The 52-Day Holiday


Originally published November 2007. Republished May 23, 2012.

While many interfaith and non-traditional Jewish families are creating fresh blessings for their seders and bringing new life to the High Holy Days, Shabbat — the only holiday mentioned in the Ten Commandments — is often bypassed.

One reason, of course, is that Shabbat comes once a week, from sunset every Friday until the first stars appear on Saturday evening. It is much easier to light a menorah for eight days at Hanukkah than to get the family together for a celebration that occurs 52 times a year.

In Cohen’s recipe for lemon-roasted chicken, chicken is butterflied and roasted on a bed of lemons.

Then too, in all but quite religious households, the routine demands of contemporary life can make even simple Shabbat observance difficult. A Friday night dinner when Jenny regularly performs in the school plays and her older brother wants to grab a pizza and hang out with friends on weekends?

But the ancient wisdom of setting aside one day of the week and marking it as special still applies today. Shabbat not only rests our bodies and renews our spirits but also nourishes our families.

Here are just some of the ways to bring Shabbat traditions into contemporary families’ lives:

  • Before Shabbat starts, it is customary to put aside money for charity, or tzedakah. Sspecial tzedakah boxes — beautiful heirlooms or colorful ones made by the kids — are familiar fixtures in many Jewish homes. Put money in the box every Friday, and make the decision of where to donate the money a family one. Encourage your children to contribute some of their own money to the collection, or to a different cause that is important to them.
  • If a family member is away — a child at school or camp, a parent traveling on business, grandparents who live out-of-town — this is a wonderful time to call, wish him or her a good week, and say I love you.
  • Families traditionally usher in Shabbat by lighting candles: usually two, though some light an extra candle for each child or even each member of the household. While candlelighting was a woman’s job in the past, there is no reason why the father or all the family members can’t take part. Kindling the flames focuses attention on the moment, announcing the commencement of the Sabbath, and the soft lights cast a protective glow over the house. If your children arrive home later in the evening, well past candlelighting, consider giving them their own candles to light at that time.
  • “Filled now with a sense of our blessings, we are aware of the gift our children are to us.” For a parent, this may be the most beautiful part of Shabbat — the time to bless your children using either the traditional blessing from a prayerbook or one you create in your own words. If you incorporate just one Shabbat tradition into your life, let it be this one. If you have been arguing all week, take a break, bless and kiss your child. If your children go out on Friday night, bless them when they come home or the following day. Many parents “save up” their blessings for a long speech on the day their child becomes bar or bat mitzvah or marries. But if you bless your child in your own words every Shabbat, you will be surprised at how the blessing will change from week to week, ultimately serving as a rich foundation for your blessing on the big day. This is also a perfect time for all members of the family to bless each other.
  • Before dinner is served, the special wine blessing, the Kiddush, is chanted. In our family, as in so many others, the cup is then passed around the table so everyone can drink in the Sabbath’s sweetness.
  • Ashkenazi and Sephardi literature abounds with descriptions of memorable Shabbat dinners, of foods imbued with the unique spice of Sabbath itself. A luscious home-cooked meal served on your best china would be fabulous, but there are simpler ways to make the dinner special: fill a vase with fragrant flowers, offer a dessert too rich for your weekday table, splurge on the red meat or beautiful high-carb bread you try to avoid at other times. Sit down together at the same time and eat leisurely, reading a story or singing family songs to encourage young children to stay at the table.
  • If at all possible, try to have your kids bring their friends home, rather than go out, or arrange to serve dinner early, before they leave for the evening. If they do miss dinner, consider deferring Shabbat dessert — or just plain milk and cookies — until they return home. And bless them then.
  • “When I marched in Selma,” the eminent theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “my feet were praying”; some families regularly pray with their hands on Shabbat instead of attending worship services. At the Village Temple in New York City, every Saturday while services are taking place downstairs in the sanctuary, volunteers — young children to 90-somethings — work in the soup kitchen upstairs preparing a hearty lunch for homeless guests. If your family prefers to pray with their hands on Friday night or Saturday, and local synagogues do not have a similar program (in Orthodox and most Conservative congregations, traditionally such work would not be permitted in the synagogue on the Sabbath), consider other opportunities in your area for which you might regularly volunteer, like Friday night or Saturday morning read-alouds in the children’s or geriatric section of your hospital.
  • Shabbat has always been a time for visiting extended family and close friends, a time to strengthen bonds with those we love. Gathering around the table — whether for a special meal like Shabbat lunch or just pie and ice cream September afternoons on the screened porch — invites conversation. And without baseball blaring from the TV, grandpa may share a family memory; leaving video games or the laptop at home will encourage children to participate with stories of their own. When all their parents had passed away, the Goldberg cousins revived a long-lost family tradition: the Cousins Club. Realizing that, with the older generation gone, it was up to them to stay in touch with each other, they decided to get together once a month for a pot-luck Shabbat dinner. The vibrant meal they share reflects the rich tapestry of cultures and faiths the family now comprises. And for many families, spending time together outdoors on Shabbat brings a heightened sense of our place in the universe. Visiting a botanical garden or nearby hiking trail as the seasons unfold, taking a leisurely family walk every Saturday afternoon, watching the sun set or the constellations appear in the Friday night sky — all connect us to the rhythms of the natural world and to each other.

