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Shabbat Reading with Kids

October 21, 2011

Shabbat can be a wonderful time to read with our kids. The following books, all dealing with Shabbat themes, would make great stories to share with our families on the Sabbath itself, or any other day of the week.

The Shabbat Princess is ostensibly about the idea of beautification: hiddur mitzvah is a reminder that adding beauty to a commandment (mitzvah) increases its worth. The story is set up with a simple exchange between mother and daughter:

"Why do we always use our best dishes for Shabbat?" Rosie asked.
"Because we're welcoming the Shabbat Queen!" answer her mother. "And a queen deserves only the best."

Hearing about the Sabbath Queen, Rosie rallies her parents into pulling out all the stops for a beautiful Shabbat dinner table, and gets appointed as the Sabbath Princess along the way. Illustrated in a style reminiscent of Strawberry Shortcake, the story verges on materialism as newer, shinier objects are brought down from the attic and dug out of boxes, but is tempered by the girl's wise deployment of a shiny scarf as the challah cover. It's unclear why the girl's parents can't indulge in the rest of her make believe, as the girl would really like a moat to complement her Queen and Princess-themed play!

Hiddur mitzvah is a wonderful foundation of our culture of Judaica — beautiful objects that support our ritual life — and may be a new concept for some families, but this certainly doesn't prevent enjoyment of the story. The Shabbat Princess is probably best for older preschoolers.

Bim and Bom is probably my favorite out of this batch of Kar-Ben books. Warmly illustrated, the story depicts a brother baker and a sister carpenter who live on opposite sides of town. Each work hard, contributing to their community with their skills. On Fridays, Bim (the sister) builds affordable homes for the poor and Bom (the brother) bakes challah. Friday evenings, they clean up and look forward to joining each other to celebrate Shabbat.

I really enjoyed how this story celebrates our individual talents and the contributions we each make, while quietly subverting gender stereotypes. Bim is pictured in pants, and Bom is described as lacking hammering skill but loving to bake. Readers familiar with the "Shabbat Shalom" song will enjoy recognizing the siblings' names from the tune, and the song's music and words are included in the back of the book. This Bim and Bom is suitable for all ages, and doesn't require any specific Jewish background or knowledge.

It's Tot Shabbat features photographs of young congregants, which is probably its main appeal, especially to babies and young toddlers, who tend to engage strongly with photographs of other young children. With one child of color included in the depictions of the synagogue's "Shabbat Club," this book moves towards representing the growing diversity of some synagogues. The "Shabbat Club" is where these preschoolers go while their parents are praying, where they play, take out the plush Torahs, learn a Torah story, say the blessings and ultimately rejoin their parents in the main congregation.

For apprehensive youngsters, this story can be an excellent introduction to what may feel scary or new. Best for early preschoolers, parents new to Judaism may want to familiarize themselves with the scenes in the story so that they're able to provide explanations.

Joseph and the Sabbath Fish is a traditional Jewish folk tale that tells the story of two men. One is generous, one closely guarding his assets. Through predictable mechanisms, Judah, the non-sharing one, consolidates all his assets and ultimately loses them. And Joseph, despite the fact that his provision of Shabbat meals for travelers, beggars and orphans exceeds his ability to pay, is ultimately repaid, both through accidental acquisition of Judah's jewels, and through those he has supported over the years turning around to support him.

Though this story can verge on preachy, the lesson it preaches is a good one: be generous, share, welcome others to your table. Requiring no special foreknowledge, this story is richly illustrated and will be enjoyed by older preschoolers who can sustain attention for this fairly long story (20 pages of text) — they will surely delight in the twists of fate!

Hebrew for "Sabbath [of] peace," a greeting on the Jewish Sabbath. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.
Elias Kass

Elias Kass, ND, LM, CPM, is a naturopathic doctor and licensed midwife happily delivering babies and plying them with beautifully illustrated books in Seattle, Washington.

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