By Mark Trager
*the names of the individuals mentioned in this essay have been changed to protect identity and privacy
She lights the two white candles in the dusk-lit dining room with such grace, each match flashing brilliantly into existence for this one grand purpose before quickly reducing to silver wisps curving slowly in the growing candlelight. I remember sitting there with the aroma of the dinner washing over me. I was probably around seven years old. The flickering candlelight played sparkling off the glittering utensils, serving bowls, and glistening food, and twinkled off the front-glass of the china cabinet across the room and the delicate family heirloom china therein. I see her face, the top of her head covered with the traditional prayer covering, floating in the darkness above the candles as if disembodied. The room was full of living shadows made from the life of the two candles, which united with the growing sunset cast from outside the large windows of the room. The heavy navy-blue curtains were not drawn yet, and the main room lights were off for this part of the “welcoming in” of this special day. The lighting of the candles is done at sundown, as is the tradition. She looks around the table at her family to make sure they are ready and paying attention—“Stop fidgeting,” “Hands off your brother,” “Bow your head—close your eyes, you three.” Her eye flash softly and briefly to her husband, who is sitting closest to her, then she closes her eyes and bows her head. She raises her hands and makes three identical gestures, motions that look as though she is scooping the candlelight and air from above the duo of candles, and brings them to her face, welcoming in the candlelight and the wonderful, faint scent of burning wick. And according to tradition, something more.
On the third motion, she holds her hands over her face and now all we can see is just the white prayer shawl, with its elaborate metallic filigree and shimmering Hebrew letters, and her hands, with their usual French-tip manicure, both hovering in the darkness. She sings:
Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzeevanu
l’hadlik nahr shel Shabbat. Amen.
She pauses and tips her hands up to peer at her children, who have been staring at her almost the entire time despite being told to bow heads and close eyes. She continues with the translation:
Blessed are You, oh Lord, King of the Universe, Who sanctifies us by Your commandments
and commanded us to kindle the Shabbat lights.
We all say, “Amen.”
This was the scene every Friday night when I was young. This was the start of the Shabbat (or Sabbath), the beginning of the day of rest, the ushering in of what the rabbis call the “Island in Time,” a Jewish holy day, commemorated every Friday night to Saturday night for over a millennium. It was instituted in the first five books of the Bible (the Torah) as the day God set apart as holy because He rested after creating the heavens and earth and all therein.
This dinner was our tradition, and a tradition many observant Jewish families perform across the world. This was something that we thought would stand the test of time as its mere presence in our home was evidence it had, through our people, through untold thousands of years, through attempted annihilation upon annihilation, through thick and thin. Much preparation went into this dinner each Friday for many years, until forces greater than annihilation snuffed the lights out.
My mother Anna was an extraordinary woman and still is, and in those days, she was our teacher, our tenacious and strong disciplinarian, and a tireless and humble homemaker. She cooked, she cleaned, she made sure we three were dressed in the morning and that we took our showers in the evening. She was our nurse, always applying stinging hydrogen peroxide and band-aids to our bloody, scraped knees from an awesome jump off the trampoline, then afterwards applying stinging spankings to the other side of our legs for doing something so dangerous. She roped us in, she set us loose, she was the Gatekeeper for her little sheep that often went astray. She and my father trusted that being faithful to the beliefs (specifically belief in the God of our forefathers), the customs, and the traditions that flowed from God and His Word led to a stable life, and they intended to implement and teach them to their children. My parents were doing what countless Jewish families have done throughout time.