Shabbat Recipes

Egyptian Ground Fish Balls with Tomato and Cumin (Bellahat)

Favored by Egyptian Jews as a prelude to Shabbat and holiday meals, this easy-to-prepare, well-seasoned alternative to gefilte fish requires no poaching in fish stock and can be made with any white-fleshed fish. The pungent cumin that flavors bellahat tastes like today, but it is an ancient spice, sold by the Hebrews during biblical times in herb markets, and used in their soups, stews and breads.

When summer collides headlong with fall, I prepare a tomato and fresh pepper sauce variation from the explosion of red, orange and yellow at my local greenmarket.

For the fish balls:

1 1/2 lbs. flounder, haddock, cod, scrod, sole, hake, sea bass, snapper, grouper or other non-oily white fish fillets, the skin and any remaining bones discarded
1/2 cup matzah meal
2 large eggs
1 Tbsp minced fresh garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
cayenne (I usually use about 1/4 tsp — I like this rather spicy, the traditional Egyptian way — but season to your taste)
olive or vegetable oil, for frying

For the sauce (see Cook’s Note for an alternative sauce made from fresh tomatoes):

2 cups good-quality canned whole tomatoes with their juice, seeded and chopped
2 Tbsp fine-quality extra-virgin olive oil
juice of one large lemon
salt and freshly black ground pepper

For serving:

soft-leafed lettuce, for lining the platter
optional accompaniments: chopped fresh parsley or cilantro; lemon quarters

  1. Make the fish balls. Cut the fish into 1-inch pieces. In a food processor, puree them with the matzah meal, eggs, garlic, salt, cumin, and cayenne until the mixture is smooth. Transfer the puree to a large bowl, and refrigerate it, covered, for 1 hour. With moistened hands, shape the mixture into 16 slightly flattened logs, using a scant 1/4 cup for each, and transfer them as they are formed to a sheet of wax paper. Heat 1/4-inch of oil over high heat in a large, heavy skillet until it is hot, but not smoking. Add the fish balls in batches, and fry, turning them once, until pale golden. Transfer the balls as they are fried to paper towels to drain.
  2. Make the tomato sauce. Wipe out the skillet thoroughly. Add the tomatoes and their juice, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste and cook over high heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break up and the sauce is thickened. Add the fish balls and simmer the mixture over low heat, covered, for 15 minutes, turning the fish balls once or twice. Remove the skillet from the heat and allow the bellahat to cool in the sauce.
  3. Serve.> Line a platter with the lettuce leaves, arrange the bellahat on them, and spoon the sauce over the fish. Sprinkle with parsley or cilantro and accompany with lemon quarters, if desired. Serve the fish chilled or at room temperature.

Yield: about 8 servings

Cook’s Note: Try the following cilantro-scented sauce when fresh tomatoes and peppers are in season.

