Imagine someone walking into your dining room at this moment. With kiddush and ha-motzi complete, how would that person know that this meal was more than just a nice dinner party?
They wouldn't, if it were not for two important elements: the singing and the Devar Torah -- the "Word of Torah."
Shabbat is the celebration of creation. It is a day when we recognize that the Almighty has given us a wondrous gift -- a world filled with pleasure.
The challenge of humanity is: How does one extract this pleasure for the ultimate life experience?
By reading the manual.
A pilot does not jump into the cockpit of a 747, turn the keys, and fly. He studies, reads the manual, slowly absorbs the material, tests it out, and eventually reaches tremendous heights.
So, too, with life. God did not create the world, throw us into the "driver's seat," and then neglect to give us the instructions on how to drive.
The word Torah means "instructions." It is referred to as Torat Chaim -- "Instructions for Living." It is not just a history of our people, or a bunch of stories. It is the instruction manual that, read properly, can give us the key to all the pleasures of life.
Torah is a book of wisdom that has application to our lives today; to help us be better people, better spouses, friends, children, parents. To help us get the most out of this world, we look into something timeless, something practical and relevant. We look to the Torah.
Devar Torah literally means the "Word of Torah" and is usually a short talk on the Torah portion of the week, though it can be about anything meaningful and Jewish. Perhaps a holiday is approaching, or a significant Jewish celebration, such as a wedding or a brit milah. Discuss the meaning and traditions of the event and how we can appreciate and grow from it.
If chosen well, the Devar Torah should be the springboard to a lively discussion at the table, with questions welcome from everyone, young and old. You will often see people pulling reference books from the shelves to find passages to back up their ideas.
Children who attend Jewish school will often bring home sheets, with questions concerning the week's Torah portion. It can turn the table into a quiz show, with parents asking the questions, giving out prizes of sweets for correct answers or "good tries" from the kids and the guests. Everyone can get into the act, and everyone is bound to learn something.
The Torah is divided into 54 portions, each called a "parsha," with one portion read each week in synagogue on Shabbat morning. Occasionally, there are weeks with double-portions.
To know which parsha of the week it happens to be, ask your local rabbi or teacher, or look on a Jewish calendar. (Download one for free at www.aish.com/kaluach/.
Try to read the parsha every week -- in Hebrew or in English. Many people experience an incredible feeling of strength, knowing that thousands upon thousands of Jews all over the world are reading that same parsha. An excellent translation of the Torah is the "Stone Chumash", rendered into readable English (plus commentary) by top Jewish scholars.
There are a number of excellent books available that give some relevant thoughts on the parsha of the week. Reading a paragraph or two aloud at the table is a good way to spark conversation, or just read ahead yourself and present the ideas informally to your family and guests. Some good books to start with:
- "Growth Through Torah" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, with topics for discussion on each weekly portion.
- "Shmooze: A Guide to Thought-Provoking Discussions on Essential Jewish Issues"
- For children, try the always-entertaining Family Parsha at Aish.com.)
Or if you'd rather go freestyle, here are some suggested adult topics:
Who are our heroes? Why?
What is my most prized possession? Why?
If I won the lottery I would...
How much materialism is good for me?
The most important lesson I know about life is...
Is there any reason why not to marry a non-Jew?
Have I ever experienced anti-Semitism?
What's more likely - Creation or Evolution?
Am I Confronting or Escaping from my problems?
What is the biggest crisis facing this country?
Why do people gossip, and is it worthwhile to stop?
Try to keep the discussion steered away from sports, movies and politics. Instead, try to focus inward on self, family, and community.
Sometimes I feel if it weren't for the Devar Torah, the Shabbat meal would just be a get-together. Going to someone's home for Shabbat would be just like eating out.
At our home, my husband usually jumps in with a Devar Torah just when the conversation starts getting kind of "ordinary." He always makes it relevant to the people at the table and directs the focus to more meaningful things. Our guests always seem to love it. It's as if they wanted it to be like that all along, but were too timid to bring up something heavy. So we do, and they just join in.
