What Not To Do At The Shabbat Table

The Broodo family of Dallas, Texas is now a well-established Orthodox family. They’re leaders and role models in their community. However one event during their first Shabbat experience almost derailed their teshuva journey. If it was not for the quick thinking of their hosts, their lives might have been very different today.
Ken and Beth Broodo were both raised in non-Orthodox Jewish homes. Ken is a lawyer, and several years ago a local Jewish organization, the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA), the “community kollel,” sponsored a onetime lunch-n-learn at his law firm. It was delivered by a big-name visiting rabbi. Ken attended the event and enjoyed it, but didn’t feel particularly changed by it.
The event put the Broodos on DATA’s mailing list, and six months later they received an invitation to a DATA seminar on the upcoming holiday of Purim. The Broodos acknowledged that they knew very little about their Judaism and were very curious to learn more, so they decided to attend the event.
At the event, DATA rabbis spoke about various topics of Purim. One topic, the Hidden Mask of Nature, peaked their curiosity. The speaker, Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum, surprised them by pointing out that Hashem’s name is never mentioned in the Megillah but His hand is apparent throughout the whole story.
“Only when you look back do you see Hashem’s hand in it. Even when I say it now I get chills. I had never heard something of that depth about the Torah. It was an interesting phenomenon to me,” Ken said.
Ken was fascinated by the presentation and impressed by Rabbi Feigenbaum. Ken stayed afterwards to drill him with a slew of other questions.
Following the seminar, the Broodos began attending other classes sponsored by DATA. Ken began studying one-on-one with Rabbi Feigenbaum each week. He and his wife began seeing the truth and beauty of Judaism and began to realize that this was the spirituality they were craving in their lives. However they were somewhat intimidated by the observances and cautious about jumping into anything too religious.
Rabbi Feigenbaum had given them an open invitation to come to synagogue on a Friday night and to his home for Shabbat dinner. The Broodos were intrigued by the opportunity to learn more and to get closer to the Feigenbaums. They were uncertain about what the experience would be like, but were excited about the opportunity. One Friday night they decided to take him up on it.
As soon as they entered the Feigenbaum’s house, the Broodos were made comfortable by their hosts’ warm welcome, the beauty of their Shabbat table and the obvious love and holiness that filled the home.
“It was my first Shabbat dinner. I was very taken by the whole scene – the white tablecloth, the silver Kiddush cup, the candles, the singing and the Divrai Torah,” Ken said.
Ken especially loved Mrs. Feigenbaum’s homemade Challah. He had never eaten homemade challah before, and he found it to be absolutely delicious.
After finishing his first piece, Ken craved a second slice. The challah was sitting in a metal wire basket in the middle of the table, amidst all sorts of dishes and just on the other side of Mrs. Feigenbaum’s beautiful silver Shabbat candlesticks. Ken tried asking other people to pass him the bowl, but he couldn’t get anyone’s attention. So he decided to lean across the table and pick up the challah bowl himself.
The challah basket was lined with a napkin. As he carried the basket over the items on the table, Ken lifted it over the Shabbat candles, and within a second, it caught fire and turned into a giant bowl of flaming challah!
Ken dropped the burning basket onto the table and was about the douse it with his glass of water, when the rabbi leaned over the table and said ‘Stop!’ Rabbi Feigenbaum picked up the basket, carried to the front porch and let it burn out.
Ken felt extremely embarrassed that he had set the Feigenbaum’s challah on fire. He was ready to leave the meal at the first opportunity and never come back again. But when Ken and wife finally did put on their coats to leave, without missing a beat, Mrs. Feigenbaum responded in a way that immediately turned around his negative feelings.
“Stop worrying about it,” she said to Ken. “The next time you want toast for Shabbat, just let me know in advance!”
Mrs. Feigenbaum’s quip put a smile back on Ken’s face and helped the Broodos stay on their path of growth towards Jewish observance.
“When Mrs. Feigenbaum said that, we all laughed. I realized that no one judged me for making such a ridiculous mistake. Then I felt accepted” Ken explained. “When you’re not frum and you’re around people that are, the one thing you feel sure of is that you are being judged and not accepted.”
The burning challah episode was a critical point in the Broodos’ life. If their hosts had handled it in any other way, they might have never come back. Instead they returned for many more meals in the Feigenbaum home and grew extremely close to the family. They began attending additional classes and started coming to the community frequently for Shabbat.
The Broodos eventually moved into the neighborhood. Several years later, the new local Orthodox synagogue was founded in their living room, and they remain extremely involved to this day. They also now frequently host newcomers to the community. And for anyone who seems uncomfortable by being in an Orthodox home for Shabbat, Ken eases their worries by telling them the story about the Shabbat night that he set the rabbi’s challah on fire.

Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to michaelgros@gmail.com To receive Michael’s Teshuva Journey column and other articles via email, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

Published in the Jewish Press in March, 2010

38 comments on “What Not To Do At The Shabbat Table

  1. Mishnah, tractate Avot, chapter 3, paragraph 3:

    Rabbi Shimon taught:

    Three [Israelites] who eat together at one table and do not speak words of Torah are considered as if they eaten from an idolatrous altar [literally, sacrifices of the dead]…

    But if three eat together at one table and spoke words of Torah, they are considered as if they ate from the table of the Omnipresent, Blessed Be He…
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  2. To Abe #33: Eureka! (Little light bulb goes off in thought bubble above head). Nathan said that you can ask him about history but please no personal questions, so you came up with a query about the Peloponnesian War. I guess nobody can look up Wikipedia on Shabbos. However, the host family might just have a good old 20th century Encyclopedia Brittanica on hand for the answer.

  3. Aha! Thanks, Bob. However, I still don’t get the connection between Spartans and Jews. I know that we mixed it up with the Medean-Persians about 360 before the common era (the Purim story) and with the Syrian-Greeks about 165 before the common era (the Chanukah story) but I have no idea where the Spartans or the Athenians or the Peloponnesian Wars fit in with our mesorah. As long as it wasn’t about killing or converting us, didn’t we Jews simply try to stay out of the way of the flying spears? And why does “Abe” #26 think it has a connection to our BT blog on Shabbos guests?

  4. I don’t get it – am I the only one who reads previous comments?

    For the clueless, see post # 4.

  5. To Belle #30: I’m also in the dark. I suppose there’s some kind of in-joke going on with a couple of the guys on this blog who seem to know each other. Otherwise, I am totally clueless as to what Michigan State, Nathan and the First Peloponnesian War have to do with Shabbat guests and BTs.

  6. To Abe #26: According to Wikipedia,the First Peloponnesian War took place from 460 to 445 before the common era.

  7. Strike a balance. Sometimes hosts feel “guested out” and sometimes guests need a Shabbos when they can just chill. Other times, Shabbos alone is too lonely and a table without guests is too boring. Everything in moderation. Sometimes Mrs. Hostess needs a break from fancy cuisine prep and sometimes a BT would prefer to eat cold takeout and sleep for 20 hours. Generally following Sukkos and Pesach both hosts and guests need a short break before inviting again.

  8. Nathan,

    I don’t mean to probe, but I was wondering if you happened to know when (approximately) the Peloponnesian War began? (The first one.)

    -Abe

  9. Sefer Chasidim, chapter 56:

    It is better to serve guests simple vegetables with a happy face than it is to serve the finest meats with an angry face.

    CHRONOLOGY: Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid lived from year 1150 to year 1217 of the Common Era.
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  10. Reasons to spend Shabbos alone do crop up from time to time, but being antisocial as a practice is extreme. When I worked in New Hampshire, I often had to spend Shabbos in my lonely apartment there, but I welcomed any opportunities to be with families in Lowell or Brookline, MA.

    Once, sfter a technical committee meeting in Las Vegas, I was stuck in my room in Caesar’s Palace over Shabbos. Talk about isolation!

  11. To Ross #20: “I’m a little bit feverish, might be flu coming on, better stay at home alone on Shabbos so I don’t spread it to anyone else.” That should work to quickly get rid of any and all invitations for that Shabbos.

  12. Its a bit uncomfortable, though, when you’re planning on eating alone, and on Thursday someone sees you, and asks, “So, where are you going on Shabbos?” If you tell the truth, he might say, “What? By yourself?!” And he’ll feel bad for you, because afterall, Shabbos isn’t meant to be spent by yourself, and he’ll perhaps INSIST(!) that you can’t do something which is just, just, NOT DONE on Shabbos,
    “sopleasecomeoverwewilleatat12:30goodbye.” Not everyone understands that sometimes on Shabbos, it’s good to take a break. Actually, it’s REALLY good to take a break.

  13. I can empathize with Gary #16 and Nathan #18. Being at home in your own home basically means you can do what YOU want instead of what your host wants. If it’s a Friday night in the winter and you had a rough tough week and find your eyes closing right after the seudah, hey just bench and go to sleep, who cares if the clock says it’s only 7:30 PM? If you prefer to go to the early Shabbos morning minyan that runs from 7 AM to 9 AM, and you’re home at 9:20 AM, hey just go ahead and eat your lunch at 9:30 AM and turn in for that sweet
    Shabbos nap by ten-fifteen. The point is that by spending Yom Tov or Shabbos at home you may not get the fancy meals but you do get a certain freedom from other people’s schedules. My husband hates being a guest for just that reason.

    If you want to get out of being a guest, simply explain that you fear you may be “coming down with something” that might be highly contagious and you don’t want to give it to anyone. That is enough to stave off most invitations. After Shabbos, simply state that you feel 1000% better after Yom Menucha, that all you needed was a good rest after being too run-down all week. People will be very understanding.

  14. If it were possible, I would like to spend Shabbat meals completely alone at home, for many reasons, even though it means greater expense and lower quality food. I am very tired of being a guest in the homes of other people.

  15. Re: JMDad’s post # 11:

    When staying at a less observant friend or relative’s house on Shabbat, I find a related problem confronting me at times: I will walk into my bedroom or bathroom to find out that the lights are off. It’s not something that they do maliciously, merely what they are used to doing. I bring a few nightlights when I visit, so I can find my way around the rooms that I need to use at night.

    This technique is also helpful at home, because we all have those “oopses” with light switches.

  16. The challah burning accident could have happened to anyone: BT, FFB, single, married, traveler, neighbor, etc. Without getting into the finer halachic points, the host did what he had to do to protect life and property while not violating Shabbat laws. If the visitor had actually gotten the water onto the fire, I don’t think that would have made him a “bad guest;” it would have been a teachable moment regarding what to do when a fire breaks out on Shabbat.

    On the issue of guests being excessively questioned by their hosts, especially when the guest is not in the greatest mood, I’ll mention what I have written previously. As a divorced, single parent, BT, sometimes I still want to spend all or part of Shabbat in my own home, either alone, or as a host.

    Over Pesach, I made what I retrospectively consider the mistake of being “out” for 10 out of 10 meals. None of these were “pressure situations” and I enjoyed all the meals, but I need to be on my own turf at times, even alone.

    Many people — true friends, who have the best of intentions — have a hard time granting me that “privilege.”

    I sometimes tell friends who extend invitations that I want to take it easy on that Shabbat, or have a quick, light meal. The invitation is often repeated, sometimes to the point that I give in. While these friends mean well, I know that I and perhaps other readers need some independence and some space at times.

  17. I have found these problems of too-intrusive questioning occurring when offering or accepting car rides to other Orthodox Jewish individuals as a chessed. Sometimes the driver seems to feel that payment for the car ride is answering a lot of questions. Sometimes the passenger feels the need to question the people offering the ride. I suppose that the best solution is the common sense polite response, “Sorry, but I had a really hard day and I don’t really feel up to answering questions. Thank you very much for understanding.”

  18. Sometimes a guest might be going through unpleasant life experiences and not really want to talk too much or answer any personal questions at the Shabbos table. The host and hostess should have enough sensitivity to understand when a guest doesn’t really feel up to talking very much. I will always remember (and be grateful for) the kindness of a family that hosted me for Shabbos when my mother was a patient at a nearby hospital. They understood that I would be spending most of Shabbos with my ill mother and left me pretty much alone. At other times, I’ve needed Shabbos hosting for business reasons, and the various hosts and hostesses have been unfailingly gracious. Common sense and good manners and simple consideration for others, as noted above, are key to a good Shabbos guesting / hosting experience.

  19. One of my first full Shabbos experiences was in Meah Shearim/Geula as a Neve student. The hosts, a very young couple, were born and bred Meah Shearim yet wanted to be part of the mitzvah of hosting baalei teshuva.

    I remember that I brushed my teeth. One of them said to me later that they don’t do that and offered me the liquid toothpaste. They were actually quite low key and lovely about it, but it was obvious that they were shaken by the chillul shabbos that occurred in their home.

    I gave them a lot of credit for risking the purity of their home for the sake of hosting a newcomer. In fact, that shabbos, among others, did encourage me along the path to complete shmiras shabbos.

    There are an infinite number of things that a newcomer can do “wrong” at a host’s home. It is incumbent on the hosts to handle mishaps with good humor and assurances. Otherwise, why bother?

  20. A good friend of mine stayed over at a rabbi’s house for Shabbos once. He told me of the experience later. He walked out of the bathroom and turned the light off. The rabbi explained that they do not turn lights off on Shabbos. My friend turned the light back on. The rabbi elaborated that they don’t turn lights on or off. Saturday morning, after my friend took a shower, he came out, and guessing by the look the rabbi had, he said “Um, you don’t take showers either?” There was a lot of potential for embarrassment that weekend, but they were apparently both good humored individuals and wound up laughing up the experience.

  21. I agree with Belle. If a guest suspected nefarious intentions behind the simplest of questions, I would not be interested in hosting such a person and would be concerned for my family.

  22. QUOTE 1:

    Kav HaYashar, Chapter 10:

    The host must not be concerned that inviting the poor increases the cost of the feast, because their presence atones for him.

    QUOTE 2:

    Shevet Mussar, Chapter 10, Paragraph 36:

    Woe to the house where the furniture and food utensils are in new condition because they do not invite guests there.

