Shomer Shabbos Dos and Don’ts: A Quick Guide for Reform Jews

Late yesterday afternoon, I posted this update on Facebook:

Gift-wrapped kosher wine: check; long skirt and boots: check; phone turned off: check; no talking between hand washing and motzi: check. I’m off on an adventure…Shabbat shalom!

Based on my own experience (and that of several colleagues with whom I consulted beforehand), here are the top 10 dos and don’ts to keep in mind when visiting an Orthodox home as a Shabbat dinner guest:

  1. Do wear a long skirt, long sleeves and other modest clothing.
  1. Don’t bring flowers to your hosts. They won’t be able to trim the stems to fit them in a vase. Stick with kosher wine.
  1. Do turn off your phone.
  1. Don’t ring the doorbell when you arrive; knock instead.
  1. Don’t offer to shake hands when you’re introduced to the man of the house or male guests.
  1. Do follow the lead of others when it comes to ritual hand washing. Once you’ve washed your hands, don’t converse until after the motzi has been recited and you’ve tasted the wonderful pull-apart challah dipped in salt.
  1. Don’t turn the light off in the bathroom. It will then have to stay that way.
  1. When you leave with other people, don’t even think about hitting the elevator button. Instead, follow them to the stairwell and carefully walk down nine flights to the lobby.
  1. Don’t get in a cab or on a bus until after you’ve wished them Shabbat shalom and parted paths.
  1. Most important of all: Do try to relax and enjoy the gracious hospitality, delicious food and wonderful company of the evening. I did!

Shabbat shalom!

Originally posted at JanetheWriter Writes…

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About JanetheWriter

JanetheWriter writes and edits for the Union for Reform Judaism. She recently completed a master's degree in public administration (MPA) at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. When she's not writing and editing, JanetheWriter enjoys many of the usual pastimes of New Yorkers including hanging with friends, poking around the city, people watching, going to the movies, visiting museums, browsing in bookstores, dining out, and perusing the Sunday paper. She’s a regular worshipper at the Shabbat minyan at Temple Shaaray Tefila, New York, NY, where she also serves on several committees. Additional writings can be seen on her blog, JanetheWriter Writes.

31 Responses to “Shomer Shabbos Dos and Don’ts: A Quick Guide for Reform Jews”

  1. avatar

    I suspect if I followed #10 it would make my hosts a bit uncomfortable, since I would be violating the commandment against cross-dressing. I might alter a couple words in #6 a bit, too, for me.

    However, all the others appear good advice – some I might not have thought about.

  2. avatar

    This post assumes that being Shomer Shabbos is the same for all Orthodox households. It isn’t. There are modern Orthodox Jews who–just like Reform Jews–don’t follow the letter of the law to the letter. It might be better simply to ask your Shabbos guests in advance what their restrictions are on the Sabbath–and tell them why you’re asking, too. I bet you’d receive a useful reply noting gratitude for asking in the first place.

  3. avatar

    That is, ask your Shabbos hosts :-)

  4. JanetheWriter

    I wrote this post after being invited to share Shabbat dinner with a Shomer Shabbos family. It is based on my own personal experience in their home. I understand, of course, that the experience would likely be entirely different had I been invited to another family’s home just as Shabbat with my family is not the same as it is at my neighbors’ home.

  5. avatar

    Jane, that may be, but the title of this post clearly promotes it as an overall “Guide for Reform Jews,” and at the top of the post you also not having consulted with others in order to sharpen this list of advice. Hence my comments.

  6. avatar

    Sounds like a very accurate and sensible guide to me! However, I had never heard of #5, and the Modern Orthodox people I know break it all the time. I’m going to have to research the Halakhic basis for it. Does anyone here know something about that, to save me the trouble?

    • avatar

      With regards to not speaking between washing and saying “hamotzi,” it is because of the custom of not interupting a mitzvah. When you wash your hands before eating, a blessing is said, and the mitzvah is not concluded until hamotzi is said and bread is eaten. Speaking between the two interrupts this process, and can suggest a diminished respect for the mitzvah.

  7. avatar

    Jane, great list. These guidelines may not apply to all Orthodox Jews as someone else has pointed out (though I imagine it applies to most). They’re broad enough that any variations to these observances in specific Orthodox households would be pretty obvious and easy to catch on-to. All that to say, I think this guide is spot-on.

  8. Jesse Paikin

    Let’s also remember that Orthodoxy does not own a monopoly on what constitutes being Shomer Shabbat. Many Reform, Conservative, and other unlabeled Jews – not to mention Walter from “The Big Lebowski – have their own definition of what Shomer Shabbat means.

    As Michael notes, the easiest thing to do when visiting anyone’s home for Shabbat is to ask in advance what the minhagim (customs) are.

    Too often, we Reform Jews hand off the standards of Jewish observance to Orthodox Jews. We own them, too.

