Three Benefits of Celebrating Shabbat

This week thousands of Jews are planning to take part in Shabbat Across the America and Canada, joining with families across the continent in celebrating the Jewish day of rest. Shabbat offers us an amazing opportunity to live on a different plane for one day each week, as we focus on our spiritual side and spend time with family and friends.

Here are three ways that we emerge strengthened and reinvigorated from this beautiful day.

A Day to Unplug

One major study of adolescents found that cellphones and other screen-based activities are addictive, in much the same way that pharmaceutical drugs spark addictive behavior: “Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is currently becoming a serious mental health issue around the globe” researchers observed. Using electronics stimulates our brains in much the same way that narcotics do.

While the causes and treatments of internet addiction are complex, unplugging one day a week can help break the hold that electronics have over us, allowing us to experience the world without the filter of smartphones and other devices.

Dr. Mary Gomes, a professor at Sonoma State University and an expert in technology use, typically asks her students to stop using their cellphones for a day or so, then asks them about their experiences. Most students report savoring the world in a way that they never did when they were glued to their phones: “As children of the smartphone age, some of them were experiencing long periods of uninterrupted attention for the first time in years.”

Shabbat offers the perfect opportunity to turn off electronics for 25 hours straight, allowing all of us to experience life in “real time”, without the technology that distracts us so much of the time. Disconnect in order to connect.

Family Dinners

Anne Fishel, Ph.D. is the founder and director of the Family Dinner Project at Harvard University. “As a family therapist,” she notes, “I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me. And 20 years of research in North America, Europe and Australia back up my enthusiasm for family dinners. It turns out that sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit.”

It’s not always easy to find the time in everyone’s schedules to sit down together for a meal, but eating together brings surprising benefits. For young children, eating together with their families boosted their vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. For older children, eating with family was associated with getting markedly better grades in school. Adolescents who engage in family meals are more positive, more resilient, have lower rates of depression, and report feeling more optimistic about the future.

Shabbat meals – Friday night dinner, Shabbat afternoon lunch, and the seudat shelishit meal eaten late on Saturday afternoon before sunset – give us time to eat together with family and friends and reconnect over good food and conversation.

In my own home, I see the power of eating together on Shabbat in bringing us all together. During the week, we do try to eat family meals together, but our busy schedules often get in the way. Even when we do manage to sit down for a meal as a family, I find we’re lucky if it lasts twenty minutes: it seems like we’ve barely begun before everyone heads in their separate ways.

On Shabbat, our meals feel very different than our quick family dinners during the week. On Shabbat we sit down to a beautifully set table and enjoy more elaborate and relaxing meals. Instead of getting up as soon as we’re done eating, everyone wants to linger and shmooze.

Creating Jewish Memories

Years ago a friend and I discussed ways we could ensure our children loved being Jewish. My friend wasn’t religiously observant, yet being Jewish was important to her. We agreed that celebrating Shabbat – lighting candles on Friday nights and having a meal afterwards with kiddush and hamotzie over bread – was an important family ritual to adopt.

My friend hasn’t always managed to live up to her goals of celebrating Shabbat each week, but most of the time she has, and her family often enjoys a beautiful Shabbat dinner together. Her oldest daughter is preparing to go off to college now and surprised her mother by announcing that she’s only going to consider colleges with a strong Jewish life. “I have to be able to have Shabbat dinners like we do at home,” her daughter explained.

Our children are watching us and noticing what we prioritize. By making room for Shabbat – from lighting candles to enjoying Shabbat meals to going to synagogue – we’re sending a powerful message to our children that Shabbat matters, and that being Jewish is crucial to who we are.

Even though he considered himself a secular Jew, Ahad Ha’Am (Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg) realized that Jewish life without Shabbat was unthinkable. He famously wrote, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

This is an eternal truth. This Shabbat may we be enriched with the spirit of Shabbat, and the many beautiful blessings it brings. Shabbat shalom.