Pepper and Tomato Sauce

2 lbs. fresh plum tomatoes (If you have access to a farmers’ market, look for heirloom varieties; I’ve particularly enjoyed a deep-flavored, juicy yellow plum tomato.)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onions (scant ½ lb.)
1 1/2 cups diced sweet red peppers (look for the long, narrow, thin-fleshed frying peppers, such as Cubanelle, or, even better, local heirloom varieties; if unavailable, substitute finely diced red or yellow bell peppers; or add a little finely chopped, thin-fleshed mildly hot red pepper, like Hungarian wax pepper)
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 Tbsp excellent-quality extra-virgin olive oil
juice of one lemon
2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Prepare the tomatoes. Bring a 6-quart saucepan of water to a boil. Add the tomatoes and cook for 60-90 seconds. Using tongs, remove them one by one to a large bowl to cool slightly. Peel off the skins (they should come off quite easily). Cut off and discard the stem end of each tomato and chop the tomatoes coarsely.
  2. Heat the 2 Tbsp of regular olive oil in a heavy 10- to 12-inch sauté pan or deep skillet.
  3. Add the onions and sauté, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until softened, 5-7 minutes. Add the peppers, raise the heat to moderately high, and sauté, scraping and stirring the vegetables, until the peppers are soft and slightly caramelized, 7-8 minutes.
  4. Add the tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking, taking care to stir and scrape the bottom of the pan so the vegetables don’t burn, until the tomatoes are very tender and melting. The exact time will vary depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes, but figure on 10-15 minutes.
  5. If you prefer a sauce with a smooth texture, puree it in the pan using an immersion blender, or transfer to a blender, food processor or food mill to puree. (If you want to reuse this pan to fry the fish balls, transfer the sauce to a bowl, then clean out the pan thoroughly.)
  6. Before adding the fish balls to the sauce, rewarm the sauce gently in the pan, and stir in the extra-virgin olive oil and the lemon juice.
  7. After the fish balls are cooked, sprinkle them with the cilantro and allow them to cool in the sauce before refrigerating.

Braised Brisket with 36 Cloves of Garlic

“You could smell the brisket all over the house, it had so much garlic in it. A roast like that, with a fresh warm twist, is a delicacy from heaven.” — Sholem Aleichem, Tit for Tat

In my take on the French classic, chicken with 40 cloves of garlic becomes brisket with 36 cloves. All that feisty garlic turns sweet and mellow with gentle braising; when pureed, it forms a seductive gravy, which is finished with a zing of chopped raw garlic and lemon zest.

Why 36 cloves? Beginning with aleph, which equals one, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet stands for a number, and so every word has a numerical value. All multiples of 18, the numerical value of the Hebrew word chai, life, are considered especially auspicious, which is why donations to charity, and wedding and bar mitzvah gifts are often given in multiples of 18.

36 fat garlic cloves, or an equivalent amount of smaller cloves, plus 1 tsp minced garlic
3 Tbsp olive oil
A first-cut beef brisket (about 5 lbs.), trimmed of excess fat, wiped with a damp paper towel, and patted dry
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
3 cups beef or chicken broth, preferably homemade, or good quality low-sodium canned
3-4 fresh thyme sprigs or 2 tsp dried thyme
2 fresh rosemary sprigs, plus 1 tsp chopped rosemary
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp grated lemon zest