    • avatar

      THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SAYING THAT JESSE! It is EXTREMELY important that Reform and all other non-orthodox Jews avoid selling themselves out to an orthoprax standard of authenticity. To me, excessive legalistic minutiae detract significantly from the warmth and restfulness of Shabbat. The intent of the Halakha is to safeguard the character of Shabbat as a Day of Rest, and prevent people from “doing work”. Yet, many enjoyable, restful activities are considered “work”, and many of the required acts and mitzvot FEEL LIKE WORK. So, what’s the point? I think many Jews, and not just the Orthodox, could use a spirit-over-letter interpretation of Shabbat observance.

      I’ve had the honor of being a guest in pious Modern Orthodox homes where not driving and not watching TV are the only remarkable prohibitions. They do everything else, including use the garbage disposal. Of course, they probably would not let their rabbi see them do that…

    • avatar

      Respectfully, the Reform movement is not halackically based, so in what sense does the Reform movement own them?

      • JanetheWriter

        I don’t think that any one group of Jews or religious stream “owns” anything — not halacha, not standards of practice and not what constitutes being Shomer Shabbat.

        I believe that regardless of how we individually or collectively celebrate Shabbat, and whether we observe the spirit or the letter of the law, what’s most important is that our observance is personally meaningful, refreshing and, in some way, different from the rest of the week.

      • Jesse Paikin


        Just because Reform Judaism doesn’t proscribe mandatory adherence to halachah writ large (if there is such a thing anyways), does not mean that Reform Judaism and Reform Jews don’t have an ongoing relationship with halachot.

        Despite some people’s (Artscroll’s?) attempts to claim otherwise, halachah is not monolithic or static. Even among Orthodoxy, halachot has evolved over time, and different groups interpret halachah differently. Halachah is not a singular piece or body that anyone person or group of people has domain over.

        Reform Jews have ownership over Shabbat observances (and the entire array of Jewish laws and customs) precisely because they (we) are Jews.

    • avatar

      You can’t won’t go wrong in following all those things on the list. Shomer shabbos hosts would be likely to neither point out that they don’t follow every mitzvah perfectly nor point out where a guest is being stricter than necessary.

      • JanetheWriter


        You’re right…with “following” being the operative word. Thankfully, my hosts didn’t point out when their very nervous guest misstepped. Only after I rang the doorbell and it echoed and echoed and echoed did I realize that I should have knocked. I’ll definitely remember that one for next time!

        • avatar

          Can you, Jane’s hosts, explain the rationale for letting your guest cool her heels — in this case the heels of the boots she has a worn as a courtesy to you — and pretending not to hear the doorbell that she rang because you were not considerate enough to put up a note saying Please don’t ring, knock. I can understand why ringing the bell is a no-no, but once it’s been rung????

    • avatar

      A bit of semantics to defuse any defensiveness… when Orthodox Jews say “shomer shabbos”, they mean neither Orthodox nor any other denomination. They mean any Jew who keeps shabbos according to halakha… no driving, no turning lights or appliances on or off, not cooking on shabbos, etc. according to the sources such as Torah, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, which they cite as authoritative. The anodyne term “shomer shabbos” is preferred because those sources do not recognize or make any distinctions between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. even though those movement names are often used in everyday conversation to refer to members of congregations aligned with those movements.

  9. Daphne Price

    Come to my house. Wear whatever you want. But please don’t turn the bathroom light off :-)

    Seriously Jane, great list. Pretty spot on.

    Jordan — Washing/reciting “Al Netilat Yadayim” and making the HaMotzi are considered to be part of the same blessing/ritual, and chatting would constitute a disruption that would require one to wash again. (There is also a custom in some communities to wash, then make kiddush with the “captive” audience and then make hamotzi.)

  10. avatar

    In many Orthodox households, on Shabbat they are not going to tear open the gift wrapping that encloses the wine. The advice on asking in advance is excellent.

    • avatar

      Nowadays, there are wine bottle gift bags with drawstring or plastic snap openings that can be pulled open without breaking any halakha. Or just slap a stick-on ribbon bow on the bottle without wrapping it. However, no guest should expect a wine gift to be used the night it’s given. Regardless of whether I was a guest at Jew or Gentile home, I made the assumption that my hosts chose wines to go with the meal and that my gift would be put aside for another time–unless I was specifically asked to bring wine to drink that evening.

  11. avatar

    This is a great list.
    I have been in a number of Shomer Shabbat households and would say that #10 is most important for your own comfort and #4 is important for everyone’s comfort and the item people are most likely to forget to mention.
    In the more religious sections of my own family #5 is rarely observed (we are a talkative bunch) but in most cases there is no talking between the motsei blessing and the eating of the bread which can take a while in large families. To be sure I would keep quiet unless you are spoken to.

  12. avatar

    So many unnecessarily “fight the Orthodox power” comments on here, but whatever floats your boat and lights your inner lamp, I guess.

    This is a great list. No. 1 being the most important. I also would add — if there were a magical No. 11 to ASK QUESTIONS! If something is happening and you don’t know what it’s all about, ask. Too often I think we just go with the flow and don’t allow ourselves to say, “Okay, yeah, but why?”

