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Bringing Serenity Back to Shabbos

We all want our Shabbos tables to look perfect, but too often, real life diverges from these dreams. Our experts’ take on how to turn things around

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We all have an image of the scene in our minds. Delicate china, polished silverware, sparkling wine, and freshly baked challos rest on a spotlessly white tablecloth. The children sit around the table, listening raptly while their father recounts the parshah, occasionally offering insights from what they’ve learned in school. We’re loath for this idyllic Shabbos seudah to ever come to an end.

Sounds familiar? No, you said? Well then, you’re in good company. We all want our Shabbos tables to look perfect, but too often, real life diverges from these dreams.

A few common, less-than-ideal Shabbos scenarios, and our experts’ take on how to turn things around.


Meet the Experts

Mrs. Yitti Bisk is a seasoned kallah teacher and marriage educator who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with her family.

Rebbetzin Deena Davidovich is the rebbetzin of Heights Jewish Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and is known for her practical, down-to-earth approach to parenting, shalom bayis, and other aspects of Jewish life.

Rabbi Ari Neuwirth is the menahel of Mesivta Derech HaTorah in Brooklyn, New York, as well as a featured lecturer on Torah Anytime and the author of the highly acclaimed Parenting by the Parashah.

Dina Schoonmaker is a veteran teacher at Michlalah Jerusalem College and lectures internationally on topics of women’s character development. She gives live and recorded mussar vaadim on a variety of inter- and intra-personal topics.


The Help Isn’t Helpful

I work full-time and I’m usually worn out when Friday comes. There’s always so much to do in the last two to three hours before Shabbos. Every week, my husband says he’ll help out, and he cheerfully takes the list of jobs I’ve relegated to him. But he’s so last minute by nature that he leaves it all for the 11th hour — and my blood pressure rises higher and higher as I wait for him to vacuum, set up the candles, and put up the cholent. By the time Shabbos comes in, I’m gritting my teeth because his help isn’t really help. I’d rather just do it myself.


Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker:

One of the fundamental rules of marriage is that a man wants to feel that he’s being mashpia and that his wife is happy with his contributions to the home, whatever they may be. On her part, a woman’s job is to accept his help graciously. If her husband feels that she’s unhappy with the help he’s providing, it’s going to start working against them.

Take a step back and try to view the situation objectively. You’re feeling frustrated with your husband each week, and he’s certainly picked up on those vibes. Think outside the box a bit. Is there any way your husband can help for Shabbos without it being last minute? Can he do errands during the week? Can he take the kids out on Friday afternoon so you can finish up around the house? It’s important to figure out a win/win solution so that the entire family can gain.

Another point to consider: For men, helping in the house is always going to seem voluntary, and volunteers like to be appreciated. While this may seem unfair, this stems from the premise that a man’s mahus, his essence, is to contribute to the home from the outside — whether it’s through supporting the family or through providing the Torah atmosphere in the home. A woman’s essence is to contribute to the home from the inside. Even though it’s fair and appropriate for a man to contribute to the running of the home, he still needs to be appreciated for his “volunteer” work. And a smart woman knows how to make a husband feel good about contributing.

Mrs. Yitti Bisk:

Your husband sounds like a really nice guy — cheerfully accepting the jobs you’ve given him. And yet, the help he’s providing isn’t working for you. What can you do to change this?

At least part of the problem you describe comes from having two different sets of expectations. Your expectations may seem normal relative to the way you grew up — your family background, your culture, your personality. But your husband has his own family background and his own personality. His last-minute nature, as you call it, doesn’t seem to allow him to meet your deadlines.

What we must recognize is that our spouses’ behaviors and actions are beyond our control. The only thing we are in control of is the way we view and react to any given situation. So let’s try to figure out what you can do in this situation.

I see two possibilities (although you’re welcome to find more!) of dealing with his “non-help”:

  1. You work without him. No expectations. It’s not easy, but there should then be no anger at jobs done late. If you’d rather not go for this, try option two:
  2. You work with him. If you want your husband to be a team player, you’ll have to share control and mutually agree to the rules of the game. Listen to his take on the matter and be willing to blend your view of Erev Shabbos routines with his.

It’s been said that 60 percent of the issues couples argue about in the early years of their marriage, they’re still arguing about 50 years later. This may sound depressing, but if you learn how to work around your differences, you’ll be able to reach a new level of understanding and respect between you, and your arguments will fall by the wayside.

So keep your eye on the goal, and make Erev Shabbos a happy day for everyone.


“Ma, He Took my Truck!”

My kids spend the entire Shabbos bickering. It starts from the minute I light candles and continues straight up until Havdalah. Everything is cause for a fight: Who gets Kiddush first, who got more nosh at the Shabbos party, who gets to choose which game to play, who gets to share their devar Torah first, and on and on and on. By the end of Shabbos, at least three of them are sulking and I’m practically in tears. I feel like a failure as a mother.


