Blessings and Customs for Shabbat
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God.” -Exodus 20:9-10
Jewish tradition commands us to observe the holiday of Shabbat each week, from sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday night. In our hectic, multi-tasking lives, these hours– can be a welcome respite from the pace of everyday life, an opportunity to slow down, spend time with friends and loved ones, do things we enjoy, or just appreciate creation, the world around us, and other things that fly past us during the rest of the week.
In many households, the weekly celebration of Shabbat is preceded by the mitzvah (religious obligation) of giving tzedakah (contributing money to help those in need), most commonly by placing money in a tzedakah box to then be donated to a particular charity or meaningful cause..
It is customary to exchange special greetings on Shabbat. In Yiddish, the greeting is “Gut Shabbos,” which means “Have a good Sabbath.” This greeting is prevalent among people of Ashkenazi ancestry (originating in Eastern and Central Europe) and those born in Europe. Another common greeting is “Shabbat shalom,” which means “Have a peaceful Sabbath.”
Kindling the Shabbat Candles
The lighting of candles ushers in Shabbat. The practice is a rabbinic institution dating back to around 500 C.E., when the Talmud was codified, and over the centuries the practice became the tradition. Customarily, it was women who lit the Shabbat candles, but anyone may light them.
It is Jewish custom to light at least two candles, representing the two passages in the Torah in which we are commanded to keep Shabbat. The first occurs in Exodus 20:8, which states: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” and the second in Deuteronomy 5:12: “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
Why do we light the candles before we say the blessing?
According to customary observance, one would not light a fire once Shabbat has begun. Thus, we light the candles before saying the blessing because the blessing is what marks the beginning of Shabbat. However, since a blessing always precedes an act, some people wave their hands in front of themselves three times before covering their eyes and reciting the blessing, ensuring they don’t see the burning candles until after the blessing has been completed. Although the custom of waving our hands is not drawn from any known text, it has been passed down for many generations. One teaching suggests it intentionally helps the energy of Shabbat enter our bodies and welcomes the light of Shabbat that will accompany us throughout the evening and into the next day.
The order in which we do all of this is purposeful:
- We light the candles.
- We cover or close our eyes.
- We recite the blessing.
After lighting the candles, we bless any children who are present, the wine, and lastly, we give thanks for the food we are about to eat.
Blessing the Children
There is a beautiful Jewish custom in which parents bless their children on Shabbat. This tradition derives from the biblical story of Jacob blessing his grandsons – Ephraim and Menasseh: “So he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By you shall [the people of] Israel give [their] blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh’” (Genesis 48:20).
We relive the story of the blessing of the children through a simple Shabbat ceremony, just after blessing the candles and before the Kiddush. The parents (or other adults) place both hands on the child's bowed head and recite the blessing. (Customarily, the blessings are different for boys and girls, although there is no reason we cannot bless our children with the attributes of all our ancestors.)
Blessing Over the Wine
One of the Ten Commandments is “Remember (zachor) the Sabbath day to sanctify it.”
We understand this commandment to mean that we must declare Shabbat to be holy. The sages pointed out that the word “zachor” is often associated with wine, and thus the mitzvah of sanctifying Shabbat is done with wine, in a blessing called Kiddush.
Another reason for using wine (or if you prefer, grape juice) is to lend a celebratory feeling to the Shabbat meal that follows, distinguishing it as a special, festive occasion, different than other meals during the week.
The brachah (blessing) we say over wine ends with the Hebrew words “...borei p'ri hagafen,” which refers to the “fruit of the vine.” Traditionally, the wine should be made from grapes. Children or those who do not drink wine may recite the Kiddush over grape juice.
On Friday evening, the traditional Shabbat Kiddush consists of three sections:
- An excerpt from the Book of Genesis (1:31-2:3), which describes how God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and hallowed it.
- A blessing over the wine.
- A blessing over Shabbat.
On Shabbat morning, we recite this shorter Kiddush.
Blessing Over the Challah
Challah refers to the special twisted loaf of bread eaten by Jews on Shabbat and other special occasions. These loaves can be purchased in bakeries and groceries stores, but some people choose to make their own. Try this recipe for a delicious homemade challah.
As detailed in the Book of Numbers, “The first portion of your kneading, you shall separate as a dough offering (challah)... In all your generations, give the first of your kneading as an elevated gift to God” (Numbers 15:20-21). When preparing challah, therefore, it is a mitzvah or tradition to take out a piece of the dough – before braiding or baking the challah – that gets burned in the oven. (It is from this mitzvah that the word for challah originates.)
Performing the mitzvah of taking out a piece of dough, sometimes referred to as “taking” challah, is a common time to ask for blessings, especially for healing for those who are ill. In ancient times, this small piece of dough was given to the priests – the Kohanim as a reminder that the material things we have in this world are not just for us. By setting something aside for others, we stay humble and are able to give, even as we bake, create, and do things for ourselves.
It is traditional for two whole challot (plural of challah) to be used on Shabbat, representing the double portion of manna that fell in the desert – as detailed in Exodus 16:22-32 – so that no Israelites would have to gather food on Shabbat.
Reciting a blessing over the challah offers another chance to fulfill the mitzvah mentioned in two places in the Torah – in Exodus 20:8 and in Deuteronomy 5:12 – that commands us to keep (remember and observe) Shabbat. In Jewish observance, it is customary to say a blessing of thanks before eating any food, especially on Shabbat, when we are thankful to have made it through another week and to have special foods to eat.
Before it is served, the challah is covered, often with a special, decorative cloth. If a knife is to be used to cut the challah, it too is covered. These traditions remind us of the importance of both dignity and peace. It is true, as some may have heard, that we cover the challot so they have dignity, like the beautiful candlesticks and sweet wine, and don’t sit uncovered like a plain loaf of bread. Because Shabbat is a time of peace, we cover the knife, too, if one is being used, so we aren’t looking at what can be used as a weapon just as we begin Shabbat. (Lots of people just tear their challot, though, so a knife isn’t needed at all!)
Following the Kiddush:
- The challot are uncovered and the HaMotzi blessing is recited. Others sitting at the table may join in reciting the blessing or answer “b’tayavon” at its conclusion.
- The challot are then sliced or broken apart, with pieces distributed to all present.
- Before eating the challah, it is traditional to salt it. This custom is most often connected to the sacrifices made in the Temple in Jerusalem, which used salt on all the offerings on the altar.
Once you have welcomed Shabbat – with blessings over candles, wine, challah, and the young people around your table – take time to relax and enjoy dinner in a way you may not be able to do during the rest of the week. Shabbat shalom and b’tayavon (bon appetit)!
Want to celebrate with a community instead? Visit reformjudaism.org/congregations to find a Reform synagogue near you.