JERUSALEM — When 7‑year-old Ariella Gillman sees her mom preparing for their family’s weekly Shabbat dinner, the little girl insists that company join in and help her eat a few loaves of challah bread. On the rare occasion no one joins the six-person family of Modern Orthodox Jews, Ariella’s disappointment rocks her to the point of tears.
For the Gillman family, the Shabbat dinner is not an activity meant to be celebrated by the nuclear family alone. They instead usher in Shabbat, the Sabbath, by welcoming guests as they light the ceremonial candles, bless the food, and commune together through the recitation of Hebrew blessings from the Torah. I crowded Neil and Aliza Gillman’s home with 15 of my fellow travelers last Friday to share in the Gillmans’ tradition. After just one evening with them, I feel encouraged to introduce a Shabbat-like practice to my own life.
Just after Aliza lit the candles at our dinner and the family prayed, the family practiced a tradition that amazed me. First, Neil and Aliza stood up and serenaded one another with Proverbs 31. Traditionally, this moment is usually reserved for the husband to thank his wife for the work she does in the home — in Jewish tradition, the woman is recognized as the anchor of the household and the keeper of traditions. But in the Gillman’s household, the husband and wife sing this to each other because they both work full-time jobs, wipe snotty noses, and rinse dirty dishes. An equal participation in household and child-rearing duties deserves equal recognition in their eyes.
Next, the parents took each little one in their arms and said a blessing over them. We crammed at an L‑shaped table in the Gillman’s dining room, so Neil suggested the children — two of whom cuddled him at one end of the table, the other two hanging off their mother at the other side — receive a blessing from just one of the parents. This wouldn’t suffice for the Gillman children. They crawled under tables and over strangers to reach both parents, to have their heads held and kissed by their mother and their father as each chanted the blessings for children in Hebrew. Aliza told us she cherishes this moment as an opportunity to connect with each of her children on an individual level.
Then we ate. After we finished the last slice of challah and wiped the dish of hummus clean, Neil stood up to wish us well before we exited their home and returned to a sleepy Jerusalem. He looked on a room full of Christian students, all of whom glowed with the excitement and warmth of the meal.
Neil explained to us why his family honors the Sabbath. The Orthodox Jewish world stops for 25 (no, not 24) hours every week, leaving behind cars, metros, cell phones, laptops, televisions. They do so to honor God, love their families and friends, and rest their bodies and minds, he said.
“During this time we have no choice but to reconnect with our nearest and dearest — those who are closest to us but who often get overlooked during the course of the week. We make sure to invite friends and family to celebrate Shabbat with us, sitting around the table, enjoying a festive meal and each other’s company and conversation,” Neil wrote to me later in an email. “We take the time to reflect on the week gone by, asking everyone around the table to tell us about the best part of their week, giving thanks for what we have.”
As a college student, I don’t keep any kind of Sabbath. Every Sunday, I drive to Holy Trinity Parish, usually 10 minutes late to choir practice, and worship the Lord during a 90-minute service. Then I rush back to campus, gobble down some eggs at brunch, attend a few meetings, work out, shower, and finally settle in for however long a homework session I need to get me through Monday’s classes.
I’ve been thinking about adopting a Sabbath-like practice for a long time. I could shift my week so that Sunday afternoon or evening becomes a time for reflection and rest instead of a flat sprint toward early-week deadlines. After experiencing just the beginning of Shabbat at the Gillman’s home and an eerily quiet Jerusalem the next day, I’ve finally made the commitment.
I probably won’t serve a massive dinner on Saturday nights. And I won’t walk to church the next day. The reality is that I have homework and meetings and a messy room, and nothing about the Christian faith commands me to sit quietly in my room isolated from work and responsibility.
But I am going to commit to a compromise: to turn the last three hours of my Sunday into a mini-Sabbath. This might sound small after my spiritual experience at the Gillman’s. But at least I’m taking their cue. My three-hour Shabbat will allow me to disengage from the internet, tidy my room, call home, and spend some extra time with the Lord.
Maybe I’ll even make some challah bread.