Judaism is split into many different sects, just as all the major religions are, and although every Jewish family may do an observance slightly differently, there is consistency in the practice. Many Jewish customs have been going on for who knows how long (the current Jewish calendar marks the year as 5784, but who am I to doubt the sages?) and most Jewish people can be comfortable with any sect of Jewish group anywhere. I’d hazard to say all Jewish people know Shabbat and the High Holidays. If you do not know Shabbat, I honestly don’t know what type of Jew you are. All Jews know Yom Kippur, though whether you attend the annual services or participate in the fast is up for internal discussion between Jews on what is “required.” The Passover Sedur meal has been going on in one way or another since the time the Torah was written; Jews would say since God commanded its perpetual observance in remembrance for when He led the people of Israel out of slavery. God often said about some custom, festival, remembrance, law, or tradition that it was to be a “lasting ordinance” for the people of Israel. Why? God, just like my mom, would probably say, “Because I said so,” but He (as well as she) knew that traditions and remembrances, symbols and customs, lead to stability and longevity.
People need constancy in life. Life can’t be sans-traditional. All life is built on repetition. The sun rises and sets, the earth spins and revolves around the sun and we get seasons, which come and go. Some seasons will look different depending on your perspective and location, which is an important concept. Your body operates at a rhythm and if that rhythm is broken, it can lead to unhealthiness, or in the very least, significant yawning at work. Jews believe that the rhythms, the traditions passed down from generation to generation, are what have allowed them to last as a people so long. Non-religious people have traditions as well: birthdays, secular holidays, the Superbowl. Humanity is better with traditions. Stability of belief and actions lead to a better life. Cultures are made up of shared traditions and customs and this goes down the line to communities, then groups, then to the most important foundation and tradition of human society: the family.
For my parents, the culture and history of their ancestors were solid examples of how they wanted to raise their children with stability and longevity. In fact, it was one of the first rules my parents came up with when a Jewish man from Queens, New York, met and married a Roman Catholic woman from the Dominican Republic. My father later came to faith in Jesus and our family became what has been called Messianic Jewish—Jewish people whose eyes have been opened to the truth that Jesus is the foretold Jewish Messiah and Savior of all as revealed throughout Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. In this, my parents decreed they would abide by “lasting ordinance” as best they could as revealed by the Holy Spirit to them as a family. They would continue with many Jewish customs, the Shabbat dinner being an important one.
The lead-up to the weekly Shabbat dinner was a blur of motion. Preparation by my mom probably started the following Sunday of the last Shabbat. Shabbat starts sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday, and in that entire period there is to be done “no regular work” as stipulated by lasting ordinance by God in the Torah. This is manifested differently from Jew to Jew, country to country. For example, there are automated elevators in Israel which stop at every floor so as to not have the Jew press a button to activate a machine. Many appliances nowadays have “Sabbath mode” and will automatically turn on. Ultra-Orthodox will even have a non-Jewish person perform tasks for them on Shabbat. Some families will not go to the movies or leave their home, merely receiving the Day of Rest as a day to worship God, meditate and study His word, and spend time with their family.
In our family, the Shabbat was a day where we would go to the park, play with friends from the congregation, or attend events at the synagogue. We attended the Shabbat service at the synagogue after our Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, as do most observant Jews of most sects, so not only did Mom have to have everything ready before Dad came home from work, shepherd us during the dinner, and taskmaster us after dinner for cleanup, but she also had to corral everyone into the purple Plymouth Voyager at the right time to not be late for services.
Her ability to orchestrate a perfectly timed, beautifully crafted and cooked, consistently special meal every week, I see now, is an awe-inspiring juggling act. She began cooking early in the day on Friday, giving her three children over to the watchful eyes of their textbooks and fluorescent lamps of the garage-turned-schoolroom with explicit instructions to each child that if this set of problems were not completed, or these chapters not read, or these quizzes not done, there would be serious consequences. Then once the threats were issued, she’d offer the olive branch that if all our studies were done, we could have some free time before being assigned our Shabbat dinner prep tasks. We agreed to all this every week, not because we had to, but because we loved Shabbat dinner and never wanted to mess anything up in the fear that something would happen where it would not occur.