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. Drop the garlic cloves into boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain immediately. Peel as soon as garlic is cool enough to handle. Set aside on paper towels to dry.
  3. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed roasting pan or casserole large enough to accommodate the meat in one layer. Use two burners, if necessary. Add the brisket, and brown well on both sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer the brisket to a platter and set aside.
  4. Pour off all but about 1 Tbsp of fat remaining in the pan, and add the garlic cloves. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic edges are tinged with gold. Add the vinegar and deglaze pan, scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom with a wooden spoon. Add the stock, thyme and rosemary sprigs, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Salt and pepper the brisket to taste on all sides, and add it to the pan, fat side up. Spoon the garlic cloves over the meat.
  5. Place the brisket in the oven, cover (if you have no lid, use heavy-duty foil), and cook, basting every half-hour, until meat is fork tender, 2 ½ – 3 hours or longer. (As the meat cooks, periodically check that the liquids are bubbling gently. If they are boiling rapidly, turn the oven down to 300 degrees)
  6. Transfer the brisket to a cutting board and tent it loosely with foil.
  7. Prepare the gravy. Strain the braising mixture, reserving the garlic and discarding the thyme and rosemary sprigs. Skim and discard as much fat as possible from the liquid. Puree about one-half of the cooked garlic and 1 cup of the defatted braising liquid in a food processor or a blender. Transfer the pureed mixture, the remaining braising liquid, and the rest of the cooked garlic to a skillet. Add the reserved chopped rosemary and minced garlic and the lemon zest. Boil down the gravy over high heat, uncovered, to desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning. (If you want a smooth gravy, puree all of the cooked garlic cloves.)
  8. Cut the brisket into thin slices across the grain at a slight diagonal. Arrange the sliced brisket on a serving platter. Spoon some of the hot gravy all over the meat and pass the rest in a separate sauceboat.

Yield: 8 generous servings

Cook’s Note: You can prepare the brisket in advance (not only a time-saver, but it is much easier to remove the fat from the gravy when the brisket has been refrigerated, covered, overnight; before reheating, simply scrape off the congealed fat from the surface of the meat and gravy), but hold off on the rosemary-garlic finish. Reheat the brisket gently in the defatted gravy until the meat is heated through, and then proceed with the final sprinkling of rosemary, garlic, and lemon zest. This last-minute addition ensures that the flavors will be bright and fresh-tasting.

Lemon-Roasted Chicken

For maximum flavor, I rub the marinade right into the chicken flesh beneath the skin and then I roast it on a layer of lemons. Butterflying the chicken enables you to spread the marinade on more of the meat under the skin and to remove more of the fat trapped there, especially between the joints. Because so much fat is removed with this method, the skin never becomes soggy and a final sizzle under the broiler crisps it up delectably.

one 3 ½ – 4 ½-pound frying or roasting chicken (preferably fresh, not previously frozen), butterflied down the backbone and pounded gently so it lies flat
1 ½ Tbsp coarsely chopped garlic (4-5 large cloves)
2 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme, or 4 tsp dried thyme
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
olive oil for the pan
2 lemons
½ tsp packed light brown sugar

  1. Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Remove all visible fat. Starting at the neck end, gently loosen the skin by sliding your hand underneath the breast and carefully working your way back to the legs. Remove as much fat as possible beneath the skin, paying particular attention to the fat deposits around the thighs.
  2. In a food processor or blender, puree the garlic, 1 Tbsp fresh or 2 tsp dried thyme, the lemon juice, ½ tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper. Lift up the skin and spread about half the mixture all over the breast and down to the drumsticks. Rub the remaining mixture all over outside surfaces of chicken. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.
  3. About 30 minutes before you are ready to begin cooking the chicken, remove it from the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  4. Choose a heavy, ovenproof skillet (12-inch cast-iron is ideal) large enough to accommodate the chicken. Rub it lightly with oil. Thinly slice the lemons, discarding the pits, and arrange them evenly over the bottom of the skillet. Sprinkle the lemons with the brown sugar. Turn the heat to moderately high and cook for 5 minutes. Add the chicken, skin side down, and continue cooking for about 10 minutes. Occasionally slide a wooden spoon under the chicken to prevent the skin from sticking to the lemons. Peek underneath — the skin should be coloring a rich gold in spots.
  5. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 1 Tbsp fresh or 2 tsp dried thyme and salt and pepper to taste, and place the skillet, chicken still skin side down, in the oven. Roast for 30 minutes. Leaving the layer of lemons on the bottom of the pan, turn the chicken on its other side, skin side up. Season it all over with salt and pepper and continue roasting for 30-55 minutes longer, or until the juices run clear when the thigh is pierced with a skewer or a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the leg or thigh reads 170 degrees F.
  6. Give the chicken skin a final crisping by running the chicken under the broiler for a few minutes, moving the pan as necessary so both the front and back are evenly browned and crackly.
  7. Let the chicken rest for about 10 minutes before carving.

