Like all good things, keeping the Shabbat properly requires advance preparation. We must prepare our homes, ourselves, and the food we will be eating and serving throughout the Shabbat meals. Shabbat also requires that we have certain things on hand in advance, as we can't go shopping if we notice suddenly that we're out of a critical ingredient, such as wine. The Shabbat laws forbid us from many mundane household activities: we don't wash the walls our use a vacuum cleaner, turn the lights on or off, cook, or even warm up food. Ensuring that all these are taken care of before Shabbat brings that wonderful feeling of preparing for a special occasion--and makes Shabbat all the more meaningful.
Every Jewish home should have all these items well-stocked in the closet and ensure that they are on hand before Shabbat:
For the Shabbat table:
• Candles, candlesticks
• Kiddush cup
• Three loaves of Challah
• A base and cover for the challah
• Salt in a saltshaker or (preferably) a dipping bowl
• A beautiful white tablecloth
• Aromatic spice
• Braided candle
For keeping food warm:
• Tray for covering the stovetop (a blech)
• Electric urn or non-whistling kettle
Any type of washing and cleaning is forbidden on Shabbat, as is the use of all electric appliances. We want to greet Shabbat as we would a royal guest. Organize a cleaning schedule, starting perhaps Thursday or even Wednesday if your schedule requires it, so that by Friday afternoon, your home is clean. The sinks should be clean and clear of dishes, the floors washed, the carpets vacuumed. All laundry should be ironed, folded and put away. Clothes needed for Shabbat should be picked up from the dry cleaners, shoes polished, etc. Click here for a printable pre-Shabbat checklist
Some families also try to set the Shabbat table Friday morning so the whole day one senses the oncoming Shabbat. What must be done, however, is the setting up of the candles. Make sure to put the Challah or a prayer book on the table as well to avoid problems of muktzah.
Shabbat is the day for which we save our best and most beautiful. In fact, on the verse in which we are instructed to keep Shabbat (Exodus, 20:8) Rashi cites the midrash: "Pay attention to always remember the Sabbath day, so that if you chance upon a beautiful thing [during the week], you shall prepare it for the Sabbath (Mechilta)." Thus, if we chance upon some special fruit in the supermarket, or a unique recipe for a wonderful dish, we put these things especially aside for Shabbat. In days of old, when money was scarce and food other than black bread hard to come by, families saved all week to be able to buy fish for Shabbat. In fact, according to Jewish law, if someone has no available cash with which to buy food for Shabbat, he should use his assets as collateral to do so.
This requirement of cooking special foods for Shabbat compounded with the Shabbat laws that make certain foods more suitable has created a rich tradition of special Shabbat foods. For example, gefilte fish is easier to eat on Shabbat because one does not run into the problems with borer (separating bad from good, one of the 39 activities forbidden on Shabbat) encountered when eating boned fish, and cholent is a special dish formulated to remain on the fire for 24 hours and enable us to eat warm foods Shabbat afternoon. See the recipe section for some of the most popular Shabbat dishes.
One Shabbat dish which has it's very own mitzvah associated with it is Challah. In this case, it's not just the general cooking for Shabbat that brings us merit. Rather, when we bake Challah, we perform an additional mitzvah of hafrashat chalah. Many woman insist on doing this mitzvah themselves and bake challah at home every week rather than use store-bought bread. See our challah how to for full instructions.
Keeping food warm:
Cooking, warming up food, even lighting or extinguishing a fire is forbidden on Shabbat. So how do we serve the luscious, elaborate meals we've prepared especially for Shabbat? A Shabbat warming tray, known commonly as the blech, allows us to keep foods warm. Make sure that all food is ready and warm and properly placed on the blech before candle lighting.
For hot drinks on Shabbat, set up the urn in advance. On Shabbat, you will be able to use this boiling water to make tea or coffee--albeit in a slightly different manner from how it's made during the week.
Friday afternoon is time consecrated for preparing for Shabbat and even if we have hired help doing the work at home, we leave work early Friday, even in the summer, to be involved in the Shabbat preparations. We also keep our Friday afternoon meals very light--in fact, try to limit ourselves to a small snack--so as to preserve a hearty appetite for the Shabbat meal--when it's actually a mitzvah to eat. It is a specific mitzvah to bathe in honor of the Shabbat, so instead of your Friday morning shower, take one Friday afternoon. Make sure to apply make-up before candle lighting, as once Shabbat has begun, applying make-up falls in the category of "smearing" and is forbidden. Finally, the mitzvah to preserve the most beautiful things for Shabbat applies to clothing as well as food and wine and helps us feel the festivity of Shabbat when we dress up to greet the Shabbat.