Mom would begin with making the traditional Jewish Challah bread. Flouring, salting, cracking eggs; we’d hear banging pots and the beeps of her turning the oven on and sticking things into the microwave, making the dough with a recipe she had come up with, with possible input from my dad’s mom. Sometimes she’d ask one of her strong boys to come in and help her knead the dough or crack an egg. She would then split the large dough into three portions, then roll each dough into a long, cream-colored snake. Once sufficiently lengthened, she’d then meticulously braid the three cords into the distinctive shape of the beautiful Challah. She then would put egg wash over the dough so that when the bread was fully baked, it’d have that characteristic browning and sheen that if you Google Challah now you will see on every picture. A testament to consistency in tradition.
As the day wore on, we finished our schooling (we were homeschooled for most of our youth) and proceeded to entertain ourselves before our Shabbat tasks had to be initiated. My brother Joseph, the eldest child, would play some game on the bulky white computer; my sister Mary, the youngest child, would be upstairs in her room in front of her large Barbie dollhouse; and I would be outside on the trampoline in our backyard or running around our front yard, climbing the cherry tree, getting very dirty and scuffed up. We’d then hear Mom yell that it was time to get ready. She wouldn’t even leave the kitchen, she’d bellow out to me from the window above the sink, and holler to the others inside the house, “Joseph, go take a shower and the moment he is done, Mark, you go in!”
Preparations for Shabbat had begun.
We all showered, and Mom had somehow worked out time in the cooking schedule to come upstairs, help my sister with her shower, pick out all our clothes, and make sure we were presentable. The smell of the dinner started permeating throughout the house. Chicken, mashed potatoes, the Challah bread, buttered corn, and green beans (which I never touched) all entered our nostrils and heralded the coming of our favorite meal of the week. Tummies rumbled in anticipation. We were all given our tasks once we were dressed.
Mom would say, “Mary put the napkins on the table.”
“Okay, Mommy,” Mary squeaked.
“You boys put the plates and utensils out, then make sure the Shabbat candles, the Kiddush cup, and matches are set up. Oh, and open the curtains.”
Those curtains were very heavy. Large navy-blue curtains covered the entire north wall of the rectangular room because that wall had a window almost the length of the room. We boys had to work together to open those curtains. They hung on strong wooden beams and for much of our time in that house, we couldn’t pull them open or closed alone. I haven’t seen heavy curtains like that in a house in years, the style possibly being lost to time and changing home decor convention, but once the curtains were open, we could see out to the front yard and beyond to the street. The sun was going down. Dad would be home soon.
Mom would then give each of us a platter to bring to the table. Mary would get the smaller, lighter items, then would need one of us boys to grab her item and put it on the table because she was small. The two gold Shabbat candle holders sat at the far side of the table, and one of us would put a fresh, long white candle in each holder. We’d gingerly lay Mom’s prayer shawl in a messy we-don’t-exactly-know-how-to-fold-yet-but-we-tried sort of way next to the pair of candles. The Challah was brought to the table by Mom on a special platter. It was covered by the traditional cloth specifically used for lying over Challah and was placed in the center of the table. Mom would then go get herself ready and dismiss us to go watch TV until Dad came home.
We always heard Dad before we saw him. We’d feel the clunk of a car door and then hear the clink of keys. The door would open and he’d come in with a reception like Jesus received when He arrived in Jerusalem on what the Christians call Palm Sunday. We didn’t have palm fronds or shout, “Hosanna!” but we may as well have. We would jump off the large worn green leather sofa, run across the brown scuffed hardwood floor and grab whatever we could reach of our Dad’s body respective of our heights. Even the cats would come out of their hidden curled-up places and stretch with wide yawns, flashing long white teeth in jubilation of his arrival. Dad was home! Shabbat could now begin.
Dad coming home was always a highlight of the day but none more so than on Friday night. After hugging each of us with his full arms of coat, briefcase, or newspaper, he’d walk in, free of his children, and put down his dark leather briefcase and other sundries into their areas and greet his wife who was back in the kitchen. Us kids would always shyly watch them. We’d see a kiss and an embrace.
“Everything is just about ready, go get settled and we can eat,” Mom would often say. I remember sometimes he’d give her a light tap on the behind, at least in the early days. We kids would all run into the dining room and wait for him to freshen up from the long commute.
