A day of rest. I recently wrote a list of what’s happened – in the world and in my own life – since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: The millions of lives we’ve lost to COVID, each born to a mother like me. The economic blows to people I care about. The Seattle-area businesses I frequent and love that have shuttered. The many political and cultural rifts in our country. The death of RBG.
Personally, this year has brought caring for sick parents while supporting my young children in remote learning. Like a lot of my peers, I’m part of the sandwich generation, pandemic style. I’ve adjusted to remote work. Navigated a breast cancer scare. Been convicted of my own role and complicity in a racist system.
When I think through the gifts of these months – an unexpected amount of time with my kids, unscheduled talks with neighbors from one driveway to another, and the time I’ve spent writing instead of commuting – I’m grateful. I’m also grateful I’m able to support my kids in remote learning during the school day when many families don’t have that luxury.
Heading into the winter holidays, families come from traditions that offer their own celebrations: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, Las Posadas and the Dongzhi Festival, to name a few. One practice my family especially looks forward to during the holidays – and tries to practice during the rest of the year – is Sabbath and Shabbat dinner.
A little history
Sabbaths are common in the Jewish and Christian faith traditions. A day set aside for rest is based on the creation account that God rested on the seventh day, and the Fourth Commandment in Hebrew scriptures: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
My dad is Jewish, and as a kid his family attended a Reform synagogue. Dad was bar mitzvahed and observed the High Holy Days. But the most regular part of his family’s rhythm began each Friday night at sundown, when my grandmother Roslyn prepared a Shabbat meal. When I was a kid, hearing Dad remember what was served at Shabbat always sounded unsavory: pickled gefilte fish, tough brisket, or cow’s tongue. A formal dining room and a stiff button-up shirt and slacks.
It wasn’t until I was much older and had my own kids that I began observing the Sabbath and serving Shabbat dinner. The regular weekly rhythm it offers has especially been a balm to my husband, kids and me during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
While the Jewish tradition begins the day of rest at dusk on Friday evening – starting with the Shabbat meal and ending at dusk on Saturday – some families choose a weekend day with the least amount of activities planned. Families with a parent or caregiver who works on the weekend could pick another rhythm, or try a half-day of rest.
We’re far from perfect in our practice. Our weekly rhythm is easily thrown off by a vacation, illness or lack of planning. But every time we pull it off, family members tend to emerge more rested and present, with each other and ourselves.
Traditional Jewish Shabbat meals include challah bread, potato kugel, gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, and sometimes in winter cholent, a slow-cooked stew. As card-carrying Presbyterians, we bend the rules and add a Pacific Northwest flair: gefilte fish is swapped for salmon. Challah is traded for my husband’s very good homemade sourdough loaves. The dinner is simple, easy to prepare, and quick to clean up.
We light candles and begin the meal, reading Gospel and Hebrew scripture passages that correlate with each portion of the meal. Wine is poured for adults, grape juice for the kids, while we read Psalm 23. The bread is cut and served after we read from John, where Jesus is called the bread of life. Salmon is served after reading about the disciples, fishermen, catching so many fish their boat almost sinks.
Settling into a day of rest
Our day of rest begins at dinner and continues after the meal, when we settle in for a family activity. Sometimes, that includes starting a fire and telling stories from our family’s past – something the kids have never heard from our own childhoods – or their own embarrassing moments and favorite memories from the summer.
We plan simple meals during the remainder of our family’s 24-hour rest day and try not to do the dishes, fold laundry, clean or run errands. Sometimes, we watch a movie, listen to old “Live From Here” radio shows on NPR, play board games or read. If the rain holds off, we go for longer-than-usual walks.
Digital day of rest
Whether or not you’re interested in or able to carve out time for a weekly day of rest, putting in place digital restraint practices is a practical way to care for yourself and be a little more present with the people you love. Try to approach a digital Sabbath with self-kindness. My goal is to set 24 hours each week away from my phone and laptop. That includes not checking the news or scrolling through social media. I do my best to stay away from the New York Times homepage, with mixed results.
You could try turning your phone off completely, which quickly breaks any subconscious compulsion to reach for it. A friend takes her family’s digital Sabbath a step further, nixing all movies, video games, phones and digital devices from Saturday to Sunday.
Even with the occasional sulky teenager, she reports the benefits of more time together have more than outweighed the complaints.