    QUOTE 3:

    Shevet Mussar, Chapter 16, paragraph 60:

    When you visit the house of your friend, do not raise your eyes to look at the furniture or anything in the house, especially his wife and daughters.
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  23. Rabbi Dovid Castle:

    Do not force your guest to sing or say a Devar Torah. He might be self conscious and have a difficult time singing or speaking to an audience, or he might not know how. Before honoring someone with bentching [leading birkat hamazone], it is better to ask him if you may offer him bentching, unless you know that he will not mind.

    SOURCE: To Live Among Friends by Rabbi Dovid Castle, available from bookstores or the publisher (800) 237-7149.
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  24. It seems clear that Nathan has suffered from some bad experiences, but that doesn’t justify globalizing the expectation of bad behavior. Some of his sample questions, such as “why are you not married yet” are clearly rude, and it is a shame he was subjected to such questions, but asking innocently where someone went to yeshiva or where he lives, or what does he do for parnassah, are just innocent “getting to know you questions,” not nefarious invasions of privacy.

    Nathan’s “instructions” seem to suggest that others in his position not attempt to establish any relationships with Shabbos hosts, which is a shame, as many warm and lasting relationships were started in such a way. Common sense should prevail: hosts should not be too intrusive, especially at a first meeting, and guests should not anticipate negative consequences from slight revelations.

    If I had a guest who repeatedly refused to involve himself in any personal conversation, then he sadly would be an ex-guest. First, I would suspect his motives for coming to my house (and if he seems to be evasive and I can’t get ANY personal information, I might suspect he has something to hide and be a danger to my family); and second, I would feel personally rejected and take his cue to stop inviting him. Even though it seems like Nathan is only being self protective, I would interpret someone’s similar standoff-ishness as rudeness.

  25. Nathan,

    Some hosts ask questions because they are well-meaning; i.e. the want to help their guest with a shidduch or other opportunities.

  26. The fewer personal questions my hosts ask me, the happier I am. The ideal would be no questions at all. Even questions that seem to be totally innocent and harmless can cause people aggravation or embarrassment. Both hosts and guests should remember this.

    Ask me questions about: Torah, history, science or popular books and movies, if you want to. But please do not ask questions that relate to me personally, for example:

    How old are you?

    Why are you not married yet?

    Which yeshivah did you go to?

    Any question about my parnassah, family, yichus or minhagim.

    I wish my hosts would stop asking:
    Which other families do you visit for Shabbat?

    This seemingly innocent question establishes the potential for multiple disasters.

    First, the other family I visit for Shabbat may be an enemy of my current host.

    Second, when my current host speaks to the other family, they will probably talk about me, which is almost guaranteed to harm me some way. A few of my hosts have openly admitted to me that they talk about me when they meet my other hosts, including “very, very religious families” who should know better. Even if your host keeps his mouth shut, his wife and children can have very big mouths and start rumors about you. Never say anything at the Shabbat table of your host, unless you want it broadcasted to every Jewish community within 100 miles of where you live.

    Third, my current host may start asking explosive questions like: Whose food is better, us or the other family? Whose house is better, us or the other family?

    The next time your host asks you for the names of the other families you visit, there is only one correct answer: I DON’T REMEMBER. I hate lying much more than most people, but in this situation, there is no choice. If you allow your current host to know the names of your other Shabbat hosts, any and all mistakes you make with one host may be reported to the other hosts.

    To protect yourself from slander and rumors, give your hosts as little information about yourself as possible. The less they know about you, the less they can talk about you. If your Shabbat host does not know where you live, then he can not start a conversation about you the next time he meets one of your neighbors.

    If your Shabbat host does not know where you work, then he can not start a conversation about you the next time he meets one of your co-workers.

    It would also be helpful to avoid visiting hosts who ask their guests many personal questions.

    If a host takes the initiative to invite you, then tell him up front that you are not comfortable answering personal questions, and you accept his invitation on that condition.

    One mussar book written centuries ago warns that if you visit the home of an Am HaAretz, he will feed you, but after you leave, he will slander you. That mussar book still applies today.

  27. No one wants to look ignorant in front of others, and hosts should try to make their guests comfortable.

    Someone invited for Shabbos who knows his hosts live by very detailed rules, while he doesn’t know all the rules, can feel intimidated.

    Maybe the cure to help prospective Shabbos guests who don’t know the ropes yet is a one page “cheat sheet” with the primary dos and don’ts. Are these available somewhere?

  28. Do the Broodos tell over this narrative on Erev Pesach when they deliberately set the challah on fire? Just wondering.

  29. Why does Ken say he made a ridiculous mistake? What is ridiculous about starting a fire (obviously an accident), or not knowing that he shouldn’t extinguish the fire? Why is either of those ridiculous? In some cases, it is necessary to extinguish a fire that threatens to burn out of control on Shabbos.

    It’s interesting that Ken expected to be judged, rather than expected to be accepted.

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