    As a Reform-Convert-Converted-Orthodox, I *still* find myself asking questions. The most recent one I can think of is why we use red wine on Friday night and white wine on Saturday night.

    Knowledge is power. Ignorance breeds “fight the power” and Jew vs. Jew anger.

    It’s Shabbat. Love it :)

    • Larry Kaufman

      The assertion that there are too many “fight the Orthodox power” comments is absurd on its face, and even moreso when we consider both the context and the venue.

      Jane’s post itself is devoted to giving Reform Jews some guidelines for showing approprate respect in an Orthodox household to minhag hamakom — the standards of that place. Neither a fight nor a concession.

      Jesse appropriately reminds us that minhag hamakom varies from makom to makom, and our Reform minhag is just as valid but our minhag also includes an emphasis on derech eretz – civilized behavior — which includes respect for the minhag of others.

      And Jordan appropriately reminds us that the basic Shabbat prohibition is against work, and surely it’s more work to walk a mile to services in the cold or heat than to drive. Eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim , these and these are the words of the living God, and that it’s a perfectly reasonable approach to say that the extra work that some Shabbat observances require may actually be subverting the mitzvah.

      So the context of the remarks is hardly fighting the Orthodox, and the venue, the Reform Judaism blog, is specifically a forum for expressing Reform viewpoints.

      • avatar

        I agree, except for your comment about walking being more “work”. In Torah and derived sources of mitzvot and halakha (e.g. Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, etc.), prohibited work on shabbos is not comparatively measured as mass times distance (i.e. as in physics). It is qualitatively prohibited if belonging to any of 39 categories of “work”.

        • avatar

          Dave, you may be halakhically correct, but I think even some orthodox would find it appropriate to consider that some very strenuous activities not halakhically considered work (such as a very long walk in unpleasant conditions) might be sufficiently uncomfortable as to cause injury or at least ruin the “shabbosdik” mood. I am not a good enough Halakhist to know if this changes its Halakhic status, but my guess is that a) it doesn’t and b) it SHOULD!

          All this being said, and despite how personally interesting this conversation is to me, it is beginning to feel like the Reform Jews participating in this discussion care a little bit too much about the minutiae. Such things should concern us ONLY insofar as the knowledge helps us to be good, respectful guests for our orthodox friends and family, or insofar as it is interesting from a purely academic perspective. This level of Halakhic reasoning and study should not be of personal, practical import in a non-Halakhic movement. Of course, I can predict that others will criticize me for caring a little too much about what others care about! Eilu v’eilu, I suppose…

  13. avatar

    Don’t giftwrap the wine. Make sure it says “mevushal” on the label.

    Don’t bring homemade food unless you ask first if it’s ok.

  14. JanetheWriter

    I’m delighted that this posted has sparked such interesting discussion.

    Jordan, I appreciate your mentioning the spirit-over-letter interpretation of Shabbat observance. It’s exactly where I am…

    I think my apartment just smells different when I come home after work on Friday (and believe me, it’s not because there’s a chicken roasting in the oven!), and the bus ride up First Avenue on Saturday morning on my way to minyan is unlike any other all week long. There’s a distinct intentionality about it…it just *feels* different.

    Shabbat shalom, all!

  15. avatar

    It’s OK to give flowers as a gift if you are able to deliver them before Shabbat starts, or have them delivered before.

  16. avatar

    I’m impressed with this article. Just went to an Orthodox Shabbat dinner. This article captures my experience exactly. I wish I had read it earlier.

  17. avatar

    This list reflects my experience when visiting Shomer Shabbat homes, although if your arms are covered to at least the elbow you can get away with a knee-length skirt. If you are or have ever been married, bring a head covering of some kind to wear. I would modify #6 to say, let the men take the lead regarding hand shaking. Don’t stick out your hand first. Those who are willing to shake hands will hold theirs out to you.

    I would also suggest not taking your handbag with you. If you drove, leave it in the car and put your key in your pocket. (Park your car down the block or around the corner.) If you are taking public transportation, be very insistent that you don’t need to be accompanied home and put your fare or farecard, and ID in your pocket, shoe or bra and your key on a chain or ribbon around your neck. Your hosts may feel they can’t invite you back if the invitation causes you to breach the Sabbath halakha to visit them, so these suggestions avoid embarrassment for them, and help keep the invitations coming.

    As for the elevator: I have difficulty with stairs due to my physical condition. Under Halakha you are not required to perform or abstain from an activity that adversely affects your health, so if you can’t safely negotiate stairs, explain that and feel free to take the elevator.

  18. avatar

    Thank you for writing this article! It is very helpful. I attended a conference some time ago – there were Reform, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Secular Jews and so forth and of course, very different minhagim. My favorite was the large table with water basin, towels, pitchers, and cubes of bread close by that we could use prior to sitting to dine. I wasn’t sure of the process, but a young Orthodox man kindly told me how it works (and reminded me of the blessing). I can’t say I always remember to do so, but I am working at it – and it makes every meal special. I get goosebumps washing my hands. So I very much appreciate it when people with other minhagim share them. That is a blessing.

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