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The Shabbat Primer


Your Personal Preparations

Mikva And Shabbat

It can be inconvenient when your mikva night falls on Thursday or Friday. Still, it is usually possible, since you're aware of your mikva schedule ahead of time, to prepare in advance and thereby lessen the time pressure. For example, when you are preparing the upcoming Shabbat dinner the Shabbat a week before you expect to go to the mikva, you can make double portions and freeze those intended for next week's dinner.

If your mikva night is Thursday, it is sensible to serve a very simple dinner Thursday night and plan to do some of your regular Thursday chores on Wednesday or Friday. If your mikva night is Friday, it might be easier not to invite guests - or at least to invite only a few understanding ones - since you will have to be away from the house between candle lighting and the meal. Also, you will be busy on Friday afternoon with the pre-mikva preparations. In any case, start extra early that week, plan an especially easy Shabbat menu, or simply cut a few corners in your usual routine.

If you are new to mikva observance, don't hesitate to discuss it with a more experienced mikva goer, a Torah-observant rabbi's wife, or the observant rabbi nearest you. Any one of these people can be of real help.


If possible, the clothes we wear on Shabbat should be special for the day. Children, too, should have at least one Shabbat outfit. As an additional token of the day's specialness, appropriate new clothes bought during the week should be worn for the first time on Shabbat.

Anything that must be done to clothing you want to wear on Shabbat - washing, dry cleaning, ironing, mending, polishing, etc. - should be completed before candlelighting. Knots may not be tied on Shabbat, but single bows are permitted.

Shabbat clothing need not be terribly costly. In fact, obviously expensive garments are in bad taste. So, too, are pants on women, plunging necklines, backless or sleeveless tops, and skirts above the knee. For men, jeans, shorts, and jogging suits are totally inappropriate for Shabbat. For both sexes simple, elegant clothes are best. The standards of conservative good taste in the office are usually appropriate on Shabbat.

Just how dressed up you should be, however, depends in large part on your community. In most cities of North America and Europe proper Shabbat dress is often more formal than in Israel or on college campuses. In any case, proper dress should not preclude comfort. After all, a central theme of Shabbat is pleasure and rest. It's hard to feel either if your tie is choking you or your high heeled shoes are pinching.

For women an excellent solution to the problem of appearing festive in a minimum of time and with a maximum of comfort is the "Shabbat robe." This is a long, loose, comfortable, but especially beautiful robe or dress which you can slip into quickly for candle-lighting and, if you choose, wear all Shabbat night. It shouldn't look like a bathrobe and it should be appropriately modest, but other than that, there's no prescribed style. It can be a lovely caftan or hostess gown. Many we've seen look less like a robe than a long, loose-fitting dress. In any case, the "Shabbat robe" should be reserved for Shabbat only; part of the special ease and grace of the day.

Having a special Shabbat scarf for candlelighting also enhances the moment for you and your family. Some women are lucky enough to have inherited one from their mother or grandmother. If you haven't, maybe you could buy or embroider one yourself that could become a family heirloom.


Since we have just mentioned Shabbat scarves, perhaps a note on women's headcoverings in general is in order.

The custom of men's headcovering is very conspicuous in Judaism. What is less well-known is that there is an equally strong custom (actually, a law) in Jewish tradition for women to cover their heads.[59] The rationale is somewhat different in each case. A man's skullcap or hat is Judaism's way of showing reverence for Hashem and submission to His will, while a woman's covering her hair with a wig, scarf, or hat symbolizes both reverence for Hashem and sexual modesty as well. There is a common denominator for both sexes. Covering the head signifies humility and a certain reserve.

Single women need not cover their hair, but married, divorced, or widowed women should preferably do so at all times. (One may consult with a Rabbi to find out how this applies and to whom.) If you have not yet taken on this mitzva, it is a fine custom, at least, to cover your hair when praying, when making a blessing (such as candlelighting), when in a holy place (shul, cemetery, etc.), when attending a Jewish ceremony (brit, bar mitzva, wedding), and when visiting the home of Torah observant people, as a courtesy and a way to make them feel more comfortable.

The letter of the law requires that all the hair be covered. This mitzva should pose no problem, however, even for the fashion conscious. There are beautiful ways to accomplish it with colorful and elegant scarves, berets, and hats. Today, too, there is a wig industry so sophisticated that it is often hard to detect who is wearing one. A wig is actually the ideal hair covering because it covers all the hair.

Incidentally, there is no halachic indication whatsoever that hair covering is supposed to detract from a woman's beauty. The intention of the halacha was to protect her modesty, not to smother her natural G-d-given attractiveness. Our ancestors, apparently, had no difficulty in imagining a healthy woman of both beauty and reticence. In our "if you've got it, flaunt it" society, we often find our ancestors' attitude incomprehensible. But a glance at the gorgeous headcoverings medieval and Yemenite Jewish women once wore should convince even the most skeptical.

Similarly, with today's natural-looking wigs many women feel that they would never have gotten their own locks to look as attractive. Nechoma, a veteran wig wearer, sees many other advantages in it:

Wearing a wig means you can look beautiful in a minute. There's no need to set, comb, and fuss right before you're going out. I go to the wig salon when it's convenient for me, and then I have my hairdo waiting for me. On Friday night I light candles in my "Shabbat tichel" (Shabbat scarf) and special Shabbat robe. Then I lie down and rest while my sons and husband are in shul. When they come back, I put on my wig and feel festive and lovely. I never worry about my hair looking messy. I always have a stylish, ready-combed wig or two in the closet. It's a great liberator!

Personal Grooming

Many actions which are essential to personal grooming violate categories of forbidden melacha on Shabbat and are therefore forbidden. Applying makeup, using creams, plucking eyebrows and cutting hair, are not permissible between candlelighting and havdalah. As we have mentioned elsewhere, bathing, combing hair and the like are also to be avoided.

The solution, as usual, lies in readying yourself before Shabbat. Bathe or shower, arrange your hair, and apply your makeup before candle-lighting. You may seem a bit pale by the next day, and your hair will not look the way it did when you stepped out of the salon (unless you wear a wig), but you and everyone around you will know you're doing it for Shabbat. As one mother says, "When my daughter's braids are a bit messed up in the morning and I know it's because of Shabbat, she's even more beautiful to me."

If the idea of appearing in public un-madeup is just too appalling to you, remember that there is a clear fixative available which can be sprayed on freshly applied makeup. Women who use it say that it keeps the colors intact for the whole night and next day. Such a fixative applied before Shabbat is permissible, as are roll-on deodorants and loose, neutral-colored face powders applied on Shabbat. Things to be avoided are sprays, creams, and makeup which colors the face in any way.

All of this may be difficult for you if you're one of those women who can't face the world without eye makeup, blusher, and lipstick. But we must remember our Jewish priorities and realize that violating some of the superficial doctrines of our secular culture is not a cardinal sin. It won't kill you if you don't apply your cream one night, and you won't wither away if you occasionally forego your morning makeup ritual. Perhaps it's healthy to try facing the world once a week with your own face.


  1. (Back to text) On men's headcoverings, see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 2:6 and Talmud, Shabbat 156b. On women's headcoverings, see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 75:2 and Even HaEzer 25:2.
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