Shabbat Rituals at Home
By Leah Citrin
As Jews, we get to celebrate a holiday each and every week—how lucky are we! What’s even better is that it is a holiday that is meant to be celebrated—at least in part—in the home. How convenient! Shabbat practice can—and does—differ from person to person, that is what makes Reform Judaism so special and unique. Yet there are certain elements that can tie us together as a greater Jewish people. On Friday nights, our Shabbat celebration might include going to synagogue. It might include a family dinner. It might include friends or relatives. And it might include three rituals that have been part of our people’s history for quite some time: candle lighting, Kiddush, and Motzi.
The first act of welcoming Shabbat is the lighting of the Sabbath candles. In fact, Shabbat is considered to have begun at the moment the candle blessing is completed. There are several minhagim, or customs, that surround this practice. These include the number of candles lit as well as certain physical gestures that accompany the lighting of the candles.
In many homes, we find two candles lit on Shabbat. Why two? Some say that although you might only need one candle for its light, having two represents many examples of duality. For example, we are told to shamor (protect/observe) Shabbat as well as zachor (remember) it
(Deuteronomy 5:12; Exodus 20:8). Other interpretations include the dualities of body and soul, speech and silence. At the same time, there are families in which more than two candles are lit. Sometimes, there is one candle representing each member of the family.
A second custom to consider is the physical choreography of the candle lighting ritual. Some people close their eyes or circle the candles with their hands. Where do these gestures come from? As mentioned above, Shabbat starts when the candle blessing has been recited. Usually, we recite blessings immediately before completing an action. This would mean lighting candles after reciting the blessing. But since Shabbat has already started, according to Jewish law, no fire may be kindled. Therefore, we light the candles and close our eyes, so it is as if the candles are not lit until after the blessing is recited.
The circling of hands and drawing them in is a symbolic act that can represent different meanings. For some, circling the candles and bringing the light in is a way to metaphorically draw the light inward to oneself as Shabbat begins. For others, it is an example of ushering in the Sabbath bride.
Although Kiddush is recited at home, it is also recited in many congregations. In fact, since the Middle Ages, this has been a practice in some places, particularly where people would dine in rooms adjoining the sanctuary of the synagogue.1
The wine that fills the Kiddush cup is a symbol of joy, and the fullness of the cup is an expression of the overflowing happiness that Shabbat has arrived. One of my favorite traditions that I take from my home synagogue is the sharing of simchahs, or joyous occasions, in our community right before Kiddush. Through this sharing of each other’s celebrations, we metaphorically fill our cups to overflowing.
There are two blessings recited as part of the Kiddush. Traditionally, these are preceded by a quote from Genesis (1:31-2:1-3). The text from Genesis brings us back to the first Shabbat, described in our sacred text as taking place once God had created the world. In some Reform communities, we have eliminated this quote as a way to shorten our services.
Even if we change some of the liturgy, we preserve the essence of this ritual’s importance: many students receive Kiddush cups upon becoming bar or bat mitzvah. We mark milestones by enabling the continuation of Jewish ritual observance in the home and by commemorating the holiness of a particular moment.
The final blessing before we eat! We thank God for bringing forth sustenance from the earth. In many communities, there are two challot (challahs) on the table for Shabbat. This represents the double portion of manna that the Israelites received on Shabbat while wandering in the desert.
At different times of the year, our challot will look different. Most of the time, we have braided loaves. According to one tradition, the three braids can represent peace, truth, and justice. Some challot have four, six, or even twelve braids! However, around Rosh Hashanah (and through Sukkot) we find challot that are round. These challot have no beginning and no end, as we too start the Jewish year and the year of reading Torah again.
Ahad Ha’Am once said, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” In both our synagogues and our homes, and in whatever way we choose to make this day separate, may we continue to both keep Shabbat and be kept by Shabbat.
Leah Citrin has just completed her 2nd year of rabbinical school on the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR. Originally from Rye Brook, New York, Leah spent this past year serving as student rabbi at Congregation Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, Louisiana. Next year, she will serve as a rabbinic intern in the Youth Programming department of the American Jewish Archives. She will also be the student rabbi at Temple B’nai Israel in Kokomo, Indiana.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah