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The Sabbath Meals

The Sabbath Meals

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The Sabbath meal experience is something lacking in a large segment of our society. The result of integrating it into one’s life can have untold benefit. Even in purely physical terms, detached from any spiritual or religious implications, the Sabbath meals can be invaluable to having an enhanced personal and family life.

The Impact of Family Meals

Countless studies reveal the benefits of simply eating together and spending time with other members of the family or close friends. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has time and again shown a strong correlation between children eating dinner with family and overall wellbeing. The studies from varying years show that the more family meals that children attend per week, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, and use illegal drugs. They are also significantly more likely to be emotionally well-adjusted and do well both academically and socially.

In 1997 a study by psychologists Blake Bowden and Jennifer Zeisz of De Paul University in Chicago also confirmed that meals, more than any other factor, served as a marker across ages and gender lines for perpetuating emotional health. It goes without saying that the positive results are exponentially enhanced when there is no television or other distractions present at the table.1

Dr. Margaret Chesney, Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine, also says that those families that have religious practices or are highly spiritual likewise nurture these same positive results of wellbeing.2

Family meals also can be an expression of the cultural or religious heritage of a family.3 By participating in these meals, everyone present strengthens their connection with their cultural or religious heritage. Interestingly, a study from Emory University found that those who regularly participated in family meals that centered on religious or cultural celebrations had a closer relationship to family members, higher self esteem, and a greater sense of control over their own lives.4

Consider then, the power with all of these factors combined, the best of all worlds: eating together, without a television, phones, or iPods, and in a religious or spiritual environment. The sum-total of all of these positive effects on wellbeing are the most basic and practical gains that the Sabbath meal provides. With the addition of the spiritual element, the effect of the Shabbat meal is ever more lasting and impactful, satisfying not only the physical and emotional needs of the person, but also providing spiritual contentment.

The Meals Instill Faith

The Jewish people are enjoined to “call the Sabbath a delight.”5 This delight is brought about through the eating and camaraderie of the three Sabbath meals. Surrounded with family and song, the elegant table is set with one’s finest utensils and a lavish display of food. Each part of the Sabbath meal possesses many layers of symbolic and esoteric meaning that naturally help to solidify the faith in those who take part in them.

The Kiddush, sanctification on wine, is recited as wine is a traditional symbol of a festive occasion.6 The hands are then washed and the challah is cut and eaten. The two challah rolls that are cut are reminders of the miracle of the manna that G‑d sustained the Jewish nation with for forty years in the desert. It reminds us that there was always a double portion that fell on Friday, so it would not have to come on the Sabbath.7

There is a ubiquitous custom is to eat fish and later to eat meat. Fish comes first because the Sabbath is a celebration of creation. Since in the Torah’s creation account fish were created before the other animals, it comes first.8 There is a custom to have soup after the fish as the Talmud says that that a meal without soup is not really a meal.9 This is then followed by the meat. Meat is a food that typically brings physical satisfaction and enjoyment, and therefore, a perfect food for the Sabbath.10

Inner Meaning of the Sabbath Foods

Nothing is arbitrary or by happenstance is Jewish tradition. Right down to the very foods that are eaten on the Sabbath, everything in Judaism has meaning.

In the Kabbalistic tradition, gematria, or numerology, is used to gain insight into the essence of words and concepts and see how they relate to one another. Words or phrases that share numeric values often contain an essential similarity as well.

There are a variety of different numerology systems that are used. The Jewish mystics call one such system mispar katan mispari, which means the integral reduced value. In this system, the total value of a word is reduced to a single digit. If the sum of a word is more than nine, then the individual numbers in the total are added together again until reaching a single digit number. For example, the word, חסד cḥesed, kindness has a normative numerological value of 72. The ח=8, ס=60, ד=4. The numbers of the sum of 72 are then added together 7 + 2 and brought to a single digit, 9.

The Vilna Gaon uses this method of gematria to reveal a fascinating insight about the items present on a traditional Sabbath table. He writes that everything connected with the traditional Sabbath table adds up to the number 7, symbolizing an intrinsic connection with the Sabbath, the seventh day. Thus:11

Item (Eng.)

Item (Heb)

Numeric Equation

Gematria

Sum Digit

Candle

נר

50+200

=250

2+5+0=7

Wine

יין

10+10+50

=70

7+0=7

Challah

חלה

8+30+5

=43

4+3=7

Fish

דג

4+3

=7

=7

Meat

בשר

200+300+2

=502

5+0+2=7

It becomes apparent that there is a lot more to the Sabbath meal than may meet the eye. Each of the pieces of the traditional Sabbath table is meant to be there and the mystics give great esoteric meaning to each and every food traditionally upon it.12 The more one embraces the depth within each meal, the more one opens up to that special energy present on the Sabbath day and reaps its benefits.

Fully observing the Sabbath day is both necessary and beneficial, satisfying the broad spectrum of human needs. It is the time to rest physically, regroup emotionally, engage intellectually, and grow spiritually. It is the way in which the Jewish person maintains balance within himself, with his family and fellow man, with nature, and with G‑d. The reader is encouraged to try to embrace and enhance his diligence in his Sabbath observance. This enhancement will only lead to a better self, better family life, and better world.

Footnotes
1.
Both of these studies can be found in McMahon, Regan (2007) Revolution in the Bleachers.
2.
Califano, Joseph (2009) How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents, pg. 18.
3.
See Weinstein, Miriam (2005) The Surprising Power of Family Meals.
4.
Duke, M.P., Fivush, R., Lazarus, A., & Bohanek, J. (2003) Of ketchup and kin: Dinnertime conversations as a major source of family knowledge, family adjustment, and family resilience (Working Paper #26).
5.
Yeshayahu [Isaiah] 58:13.
6.
Chinuch 31. See also Pesachim 106a.
7.
Shmos [Exodus] 16:22; Shabbos 117b.
8.
The Jewish mystics point out a more esoteric meaning in the order, explaining that the spiritual refinement of fish is easier, and this gives the power to refine the meat, see Kaf Hachaim 157:38. See also Likkutei Torah (Behaloscha 33b) which discusses how fish represent alma deiskasya [hidden (spiritual) world] and meat represents the alma deisgaliya [revealed world]. See also Mamarei Admur Hazaken 5563, vol. 2, pg. 790.
9.
See Brachos 44a.
10.
Although it is not a requirement per se, see Shulchan Aruch HaRav 242:1-2.
11.
Chart is based on Munk, Michael (1983) The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, pg.111. One could perhaps also add the following dishes which are also found on the Shabbat tables in many communities:



Item (Eng.)


Item


Numeric Equation


Gematria


Sum Digit


Horseradish


חרין


8+200+10+50


=268


2+6+8= 16, 1+6=7


Soup


מרק


40+200+100


=340


3=4+0=7


Kishka


קישקא


100+10+300+100+1


=511


5+1+1=7


Cholent


טשעלענט


9+300+70+30+70+50+9


=376


5+3+8=16, 1+6=7

12.
All of the Sabbathfoods are given tremendous mystical significance in Chassidic texts. Among all of the foods, kugel is mentioned in numerous places. The following is a sampling of its importance: The Chozeh of Lublin taught that just as one’s merits and transgressions are weighed on the balance in our final judgment, so too they weigh all of the kugel that one ate in honor of the Sabbath. (Grunfeld, Hayim (1999) Sefer Pardes Hamelech [Ruzhin-Sadigura] Manchester: privately published, pg. 445.) The Sabbathfoods hint at the ten Supernal Attributes, the sefirot, see for example, “Eating kugel symbolizes the sefira of Yesod.” See Mismeres Shalom, Warsaw, 40b.)
Rabbi Pinchas Taylor, an inspirational young scholar, is a sought-after educator and speaker. He lives in South Florida with his wife Miriam and serves as the Director of Adult Education and Outreach at the Chabad of Plantation. He is the author of two books which you can view and purchase here.
Can a modern, thinking person identify with traditional Judaism? In Pillars of Faith, Jewish belief is explained clearly and logically, for both the beginner and scholar, using a wide variety of both ancient and modern sources.
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