A Protestant Dad Discovers Shabbat

By Jim Keen


At 5:42 Friday evening I’m in my car driving home from work, when all of a sudden, I realize I’ve been singing for the last six minutes. I’m not singing to anything on the radio or CD player. I’m singing, “Shabbat Shalom (Welcome Sabbath), Hey! Shabbat Shalom, Hey!” Why am I singing this particular song? I don’t know. I’m not even Jewish. I’m Protestant.  

I guess a funny thing can happens to you when you marry a nice Jewish girl and decide to raise your two young daughters in the Jewish faith–you can find yourself singing songs in Hebrew! While I am still active in my own religion, I do get a kick out of helping my wife and daughters celebrate theirs. Of all the Jewish holidays, I especially enjoy celebrating the most important one–Shabbat.

What’s funny is that, before I met wife, I always thought that Hanukkah was the most important Jewish holiday. What did I know? Most of the time, the only reference I ever heard about Judaism was in December. While wandering the mall, when all of the Christmas decorations were in full bloom, every once in a while, I’d see a menorah amongst the mistletoe–just to keep things fair. But that was about it. I had hardly ever heard of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I certainly had never heard of Shabbat.

Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath, comes every Friday at sundown. As Bonnie, my wife, explained to me, Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday because the fourth of the Ten Commandments requires Jews to keep the Sabbath. Sure, Hanukkah is a fun holiday, but it is a rather minor one. The story of Judah Macabee didn’t even make it into the Torah.

After a week like I’ve had, Shabbat is a welcomed respite. It seems as if it was just Monday. Every single day we have rushed to work, preschool, doctor appointments, a soccer game, and a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Now, it’s time to slow down and enjoy a nice dinner with the family. In the old days, my grandparents used to observe the Christian Sabbath on Sunday in a similar fashion. For them, it was a day to rest. Stores were closed; nobody rushed off to a hockey game. In addition, the dinner meal played a big role in gathering the family to the table to say a prayer and be together. It’s too bad that that practice is not as common as it used to be.

At 5:54, I pull my car into the garage. Dog-tired, I enter through the laundry room and BAM! I’m hit on both legs by my two little cuties, who have wrapped their arms around me while yelling, “Daddy’s home!” Carrying both of them, one seated on each of my feet, I walk like Frankenstein into the kitchen to greet Bonnie. She’s already set out the Shabbat candles and the kiddush (blessing over wine) cup of wine on the table. The challah is just coming out of the oven. Yes, the house smells good. I feel a little bit like Fred Flintstone home from a day at the quarry. The one exception here is that Fred never had to help cook. But since we often grill for Shabbat dinner, and I’m pretty good at cooking with fire, I usually prepare that part of the meal. Anytime there’s an element of danger involved in food preparation, I’m there. It must be a tribal instinct.

At 6:20, the chicken is done (a little burned, but done). It sits on the platter, smoldering and waiting for us to dig into it. But first, we must say the blessings.

According to Jewish law, we’re supposed to wait until sundown. Unfortunately, sundown for us, in Michigan, is on the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone. In the summer, we’d have to wait until after 9 p.m. Since our girls go to bed at 8:30, we begin a little early. This time of year, however, in late November and early December, the sun is already down. So we get crackin’.

At this point on the calendar, it also happens to be Hanukkah. This year, the first night of Hanukkah falls on Shabbat. The kids are definitely charged up. We have a Shabbat candle for each member of the family and a menorah for both girls, so there are a three-alarm fire’s worth of candles to be lit. There are songs to be sung, dreidels to be spun, and presents to be opened. One thing that strikes a sense of pride in me is that my daughters are normally excited for Shabbat alone. Hanukkah is an added bonus.

The ritual begins with Gabby, our six-year-old daughter, doling out yarmulkes to everyone, based on their favorite color. Then, Bonnie and Gabby light the candles on the menorah. Our rabbi told us to make sure that these were lit first, because after the Shabbat candles are lit, lighting any other candles would be work, which is forbidden on the Sabbath. With the menorahs burning bright, we all sing “Maoz Tzur” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”

Next, Bonnie and Gabby light the Shabbat candles and recite the blessing over the Sabbath lights. I think it’s great to hear my daughter actually speak Hebrew. Molly, who is 3, and has big brown eyes that get even bigger with the candlelight, takes it all in. She is starting to master the prayers, too.

After each blessing tonight, we make sure to say the prayer in English, as well. We feel strongly that the kids should know what the prayer means, instead of simply rattling off the Hebrew. Being Protestant, and not growing up around Hebrew, I also enjoy the translation. When I first learned the Hebrew blessings a few years back, I had no idea what they meant. Then, when I heard them in English, I realized that they were very similar in nature to the prayer my father recites at Christmas dinner.

Since our daughters were born, we’ve begun to say the blessing over the children each Shabbat–first in Hebrew, then in English. “May God make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”

“Sarah who, Daddy?” Molly asks. “My friend, Sarah Starman?” Bonnie and I exchange a humorous look and then proceed to tell her about the four matriarchs of Jewish history.

Next, I say the blessing over the wine. We raise the antique kiddush cup and drink from it. For the kids’ benefit, it’s filled with kosher grape juice. Bonnie holds the cup tightly for the girls when they drink, so it’s not dropped. After all, this cup belonged to her grandmother. Every time I drink out of it, I feel in awe of the tradition behind it. In my mind, I picture Bonnie’s bubba (grandmother) as a young mother, and my father-in-law as a boy. I picture her also holding the cup firmly in her strong hands, preventing him from dropping it to the floor, preserving it for future generations. “Thanks, bubba,” I think to myself.

Finally, we say the Motzi, or blessing over the challah. It’s about time, too. Molly, for the last ten minutes, has said nothing but “hallaaaah, hallaaaah, hallaaaah” over and over again. Of course, she’s finished her piece before I’ve even said the word baruch.

“Strange isn’t it?” I think to myself. When Bonnie and I were first married, she told me that she would like to have a nice Shabbat dinner now and then. And, every once and a while, we did. Now that we have two daughters, we’ve been making every effort to see that they learn about Judaism and what it means to be Jewish. My mind starts counting the weeks backward a few months. Then it strikes me. Without realizing what we were doing, we had been observing Shabbat every Friday night as far back as I can remember. Not bad for a couple who originally wanted to just fit it in when we could.

At 6:?? (by this time, I’m too relaxed to remember what time it is) we sit down at the table and enjoy a good meal. The potato latkes, or pancakes that are a tradition on Hanukkah, are a nice addition to our weekly Sabbath dinner. I appreciate the fact that we’re all sitting down to eat now. (All too soon we’ll be up again to play dreidel and open a present or two.) I start to remember for the first time since last Friday that this is what Shabbat is all about–thanking God. We thank him for all that he has given us. We thank him for our health and the gift that we can share this moment on a nice, quiet–well, not so quiet–Friday evening. Maybe the food’s not perfect, but the time together certainly is.


About Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.