After Mom chanted the blessing over the Shabbat candles, she would uncover her head, fold the prayer shawl, and place it next to the candles. She’d then gesture for my brother to come by her side and chant the blessing over the wine, also known as the Kiddush. He’d grab the ornate gold metal Kiddush cup, which had been filled by Mom earlier at one point, hold it up and chant:
Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’olam boray pree ha-gafen.
We’d all say, “Amen,” and he’d continue:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.
We’d all say, “Amen.”
Then he’d take an overindulgent slurp from the metal cup filled with classic Jewish Manischewitz wine, a wine that is so sweet you may as well call it grape juice with a tiny splash of alcohol. Joseph’s bright greenish eyes would sparkle with the idea that he was drinking alcohol at his age, and based on his grin alone, you knew he thought he was so cool. Some Shabbat Kiddush traditions have the oldest male in the family drink the cup first and then pass the cup down through the family to the youngest female, but our family didn’t do it like that. Then it was my turn to do the next blessing, the bread blessing called the Hamotzi. I’d rip off a large piece of Challah, hop off the dark cherry wood dining room chair and rush over beside Mom and my brother. I’d almost triumphantly hold up the morsel of Challah and chant:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.
We’d all say, “Amen,” and I’d continue:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.
We’d all say, “Amen.”
I’d then promptly stuff the entire piece into my mouth. Sometimes I’d do what tradition dictates and hand the piece to the others. Sometimes I wouldn’t. By that time in the day, the family was ravenous, which was one downside of the Shabbat dinner, as it tended to take place later than we usually ate.
Someone would turn on the main lights and we would load up our plates and eat. Dad asked us how our day was and what we learned in our studies. He would say something about work that would go over my young head. He and Mom would chat about stuff we kids didn’t really care about. Us kids engaged in mild bickering and teasing. Around the table was laughter and annoyed groans. The usual spill. Tinkling of plates and utensils. Feline scavengers patrolling below the elegant dining room table looking for crumbs from the Masters’ table. Under the luminous yellow lights, the table was bright now. Life under the lights. The windows were black, as the sun had gone down, and a dim, distorted reflection of the family around the table could be seen in the window panes, an out-of-focus image that never received the honor of a Polaroid to be glued in some dusty photo album to be tucked away in a box in the attic of this house or the basement of the next one for the family to look at years later. After the dinner, Mom would get up and say, “Everybody bring ten things into the kitchen!” and we would have to comply. If we did not, or if we slacked, there were serious consequences.
One time, my brother thought he was so smart and grabbed a fork, a napkin, a chicken bone, a porcelain napkin ring, and if memory serves, six peas, and brought them into the kitchen for his ten items. Mom didn’t appreciate the joke, and she made him go back in and grab ten real items, then another ten items—oh, and made us all grab more items as well. Once everything was in the kitchen, Mary would stand on a stool and help wash dishes, us boys would help move dishes into the dishwasher, and if we didn’t have enough time to complete everything before we had to leave for services, the piles would be left for the next day. The candles would be left to end themselves, slowly flickering in the dark until all that was left were smooth white mounds of wax on the top of the gold metal candlesticks and on the tray beneath. The candles were never snuffed out.
This is how the Shabbat would progress every week for the years of my youth. A testament to consistency. Tradition passing from generation to generation. Stability. But life can wear down tradition. Foundations can be tested, and storms come against them. Sometimes they hold. Sometimes they break.
One Shabbat, the sky outside was an ominous dull green color. Bulbous clouds hung low above. The air was as still as could be. Not a wisp of wind. Our cherry tree in front was still, as if it were in a picture. The pines to our right were paused against the gray-green sky. Not a living thing stirred. Inside, all the food was on the table. Strings of steam streamed from various dishes. The Challah sat underneath the traditional covering in the center of the table. You could smell that fresh bread. We were waiting to begin but Dad had not arrived yet. He was late. We had not even turned the dining room lights off yet. Mom seemed preoccupied elsewhere in the house. Us kids were in the dining room peering out the large front window.
