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Toward Shabbat: Toledot

My husband, Jeremy, and I both agree that, whenever we move into a new apartment, it doesn’t quite feel like home until we have hosted our first Shabbat dinner. Our table is often set with a loud patterned tablecloth, colorful napkins, mismatched glasses and silverware, a handmade challah board where the hebrew letters in the word “hamotzi” are out of order, and, of course, an array of honey jars. I guess one could say we have some pretty serious Shabbat schtick. The order of things goes as follows: we sing shalom aleikhem to welcome the Shabbat, psalms of appreciation to one another, (now) we bless our daughter, wash our hands, say kiddush over the grape juice, and motzi over the challah. Finally, we enjoy our first course, which we call the honey course. It consists of trying a wide range of flavors of honey on our challah. The fact that we have not been able to share our unique and quirky Shabbat routine has been one of the most challenging parts of moving during the pandemic.

Unable to welcome community members, family, or friends, we have started to find new meaning as we start our Friday night routine with shalom aleikhem, welcoming the only guests we can have these days, the Shabbat angels. It is sometimes surprising to learn that the rabbinic imagination, mystical or not, includes angels. With the words of this four (sometimes five) stanza 17th-century kabbalistic poem, we invite Shabbat angels into our homes. We begin by singing, “peace be upon you,” we then invite them in “come in peace,” we ask them to “bless us in peace,” and finally, we send them out bidding them farewell as we sing “go in peace.” But who are these Shabbat angels?

It is said that this poem is based on a talmudic legend from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 119b). Rabbi Yosi Bar Yehudah taught that, as we come home from synagogue on Friday night (during the pandemic, perhaps as we gather around the Shabbat table from the various places in our homes), we have two ministering angels who accompany us: one good angel and one evil angel. If the angels arrive and see that the shabbat candles are burning, the table is set, and the beds are made, the good angel blesses the home to continue to be prepared for Shabbat next week, to which the evil angel is forced to say “amen.” If the home is not prepared for Shabbat, then the evil angel curses the home to continue to be unprepared for Shabbat the following week, to which the good angel is forced to say “amen.”

While it is almost comical to imagine these two guardian angels following us to our Shabbat table to judge our Shabbat preparations, I am challenged by the idea in this story that there is one “look” for Shabbat and this Shabbat has to look like last Shabbat.

I grew up in a home where I was taught that every person makes their own Shabbat, that there is no single way to be Jewish. That there is no such thing as a uniform for Shabbat or Jewish ritual. Some of us like to spend the day in prayer, some in nature, some wear the same white shirt no matter where we are, while others must get challah from the same bakery each week. Shabbat is a time when we can create our own meaningful rituals. One of the biggest blessings about being a part of the BJ community is how we thrive as a community, not despite our diverse practices, but because of them. I know that if I were to ask each of you how you individually, or as a family, celebrate Shabbat, I’d receive hundreds of different answers.

While I have not yet had the opportunity to physically welcome you into my home, by sharing my traditions, I feel as though we can celebrate Shabbat together from a distance this week. I invite those of you who are seeking new Shabbat traditions to send me an email so we can explore ideas for ways to make Shabbat special in your home, and those of you with established traditions to share your unique traditions with me.

This Friday night, as I sit down at my table and sing shalom aleikhem, I hope that my angels will stay through the honey course. I hope they bless each of us to feel empowered to craft the Shabbat rituals that make the holiday a magical and powerful experience in our homes.