As a young man I attended a Catholic high school for two years. One of the best courses I ever had and still remember is Religions of the world. We covered different religious beliefs and it gave me an appreciation for different cultures and how God is celebrated and interpreted. For the past few years I have had the honor to attend several Shabbat dinners. These celebrations do for me what that course did, adding to the richness and growth of my own Catholicism.
Shabbat dinner is a Jewish tradition celebrated on Friday nights after sundown with Shabbat lasting till Saturday sundown. It commemorates the day God rested after he created the world. Shabbat literally means “to rest.” I am not even going to pretend to give a lesson on Shabbat. Instead, I want to relay how my experience of it makes me a better husband, father, and Catholic.
As I stated before I have attended Shabbat dinners given by different families and even different branches of the Jewish faith. The experience has the following similarities: My wife and I dress nicely on Friday night. Upon entering the house of our host, I notice how beautiful the table is set and how many settings are out. The finest dishes with wine glasses where appropriate as children are part of the ceremony. The house smells delicious.
We are introduced to other guests who are here to celebrate together. We all sit down at the table. Candles are lit with a blessing. Then the man of the house leads a prayer over wine. After this prayer is done everyone heads for the kitchen to wash their hands while saying a precise blessing. We head back to the table and no one is speaking.
There are two loaves of bread called challah (very delicious!) and a prayer giving thanks for the bread is recited. All take a chunk and we can talk again. We eat a very delicious meal (which includes meat) which always has several courses. Finally, a prayer is said at the end of the meal.
All the blessings and prayers are spoken in Hebrew. While it made me uncomfortable not knowing what to do, say, or even how to pray “properly,” my host(s) always make me feel comfortable. They share willingly and openly. Even the orthodox households I have been in such as the Chabad never make me feel out of place.
To sum up what I learned and how I grow as a Catholic every time I attend a Shabbat dinner, I am going to use the acronym: GUEST.
At this stage in my life I do not question my Faith, I seek to grow it.
Where is the fun in life if we don’t grow? Sitting in high school learning about other religions stoked a fire in my soul regarding God and Christ and how others observe. I had a lot of questions and learning about other religions helped me take control of my own faith, being Catholic.
Attending Shabbat dinner, watching others pray in Hebrew, observing roles, and participating brought out a piety in myself. It brought me closer to God. I was celebrating God with others, praying to the very same God. We are in this together.
I don’t know Hebrew. The first booklet I picked up, I didn’t know we started at the back and read to the front, right to left. I couldn’t follow where we were at any given time. Never mind it was mostly in Hebrew! It was as if I was a baseball player trying to play cricket. I have a bat, a ball, a pitcher, but the rules and field is all different.
I was out of place; I felt disrespectful at times when I did not perform the right motion, say the right prayer. I couldn’t even pray! All I could do was mumble my way through it. I am sure I looked ridiculous like some bad religious karaoke.
However, I was never ever made to feel outside the circle. I have always been accepted. My hosts take the time and explain different traditions to me.
My discomfort breeds personal growth. I find myself more focused. I am not merely repeating memorized lines by rote. My prayer is focused.
I am reminded of a homily I heard about a year ago concerning food and eating together. Food is the most basic need of humans. When food is given, life is given. God uses food as a point of entry. When the Israelites were in the desert, God showered them with manna from heaven directly. No intermediary.
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Food stands for relationships. It satisfies our hunger. As I stated earlier, there were other families at these Shabbat dinners, brought together to celebrate a day of rest and enjoying the company of others breaking bread.
It was not lost on me that wine and bread are an integral part of the proceedings. Obviously not for the same reason we as Catholics celebrate, but it did make me feel at home. It made me think of the connection between the Jewish people and us as Catholics.
Our lives are noisy. Smart phones are pushing content to us at an unprecedented rate. Even at the movies I can barely get my sons off their phones. These devices give us content but what are they taking away: silence and solace.
Silence is when we hear God speaking to us.
The one other item I remember about Sundays visiting my grandparents is how stores were closed on that day. People rested.
Shabbat dinner reminded me that we need quiet. Turn off the cell phones, turn off the TV, You Tube, and whatever else is pushing to you. Give back in prayer. Celebrate and talk with others.
Rest. Do you hear Him?
We all love tradition. Even as adults we look back at the traditions we took part in as children with fondness. Passing traditions to our children is a free gift we can give them.
Shabbat dinner is one of those great traditions. As I sat at one of the dinners and my wife’s family surrounded the table it reminded me growing up and going to my grandparents’ house every Sunday for dinner. This was our day of rest, our time with family, food we shared, stories told. I did not always appreciate it at the time but looking back I love every memory and can remember details of those dinners shared.
As I sit at a Shabbat dinner I make it a point to observe each person, the ages, some related, some not, each have the look of joy in their countenance. Even the teenagers participated, reveling in their part.
Tradition reminds me that when we embrace and accept other cultures/religions we can strengthen, not weaken, our own beliefs. Attending and actively participating to the best of my abilities did not convert me or had me doubt my belief in Christ, it awakened it. I was not worried I was about to be assimilated into Jewishness, Jesus was not about to strike me down as a traitor.
He was present showing me His love through the love of others. To paraphrase a passage I read recently: Just before the words of consecration we say “In communion with Mary, mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph…”
All folks mentioned by name are Jewish. Jews and Christians are joined forever by spiritual DNA.
If you have the opportunity, attend a Shabbat dinner. Share your traditions with others. Grow your faith through and with the faith of others.
Copyright 2016 Peter Serzo
About the Author
Peter Serzo, observer, listener, author, speaker, and blogger. He shares his experiences at different Catholic churches at Dotirome.com and on his popular Priest Podcast, with enlightening conversation with those that lead (not a theology conversation but a conversation on being a priest/leader/human). Peter travels, visiting different Catholic churches satiating his curiosity and desire to spread each parish's uniqueness though his blog and presentations.