Rabbi Ari Neuwirth:

What you’re describing is completely normal. Kids bicker. And as parents, it’s our responsibility to bring the bickering under control and to help our children resolve their issues.

Sometimes we need to put systems into place to avoid some of the bickering. For example, you mention that your children fight over who gets Kiddush first. I’m a firm believer in giving out Kiddush in age order, and the same with many other Shabbos rituals, from Friday-night brachos to distributing challah, fish, and soup. As parents, we have to set up a home where the younger children respect the older ones. Just like children are obligated to respect parents, rebbeim, and zekeinim, I teach my children that they must respect their older siblings.

Sometimes you have to be smart about things. If your three-year-old doesn’t understand the hierarchy, you can make an exception once in a while and give him Kiddush first. But then go back to the oldest and go in age order. Hakadosh Baruch Hu created us to serve Him in different ways. Hashem created the first one first; he gets pi shnayim. I tell my children, “You were born first, you serve Hashem in your way. You were born seventh, you serve Hashem that way.” In my experience, this alleviates much of the bickering at the table.

Certainly not everything can be resolved by going in age order, but a parent’s attitude goes a long way. If the fighting is about games, you can simply buy another game, or have them take turns choosing which game to play. It’s your job as the parent to establish the rules that will make your children feel secure and loved. When you do that, you’ll find that the issues no longer loom so large.


Rebbetzin Deena Davidovich:

Many times, an issue that crops up on Shabbos isn’t just a “Shabbos issue,” it’s a general issue that gets highlighted on Shabbos when the family spends a lot of unstructured time together.

One positive approach is to turn the issue into an opportunity. Instead of trying to “fix” the fighting, try to infuse your Shabbos with more excitement and feeling, with fun activities with Mommy. Join your kids when they play a game. A Shabbos party can be made exciting — instead of just giving out treats, sing the brachos out loud together or challenge the kids with riddles. Your kids will forget to fight if they’re having a good time.

Be proactive about resolving the issues that come up each week. Sit down and do some problem-solving. Will your kids benefit from resting when they come home from school on Friday afternoon? In the summer, it can be a long time until the Shabbos meal, and maybe it’s too long to expect siblings to play nicely while you’re busy getting ready. Some time in bed with a book or an Erev Shabbos activity like coloring with special markers can keep them from getting restless. On long Shabbos afternoons, you can plan a schedule ahead of time, like arranging a playdate or a walk. Figure out how to make the time more manageable.

Finally, stay in control of the situation, and you won’t feel like such a failure. Tell the kids, “When everyone is ready for some treats, we can have a Shabbos party.” Then sit back and wait. Eventually the fighting will stop. And before you know it, they’ll have outgrown it.


The Ineffectual Father

My husband is a very eidel person, but he’s not the greatest disciplinarian. He can’t get the kids to listen to divrei Torah, sing zemiros with him, or sit still for more than a few minutes at the Shabbos table. I often end up taking over, and then I feel like I’m running the table instead of him. It’s especially awkward when we have company — the noise level can get embarrassing, and he seems so helpless when dealing with our lively bunch. During the week he’s not around that much, so Shabbos is almost his only time to interact with the kids. I feel like they barely respect him.


Mrs. Yitti Bisk:

It sounds like you have a specific picture of your Shabbos table — and you aren’t getting it. But the problem goes deeper, because it’s also a respect issue. This Shabbos table situation isn’t about your husband; it’s about how you view him. If you’re struggling with respect for your husband because of his mild-mannered personality, your kids are going to pick up on that and act out because of it.

How do you increase your respect for your husband? One of the strengths a woman has is that she knows her husband’s strengths and weaknesses intimately. When she focuses on his good points, she’s going to expand those parts of him (and vice versa). This will lead to real respect, which is a crucial part of marriage.

Although it may be tempting to restore order to your home, you shouldn’t be leading the table or taking over for your husband. Instead, you need to recognize that he has his own way of doing things. If he’s giving a devar Torah, actively listen to it yourself. If the children are making noise, you can say, “Kinderlach, you have to be quiet; Tatty’s giving a devar Torah.” If your children are too young to sit and listen to a devar Torah, let them leave the table, but if they see you’re listening with respect, they’ll pick up on it and respond in kind.


Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker:

In general, the formal, ideal Shabbos table exists more in kids’ coloring books than in real life. We often get so stressed trying to achieve this perfect ideal that it becomes counterproductive.

If we want our kids to associate Shabbos with menuchah as opposed to stress, we have to lower our expectations and set ourselves up for technical success.