“Why is the sky like that?” Mary inquired.
“The world is ending thanks to you, Mary,” Joseph replied in his characteristic, always-teasing cadence. He’d never let a good opportunity to inflict psychological pain on his younger siblings go to waste.
“It looks really bad,” I said.
“Where is Dad?” Mary asked.
“When are we gonna eat?” Joseph complained.
As we watched, the rain started, lightly falling briefly before turning into a torrential downpour. What was once an impossibly still scene was now a hard-rock concert of motion, flashing, and thundering. The raindrops pounded the window. Then there was a significant boom, a pop! and the power went out in the house. We screamed, and ran to where we thought Mom was, the kitchen—but she wasn’t there. We ran around the house, and she somehow materialized behind us, took us under her arms, and herded us towards the downstairs bathroom. “Quickly everyone, it’s a tornado warning, go to the bathroom.”
We all bunched into the first-floor bathroom.
“This is awesome!”
“Move your elbow.”
“Mom, Mark hurt me!”
“Quiet!” Mom commanded, her voice bouncing off the walls of the confined space.
“Where is Dad?” Mary asked again.
“The storm held him back. He’ll call when he is on his way. Now let’s pray to God for safety.”
The rest of the evening is opaque, a haze in my mind. The tornado didn’t touch down near our house but miles away. The power was out for the rest of the night. For reasons I can’t fathom now, the food on the table was never packed up. Mom must not have been hungry and must have not had the energy or will to attempt to have us all put everything into Tupperware containers and then into the fridge. She did hand us kids a flashlight, which we immediately tossed away. An adventure was afoot, and I remember us kids ransacking the dining table like a group of wild raccoons at a campground trash bin. We giggled in the dark as we munched on what we couldn’t see. We dismembered the chicken, tearing off pieces like a pack of wolves to a downed deer. We stuck our hands in the mashed potatoes and corn. We were feral, bestial. Mom and Dad must have eaten at one point. I don’t recall when he came home but it was long after sundown. Everything and everyone ended up being safe. If we said the candlelight blessing to usher in Shabbat that night, I can’t remember. The memory flashes in my mind like a match; one instance, and one of a future many, when tradition was missed, and chaos ensued. This particular break in tradition was one committed by an “Act of God,” but the ones that would occur as I entered my teenage years couldn’t be blamed on Him.
After my Bar Mitzvah, the traditional coming-of-age ceremony that occurs around when a young Jewish boy turns thirteen years old, our family moved to a new house, the first indication that the weather of life was changing. Ominous green clouds often hung in the skies over our family. A stillness settled over life. Strange sounds reverberated during the transition between the two houses. Starting near the end of our time in the old house, my parents engaged in angry, poorly hushed conversations that emanated from behind closed doors, travelled down the hallway and the stairs, around the corner, and all throughout the first level. They couldn’t be ignored or avoided, just absorbed. No, I didn’t know or have any comprehension about what they were arguing about, but they began doing it more and more. When the noise reached us downstairs, we’d mindlessly begin performing actions, moving into areas where we could feel the subsonic vibrations less, like an involuntary defence mechanism, the birth of new customs and traditions, the desecration of ancient ones.
Joseph would walk into our schoolroom and glue his eyes to the computer, and I would go to my usual spot in front of the massive stone fireplace, sit with legs folded, and plunge into a world of my own making with my toys. One with dinosaurs and cars, with superheroes and robots. One of escape. I do not know where Mary would go. She’d disappear. I can imagine she went into the off-white, stained carpeted dining room, find and hold tight to one of our cats. But I don’t know. If the noise continued, we three, like a hivemind, would go outside without a gesture or word. We’d bounce on the trampoline. We’d double-bounce Mary. “Higher, higher!” she would squeal. In the midst of a renting, a forging was being attempted. A sheltering. Semblances of escape amidst fear and doubt, but taken together, because who knew how long this would last? I would also spend more time with my best friend Tyler, who lived next door. We comforted each other like boys often did before the proliferation of video games, by playing outside with sticks, climbing trees, and enjoying the fresh air. We created beautiful worlds with our imaginations. But eventually, my family moved.