* * *
At our Shabbat table, the Devar Torah is always about life: character development, and our relationship to God. It's anything but a bunch of stories, and people are continually amazed at how relevant the Torah is. They always walk away with "food for thought" and a piece of wisdom to apply to their lives.
* * *
When I first heard people giving Devar Torahs at the Shabbat table, I immediately filed them into one of two categories: those given because that's what you're supposed to do, so let's get it done; and those given with thought and heart. The former was empty, and the latter was real. The ones that stayed with me in a positive way were the ones when, I could honestly say, the persons really believed what they said.
* * *
I always felt a little awkward when people started into a Devar Torah. It was so... heavy. But then I began to feel that something was missing if nothing was said, to the point where today, if I have a meal with family or friends during the week, I feel that someone should say something! Eating and talking about current events just doesn't cut it anymore... I suppose you can say the most substantial part of the meal are the words of Torah, not the brisket.
* * *
It takes me about 15 or 20 minutes to prepare a Devar Torah. Usually it's simply a matter of reading through the parsha, and picking out one or two lines that seem to relate to what's going on in the world today. Then I just relay my thoughts at the Shabbat table and open it up for discussion.
The best Shabbats are the ones where the Devar Torah really hits a chord with people and opens them up to experience ideas. The table seems almost transformed and unified in thought. It's as if something "clicked" and everyone gets into it.
I must admit that I put more time into preparing something when we have guests. If it's just the family, I try and say something meaningful, but it doesn't have the same amount of thought and energy behind it.
* * *
When I start my Devar Torah, my guests kind of freeze and have that "What's this going to be?" look on their faces. But when they find out that I'm not preaching fire and brimstone and I'm just talking about issues relevant to all of us, they relax, ask questions, and contribute ideas; and the whole Shabbat table experience becomes much more meaningful. I really think it's the basis for the whole meal.
I enjoy speaking, because it's exhilarating to be responsible for bringing insight; to be the catalyst to opening people up, so that they can speak about things that are important.
* * *
Our family always had a Friday night Shabbat meal, but we never had a Devar Torah. The first time I ever experienced such a thing was, as an adult, at the home of one of my teachers. He told a charming story, related it to the upcoming Jewish holiday and left me with such a sweet feeling. The whole thing was just so friendly, warm, and... relevant. I liked it.
Now that I'm married, I try and make sure the topics at the table are meaningful and Jewish, without there being a formal break in the action with a Devar Torah. It's just not my style.
Our meals Sunday through Thursday are so hectic, what with us both working, that part of "hitting on the brakes" has to be talking about something meaningful, not just what movies everyone's seen.
* * *
We usually spend Shabbat meals with family, so the conversation is very much a "catch-up" on our week. I try and say something that I've heard or read that's in the spirit of Shabbat. Putting the "Shabbat" into the Shabbat meal takes a little bit of preparation... and, more than anything, a conscious effort.
* * *
When I go to a rabbi's house and he gives a Devar Torah, I think it's very nice. But when I go to "Joe Schmo," the businessman's house, I'm blown away that he actually finds time to learn and wants to share it with others. The rabbi is supposed to do it, but Joe Schmo chose to do it. It really floors me, because I don't expect it from someone like him, a guy in business, who is not a big talmudic scholar. It makes me realize that the Torah is for everyone, even me.
* * *
My favorite Shabbat table was one where everyone was new at all of this, like me, and the host gave a Devar Torah that brought out ideas that everyone wanted to comment on. I think the whole discussion lasted about 45 minutes, which to me was amazing. Everyone gave input, and I the host set such a relaxed, such an open atmosphere.
* * *
My husband had a terrific idea that we have followed: Try to think about interesting questions to ask at the Shabbat table that will make people feel comfortable, as well as stimulate the conversation. The best is when you can think of questions that will bring in Jewish themes, such as Israel or the Torah portion of the week. Now that's a Shabbat table!
Adapted from "Friday Night and Beyond" by Lori Palatnik (Jason Aronson Pub.)