Can your children realistically be expected to sit still for an hour while listening to divrei Torah and singing zemiros? Most kids aren’t expected to sit at the table on a weekday night for half as long as we expect them to sit at the Shabbos table. And most fathers aren’t trained as school-age rebbeim who can hold the attention of children of varied ages and stages.

While you can include a token devar Torah or song, I would suggest keeping the meal very short so that the situation will be low maintenance and you’ll stay calm. Don’t try to accomplish too many things at the Shabbos table; divrei Torah, reviewing parshah sheets, and zemiros can be integrated at a Shabbos party, at a kiddush before the meal, or in other creative formats.

Does your husband enjoy telling the children stories when they go to bed at night? Does he enjoy taking them to the park? Figure out the best formula for success. Maybe he can act out the parshah or write a poem or a song to share with the children. Anything that engages the kids is fine. Let him use his kochos in other ways, rather than by being a disciplinarian.

Don’t give him the feeling that he’s the problem. Tell him something like, “I see we’d have more fun with the kids if we tried things this way. We’ll be able to go over their parshah sheets better after the meal, with treats.”

Again, try to focus on technical success. Perhaps this isn’t the stage of life when you should invite guests for every meal. The fact that children will have to behave or perform for the guests is setting them up for failure. Try to have at least one meal per Shabbos where there are no added pressures.

The most important thing is that the children have a positive association with Shabbos and a positive connection with their father.


Pre-Planned is Pre-Armed


Five ways to make Shabbos more pleasant for the whole family:

  1. Shabbos takes a lot of work. Just like we prepare for Shabbos with food, the same goes for shalom bayis and chinuch. It’s our responsibility throughout the week to think through the issues and challenges and figure out how to address them.
  2. While many wives want their husbands to help out on Erev Shabbos, it’s important to be realistic about timing. If your husband only gets home from work an hour before Shabbos, he may not be able to help out very much. Instead, perhaps he can do something on Thursday night, or even on Sunday.
  3. Give your children Erev Shabbos responsibilities. It’s important to train children to help out at home. They should see themselves as partners in the Shabbos prep.
  4. If your kids don’t enjoy saying a devar Torah at the table or singing zemiros, figure out what they do like. For example, sing zemiros in a fun way, with motions or cute tunes.
  5. Talk to your husband about the way you want your Shabbos table to look. If you’re both on the same page, it will be a lot easier to carry it out.


Atmospheric Pressure

My 12-year-old daughter wants to spend every Shabbos afternoon with a friend whose house doesn’t have the most Shabbosdig atmosphere. I’ve tried to encourage her to bring her friend to our house, but she says they can’t play with all the little kids hanging around. I don’t want to discourage the friendship because I don’t want to hurt the other girl’s feelings, and my daughter doesn’t have a lot of classmates in our area. The girl herself is a good girl, and her mother is a sweet person, but their standards just aren’t the same as ours. What do I do?


This is a tricky issue, and living out of town, I understand your concerns. I’d encourage your daughter to bring her friend to your house. At age 12, she’s old enough to understand your hesitations about her friend’s house. You can say something like, “I know your friend’s family does things that way, but it isn’t the way we do things. It’s not better or worse, but this is what we do in our house.”

Focus on the aseh tov, rather than the sur mei’ra. Remind your daughter of the beauty of your lifestyle. Your message shouldn’t be that what we do is more restrictive but why it’s more beautiful. It’s easier said than done, but being open with our kids will only benefit them.

If your daughter and her friend don’t want to hang out at your house because it’s boring or there are little kids around, try to work around that — perhaps take the kids out to the park when your daughter wants to bring her friend over. Make your house more appealing by buying special nosh or a nice game so your daughter will feel happy and not resentful.


Rabbi Ari Neuwirth:

It’s not clear from your description what’s going on in the friend’s house. If there are older siblings who are off the derech and unfortunately no longer keeping Shabbos, I wouldn’t want my daughter to go there; it would be very detrimental, especially at this sensitive age. Instead, I’d encourage my daughter to bring her friend to our house, and I’d work very hard to make my house exciting, to show both her and her friend what Shabbos is like in a home that has a Torahdig atmosphere.

Don’t forget that her friend might also want to get out of her house. Maybe she’d really love to come to your home on Shabbos but is embarrassed to say so. Encourage your daughter by telling her, “Do you know how nice this can be for your friend?”

On the other hand, if there’s no actual chillul Shabbos in the friend’s home and it’s more a matter of your sensitivities — for example, perhaps the parents read secular papers on Shabbos — then I’d avoid hurting the other family. There’s no reason to create unnecessary animosity. At the same time, try to make your house more appealing to your daughter and encourage her to spend equal time in your home and in her friend’s home. It’s not geshmak to bring over a friend if you’re the oldest and there’s no privacy. Give the girls a place to play where the younger children won’t bother them, or take the younger kids out. Figure out a way to make it work to everyone’s benefit.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 614)

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