I have to be honest: I didn’t always love Shabbat dinner growing up. As a kid, it meant having to wear a cardboard-stiff dress and sit still at the dinner table at my grandparent’s house for what felt like an eternity. As a teenager, it meant having to give my mom my phone for the night and miss out on high school house parties (in retrospect, probably for the best). However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see the beauty in Shabbat dinner, in turning off technology for the night to catch up and converse with friends and family.
I threw my first Shabbat dinner at 23 and was a nervous wreck. The menu was way too complicated (homemade challah, an elaborate quinoa salad, roasted chicken, and vegetables), and the overall preparation time took me actual weeks. By the time my friends finally gathered around my coffee table (classy), I had nearly forgotten why I wanted to do this dinner in the first place.
It wasn’t until we were all together, sharing what we were grateful for that week, that it clicked into place: Shabbat doesn’t have to mean a perfect, elaborate dinner. Since then, I’ve thrown numerous Shabbat dinners and it seems I learn something new with each one. Below are my tips:
1. DON’T Invite Only People Who Know Each Other
It can be tempting to invite only your routine social circle when planning out your Shabbat guest list, but use this dinner as an opportunity to introduce people from all the various parts of your life. What’s so wonderful about a dinner party versus a cocktail/rooftop/house party is that conversations will involve the whole group, so you don’t need to worry about someone being left out. Shabbat is a great opportunity to help create new connections amongst your friends, and the perfect opportunity to reach out to someone who might not have anywhere to spend their Friday night.
2. DO Invite Your Friends Who Aren’t Jewish
Yeah, yeah, I know. Shabbat is Jewish, so shouldn’t you only invite…Jews? Not necessarily! The idea of spending time with friends and family, away from the distractions of technology, can be appreciated by anyone. Some of my most successful Shabbat dinners have involved inviting people who had little to no knowledge of Judaism (looking at you, friends-I-met-in-college-who-still-have-never-been-to-a-bat-mitzvah). It’s a great way to teach those friends a bit about your background. Just be sure to let them know that they can ask you—or the group—questions at any point.
3. DON’T Have People Thinking This Is Just a Casual Party
For any other party I’ve thrown in my apartment, the invitation has included caveats like “Come whenever!” “Leave whenever!” “Bring whoever!” But that’s not the case for Shabbat. For one thing, you want to be able to get an accurate headcount so you know how much food and wine to get. But, more importantly, the point of the night is to connect with others over conversation and good food. You don’t want people rolling in two hours late or saying their goodbyes before the challah has even been broken.
4. DON’T Try to Make Everything Perfect Enough to Please Your Grandmother
In Judaism, Shabbat is referred to as a “queen,” whose presence graces Jewish homes throughout the duration of the day, and in a perfect world, your apartment would be fit to honor this queen. In reality, you own five unmatching chairs, have no dining room table, and the only art on the walls is your roommate’s subpar photography. Instead of overwhelming yourself by focusing on what you can’t change about your living space, decide to focus on a couple of key details that you can control.
Personally, I like to focus on the table setting. Even though my “dinner table” is very clearly an Ikea living room table, I still set it with candles, flowers, and a tablecloth. You don’t need to blow your budget on these items, either—flowers from the bodega and a thrifted tablecloth are tiny changes that make a big impact.
5. DON’T Be Afraid of Store-Bought Food
I know, I know. Your bubbe’s challah is the best challah in the world. Your grandfather makes matzah ball soup so good it’s worth every minute of prepping. And your mom’s roasted chicken is your favorite food of all time. But the likelihood of you pulling off a homemade appetizer, entree, sides, and dessert (all after you get out of work on Friday, yet somehow before your friends arrive) isn’t too high—even with prep work.
Instead, focus on one or two dishes that you feel confident making. For everything else, go store-bought (Trader Joe’s frozen appetizers are a game-changer) or reach out to your guests. If someone offers to bring something (and someone will always offer to bring something), don’t tell them, “Just bring yourself!” Ask if they can pick up dessert, another loaf of challah, or more wine.
6. DO Put Phones Away (But DON’T Surprise People With This Information)
One of the most important traditions of Shabbat is disconnecting from technology for 25 hours, from sundown on Friday evening to just after sunset on Saturday. Even if you decide you don’t want to stop using electricity completely, use your Shabbat dinner as an opportunity to shut off cell phones and close laptops. When your guests arrive, ask them to please refrain from checking their phones during the course of the evening and to keep their phones powered off or on silent. I do recommend giving people a heads up with this information when you send out invites and explain—especially to friends who might not be familiar with Shabbat—that this request is a hallmark of Shabbat, not just a random request from you.
7. DO Start the Night Off With a Shabbat-Themed Ice-Breaker
I like to start the evening off by asking the question, “What are you grateful for this week?” Instead of going around in a circle (where people might feel pressure to answer before they have a real answer), invite your guests to share their gratitude whenever they’re ready. As the host, you should be the first one to share, and I recommend coming up with your answer before guests start to arrive. Once you get the ball rolling, others will be quick to follow.
8. DON’T Think The Night Has to Be Super Serious
Growing up, Shabbat at my grandparent’s house was always so serious and very religious. As a Reform Jew, part of my initial reluctance to host my own Shabbat was that I didn’t think it could be fun or personal. Once I accepted that Shabbat can be as simple as a few friends getting together sans phones over food, the idea of hosting my own Shabbat became way more manageable.
One of my more memorable Shabbat dinners involves finding out my oven was broken an hour and a half before guests were set to arrive. That dinner wound up being a somewhat makeshift meal out of challah, olives, mozzarella cheese, and kettle chips. Classy? Not quite. Traditional? Definitely not. But the prayers were still said, the phones were still turned off, gratitudes were still shared, and a special dinner was still had. (Speaking of prayers, you don’t have to say any if you’re not comfortable with that, but in case you’re curious, here’s a handy cheat-sheet you can use.)
9. DO Make It a Tradition
If you are interested in making Shabbat a weekly tradition, you’ll want to start putting plans into motion as soon as possible. The morning after your dinner, send out an email thanking your guests for coming and letting them know you’re interested in doing a Shabbat dinner every week (or every other week, or once a month).
Happy hosting, and Shabbat shalom!