of times, it’s fun to find ways to adapt it, making it accessible to whoever’s involved.
Read this poem from Psalm 127:
If God doesn’t build the house, the builders only build shacks. If God doesn’t guard the city, the night watchman might as well nap. It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late, and work your worried fingers to the bone. Don’t you know he enjoys giving rest to those he loves? Don’t you see that children are God’s best gift? The fruit of the womb his generous legacy? Like a warrior’s fistful of arrows are the children of a vigorous youth. Oh, how blessed are you parents, with your quivers full of children! Your enemies don’t stand a chance against you; you’ll sweep them right off your doorstep.
This blessing is a wonderful way to remind everyone including the children that they are a blessing and a gift from God. (If you want to learn more about the power of the parents' blessing, read SHAPING YOUR CHILD'S FUTURE THROUGH THE WORDS YOU SPEAK.)
Say or sing this blessing from Numbers:
God bless you and keep you; God smile on you and gift you, God look you full in the face and make you prosper.
Thank You, God, for this food and we ask that Shalom, Your peace-filled completeness, will fill our hearts and our lives.
Finish by repeating this traditional Hebrew Sabbath blessing:
Principle 5: Use Bible verses to capture things you want to say
Using words from the Bible in rituals is a fantastic way of remembering Bible verses and using them to inform our family understanding of the world.
A few questions for you as you consider how you might use rituals in your faith at home:
What rituals do your family do?
What physical symbols do you use?
What else might you infuse with meaning?
What do you do to make sure your rituals are accessible to everyone present?
Do you need to keep repeating your ritual or adapt it to your family circumstances?
What Bible verses could you use to enhance your rituals?
* This article was written by Victoria Beech and was originally published here.