Shortly after moving, the fruit of what transpired behind closed doors came to fruition. Mom took Mary and went to live with her mother. We’d see Mary every few weeks or months while our parents tried to figure out if they were going to make this split official or not. The three boys were left in the new house, and Shabbat dinner was rarely done like in days of old. We had no woman to usher in the Shabbat, as was the tradition. We boys honestly didn’t know the chant; it wasn’t ours to know. The girls under my grandma’s roof never had Shabbat dinner. My grandma was raised Catholic, but she wasn’t, and still isn’t, observant to its traditions.
My mom’s Shabbat prayer shawl went with her. The two ornately etched, gold Shabbat candle holders were placed on the display table in the boys’ new house in the more modern dining room. They gathered dust. The gold Kiddush cup, with its engraved Hebrew inscriptions and Jewish symbols, stood next to its matching, dusty Shabbat candle holders. The cup was no longer filled each Friday night with wine, which in Judaism is a symbol of life, joy, and happiness, but slowly filled with dead skin cells, fibers, and whatever else floats aimlessly in the air and happened to come to rest in its gaping maw. A cup of life filling with dust.
For dust you are and to dust you shall return.
And we say, “Amen.”
My parents eventually settled on divorce. The tradition of marriage instituted by God was broken. The human tradition of the Shabbat dinner was broken. The hazy reflection of the dinner on the large panes of the dining room windows in the old house was like a prophecy fulfilled. Shabbat dinner was now a dim, fuzzy memory. I became angry and, in those couple years, quietly rebelled against my parents. Each of us kids did it in different ways. But I did continue one tradition of our people—I prayed, fervently like Daniel and Jesus. I clenched my eyelids closed, tore at my clothes, as is the tradition for grieving. I cried out to Adonai, the Lord, as the psalmist David did in his own pain. I wailed as Jeremiah did. Our people are just as good at lamentations as they are at jubilations. And as is the truthful tradition described throughout His Word, God heard my prayers.
A couple years later, my parents miraculously got remarried, after much healing and forgiveness—which, I’m convinced, could only have happened by a divine Mighty Hand and an outstretched Arm, like God did when He brought out His people Israel from slavery all those years ago as we commemorate yearly every Passover. Sometimes God brings families back together in accordance with His will, a will higher than ours, and so mysterious. But even with the union of the family, Shabbat was never the same. We’d have the Shabbat dinner in the new home with the newly sutured family, just not every week. We’d go to synagogue for the Shabbat service on Friday nights and attend the yearly high holy days, just like in my youth, as a family. We’d have our family Monopoly game night, and per that tradition, Dad would reign supreme. He never showed his family mercy. We loved it.
Lasting ordinance is the goal, the command. We humans are not lasting. We strive and pray. We try our best. We all have those stabilizing customs of security we use as foundations for the future, anchors for memory, or resting places in the present. Life got away from our family very quickly. My brother and sister eventually moved out. I went to college. The family was no longer under one roof. Traditions end, start, change, and yes, persevere. We still have our annual Passover meal, and strive to follow the other lasting ordinances as a family. I have a wife now, and when we have children, we will honor the Shabbat and endeavor to institute the Shabbat dinner for our family. Our children will finish up their schoolwork and chores. They will have some free time before being told to begin their assigned Shabbat tasks. They will help Mom set the table. Their mom will welcome in the Shabbat for our family with the wafting of the Shabbat candles, as is the tradition. We will bless the bread and wine as Jesus did at His last meal, a Passover sedur which was also a Shabbat. These will be ours for as long as we can observe the ordinances, and we will strive to make them lasting, in Jesus’ will.
Observe the Shabbat, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting ordinance.
We all say, “Amen.”