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Jewish Sabbath Rituals - Friday Evening in an Observant Jewish Home

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Sabbath Challah Loaves

Sabbath Challah Loaves

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Sabbath Blessings:

An important part of Judaism is acknowledging that the fruits of the earth are gifts from God. Hence, Judaism prescribes the recitation of blessings as a way to elevate the physical into the realm of the spiritual. Blessings are recited before and after eating, before enjoying aromas such as spices, upon seeing pleasing sights such as rainbows, etc. On Friday evening, as Jews welcome in their Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew), blessings are recited over candles, wine, bread, children and more.

Blessing the Candles:

"Just as creation began with the word, 'Let there be light!' so does the celebration of creation (Sabbath) begin with the kindling of lights." (Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 66). On the eve of the Sabbath, after all work has stopped and just before sunset, Jews fulfill the commandment to light and bless candles. After the candles have been lit, many Jews attend Friday night prayer services in synagogue.

Peace Unto You:

Upon returning home from synagogue, a special hymn called Shalom Aleikhem is sung. Shalom Aleikhem, which means "Peace unto You", is a poem of kabbalistic origins, inspired by a Talmudic story about two angels. According to the Talmudic legend, these angels (one bad and one good) accompany each Jew home from the synagogue, blessing or cursing his table depending upon whether he honors or dishonors the Sabbath.

A Woman of Valor:

Eshet Chayil (A Woman of Valor), verses from the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 31:10-31) that describe the ideal wife, are sung next. It has become a Jewish custom for men to recite this hymn at the end of the week, and thus to think about and be thankful for all their wives have done for them and their family throughout the past week.

Blessing the Children:

One of the most moving Shabbat traditions is the blessing over the children given on Friday night. This tradition gently reminds parents to express their love for their children out loud and gives children a feeling of warmth that they can carry with them throughout their lives.

Blessing the Wine:

A kiddish cup is filled to the rim (our joy should be "full") with kosher wine or grape juice, and the blessing over the wine is recited. This blessing is called Kiddush, which means sanctification. Wine, which is a substance that can be drunk in excess, is poured into a silver cup, blessed, and thus sanctified. There is no speaking between blessing the wine and drinking it, as Judaism teaches that all blessings should be followed immediately by partaking pleasure in the gift that was blessed.

Ritual Washing of Hands:

Next hands are ritually washed and dried. As a religious (not hygienic) ritual, it is done in a specified way. Each person fills a vessel with water, and pours the water over their hands. The most common practice is to pour first over the right hand three times, then the left three times, using up all the water. As hands are dried, a benediction referred to as Nitilat Yadayim is recited. Since the washing is preparation for eating, there is no talking between washing and eating the bread.

Blessing the Bread:

Two challah loaves are placed on the Sabbath table. These loaves represent the double portion of manna that the children of Israel gathered on Fridays when they were in the desert (Exod. 16:22). Traditionally the challah stays covered until it is time to recite the blessing. Then the challah cover is removed and the Motzi blessing over the bread is recited. This blessing praises God and thanks God for "bringing forth bread from the earth." Bread, in this blessing, is the symbol of all food.

Festive Meal:

It was recorded in the Talmud that there was a Sabbath custom to speak Divrei Torah (Words of Torah) and sing Zemirot (Songs of Praise) during the Sabbath meal. This ancient custom continues in many observant Jewish homes today.

Grace after Meals:

At the conclusion of the meal, Grace after Meals, called Birkat Hamazon (The Blessing for Sustenance), is recited in accordance with Deuteronomy 8:10. This prayer unit, which consists of four benedictions, expresses gratitude to God. The first benediction thanks God for the blessing of food, the second for "the good land" that He gave to Israel as an inheritance, the third for His merciful restoration of Jerusalem, and the fourth for not permitting Israel to perish. On Shabbat, Psalm 126 (Shir Ha'Maalot, The Song of Ascents) is sung before Birkat Hamazon, as fits a joyous occassion, and a special prayer, called retzeh, is inserted. Many people refer to the recitation of Birkat HaMazon as bentching, which is Yiddish for blessing.
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