Here’s a short guide to the deeper significance of some of the elements of Shabbat dinner and other Jewish holiday meals. You might never look at your Shabbat table quite the same way again.

Shabbat candles

The image of a woman lighting two candles to usher in Shabbat is iconic in Jewish thought. Shabbat candles signify two key aspects of the day: they symbolize honoring Shabbat and enjoying Shabbat – and are a potent visual reminder that for 25 hours each week, Jews live on a different plane, enjoying the spiritual side of life on Shabbat.

While many women light two candles, other women have the custom of lighting more. One common tradition is to light one candle for each member of the household. Some women prefer to light oil lamps. Shabbat lights are kindled at dusk, just before the start of Shabbat, and ideally they should last until the end of Shabbat dinner. After lighting the candles, Jewish women cover their eyes and recite the following blessing, bringing Shabbat into their home:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who Has Commanded us to kindle the Shabbat lights.

Tablecloth and Pretty Dishes

Shabbat is often called “the Shabbat Queen” and is compared to royalty. Just as we’d clean our houses and set a beautiful table if a real-life queen was planning to stop by, it’s customary to prepare for Shabbat as for exalted guests. Even if it’s just us and our kids sitting around the Shabbat table, there’s something lovely and magical about sitting down to a beautifully-set table and eating a meal that’s more formal than we’re used to. Shabbat meals have a very different feel than week-day meals and give us a chance to interact with one another in a different setting and on a deeper level.

Shalom Aleichem

Shalom Aleichem, the iconic song that starts Shabbat dinner, is a poetic greeting extended to a couple of angels. The story behind this is startling – and beautiful.

The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) explains that each week on Shabbat, every Jew is accompanied home by two invisible angels: one good and one bad. Together, these angels check to see if the home is ready for Shabbat: Are the beds made? Is the table set? Are the Shabbat candles lit? If everything is prepared, the good angel blesses the home, saying “May it be like this next week too”, and the bad angel is forced to answer “Amen”. If, God forbid, however, the house is not ready for Shabbat, then it’s the evil angel who gets to make a wish that the home be like that next week too, and the good angel who’s forced to answer “Amen”.

Kabbalists of Safed, Israel wrote the Shalom Aleichem song about 400 years ago in order to acknowledge and greet these unseen angels. The song caught on, and now is sung in Jewish homes at the start of Shabbat dinner the world over.

Covering the Challah

Two loaves of challah (or any bread) adorn the table at Shabbat dinner and lunch, symbolizing the double portion of mannah that God gave to our ancestors in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Because our Jewish ancestors could not gather new mannah on Shabbat, the day of rest, each Friday they were given a double portion.

The loaves of challah also recall the bread loaves that were displayed on the table in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Today our own homes are considered mini-Temples where we worship God and live Jewish lives. Our Shabbat tables still carry some vestiges of the glory of the Temple in Jerusalem, the focal point where all Jews used to pray.

Another symbol on the Shabbat table also recalls the Temple: the salt that we dip the challah into. Just as sacrifices to God were sprinkled with salt in our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, so too today do we sprinkle some salt on our challah before eating it on Shabbat. Salt is a preserver, symbolizing the elevation of the physical meal into a spiritual realm, giving it eternal meaning.

The challah cover has multiple symbolic meanings. Just as the mannah in the desert was covered with dew, we recall this by covering our challah with a cloth. Covering the challah also has a practical lesson to teach us. On Shabbat, we make Kiddush over wine before saying a blessing over the challah. One beautiful interpretation of covering the challah is to remind us to spare the challahs feelings: by being covered, it can’t see that it’s not honored first. Of course, challah loaves don’t really see or feel, but being sensitive to their supposed “needs” reminds us of just how crucial it is that we guard against hurting people’s feelings.

It’s said that once the great Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, was visiting a home as a guest on Shabbat. The father of the house said the blessing over the challah then went to sprinkle salt on it. Looking in vain for the salt shaker, he turned to his wife and yelled at her for forgetting the salt. Humiliated, his hapless wife hurried into the kitchen to retrieve the salt. A little while later, the Chofetz Chaim asked, “Why do we cover the challah?” His host was perplexed at being asked such a simple question: “To spare the feelings of the challah,” he explained. “Exactly,” said the Chofetz Chaim, “and if we take such pains to shield the feelings of loaves of bread, who cannot feel, how much more careful should we be not to embarrass real, living human beings.”

Wine

The special Kiddush prayer we say over wine or grape juice on Shabbat fulfills a key mitzvah in the Torah: “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy”. By reciting the special Kiddush blessing over wine, we’re declaring that Shabbat is special to us. Click here for the Friday night Kiddush, traditionally said over a full cup of wine or grape juice. :

Gefilte Fish

Fish has a special place in Shabbat menus. The Torah instructs us to rejoice on Shabbat: one way of doing this is to eat tasty foods – and in ancient times, fish was considered a major delicacy. That’s still true today, when many Jews make an effort to eat a fish course at Shabbat dinner.

One iconic Jewish fish recipe is gefilte fish. The name comes from Yiddish and it means “filled fish”: originally, ground and spiced fish was stuffed back in the fish skin before it was cooked. Not only is this a tasty way of serving fish, it also means there are no fish bones to separate out of the fish while it’s being eaten. Many supermarkets’ kosher food aisles contain frozen gefilte fish mixture, which can be baked or boiled – meaning that delicious gefilte fish is easy and quick to make, and can once again be a delicious part of Friday night dinner.

Click here for recipes for gefilte fish.

Shabbat Guests

Inviting guests to share Shabbat dinner and other meals enhances the occasion and also fulfills the key Jewish mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, or inviting guests. When we fill our home with guests, we’re emulating our ancestors Abraham and Sarah who were noted for their hospitality. In fact, the Torah explains they lived in a tent with openings on all four sides so that they could better see travelers from a distance and invite them into their homes. When guests visited them, Abraham and Sarah shared food and drinks with them – and also taught them about God.

While we don’t live on the same exalted spiritual level of Abraham and Sarah today, we still try and live up to their example by inviting guests into our home. Whether we host a full house or just one or two special friends, sharing our Shabbat meals with guests is a way to enhance the moment and make our Shabbat meals extra special.

Birkat Hamazon

No Shabbat meal is complete without this traditional blessing after the conclusion of the meal. The Torah instructs us to thank God after we eat: “And you shall eat and you shall be satisfied and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the goodly land that He gave you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The Birkat Hamazon prayer – four beautiful blessings which praises God and thanks Him for the meal we just ate – fulfills this verse.

The Hebrew poet known as Ahad HaAm once said “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” The beauty, meaning and traditions of Shabbat have sustained us for millennia. A key part of that is Shabbat dinner and its many rituals, which continue to shape us today.