Yield: about 4 servings

Rhubarb-Prune Tsimmes

The sprightly acidic bloom of rhubarb, sweet-and-sour prunes, and fragrant honey combine to make a well-nuanced meatless tsimmes that is irresistible as a side dish or condiment for poultry or meat. Make this tsimmes in spring or early summer with big-flavored field rhubarb or year-round with the milder lipstick pink hothouse variety.

one large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (about 2 tsp)
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup fragrant honey (floral, like lime or orange blossom, or herbal, like lavender or thyme, would be perfect)
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
3 medium carrots, scrubbed (and peeled, if desired), and cut into 1-inch chunks (1 ½ cups)
1 cup prune juice
1 lb. rhubarb, ends trimmed, tough strings removed with a vegetable peeler, and stalks cut into 1-inch pieces (discard leaves; they can be toxic)
1½ cups pitted prunes, halved (or quartered, if large)

  1. In a 10-inch heavy skillet, sauté the onion in the oil over medium heat until wilted, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for a minute or two. Season generously with salt and pepper to taste, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover, and sweat the mixture slowly, stirring occasionally, until the onions are quite soft but still pale-colored, 10-15 minutes.
  2. Add the honey and cinnamon, and mix until well-distributed. Add the carrots and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the prune juice and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the rhubarb and the prunes and simmer over moderate heat, stirring every once in a while, until the rhubarb is soft and the carrots are tender, but not falling apart, 12-18 minutes.
  4. Turn the heat up to high, and boil the mixture, uncovered, until the liquid in the pan is thick and syrupy. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Yield: about 4 servings

Onion-Crusted Light Potato Kugel

A lavish meltingly tender layer of sweet, bronze-edged onions, aromatic with rosemary, beckons from atop the crisp crust of this kugel. I add mashed potatoes to the grated raw ones for an especially light and creamy interior.

1 ½ pounds onions, very thinly sliced (6 cups)
6 Tbsp olive oil, plus additional for drizzling (use the finest-quality extra-virgin oil for drizzling)
1 tsp minced fresh garlic
freshly ground black pepper
6 large or 8 medium russet (baking) potatoes, peeled
4 large eggs
1 tsp baking powder
1-2 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary (according to taste)

  1. Separate the onion into rings. To extract moisture, toss in a large bowl with 2 tsp salt and set aside for about 20 minutes. Turn the onions around from time to time. Dry the onions between sheets of paper towels or cotton kitchen towels, pressing down to soak up as much of the exuded liquid as you can.
  2. In a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet, heat 3 Tbsp oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, lifting and tossing with a spatula as they soften and become golden brown, 15-20 minutes. The mixture should be well salted and peppery, so season to taste accordingly. Set aside to cool.
  3. Dice two (if large) or three (if medium) of the potatoes and place in a saucepan of salted water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the potatoes are tender. Mash the potatoes, using a ricer, food mill or masher, until smooth, and place in a very large bowl. Stir in about half of the fried onions, setting the rest aside.
  4. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  5. Grate the remaining potatoes in a food processor or over the large holes of a hand grater. Place the grated potatoes in a colander or large strainer and rinse well under cold water to remove most of the starch. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible, then add them to the mashed potatoes. Beat the eggs in another bowl until thick and light. Whisk in the baking powder. Combine the eggs with the potatoes and season generously with salt and pepper.
  6. Pour 3 Tbsp of oil into a large, shallow baking pan (9- x 13-inch or similar size, preferably enameled cast iron or metal, not glass). Thoroughly rub the oil around the bottom and sides of the pan and place in the oven until sizzling hot. Transfer the potatoes to the pan and spread with a spatula; top with the remaining fried onions. Sprinkle with the rosemary. Drizzle everything with a few drops of oil. If you love salty crusts, you may want to sprinkle a bit more coarse salt and some pepper over the top.
  7. Bake for about 30 minutes on the uppermost shelf of the oven, then turn the temperature down to 350 degrees F. Continue baking for 25-40 minutes longer, or until the kugel is firm, the top is golden and the onions are crispy.
  8. Let the kugel cool until set. If necessary, reheat before serving.

Yield: about 8-10 servings