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The Shabbat Primer

The Mitzva Of Hospitality: Being A Host

Impediments To Inviting Guests

Major Inconveniences

Most of us recognize the very real benefits of hachnasat orchim. Why, then, do many of us find the mitzva so difficult to carry out, so burdensome, in fact, that we all too often avoid practicing it? There are plenty of possible obstacles in the way of one's desire to invite Shabbat guests. It can be a true inconvenience, both in the short- and long-run. You may tire from all the demanding preparations. These particular guests may prove to be nudniks and threaten to ruin your Shabbat. You might have to put the guests up all night and the next day, keeping them fed and entertained. Maybe you're tired of being a fountain of Yiddishkeit for others. For most women, though, the two main obstacles, we suspect, are simply the desire to spend the Shabbat privately with their family and, looming above all others, the fear of being judged. Let's examine each of these in turn.

For many people, even those most willing to practice it, extending hospitality often involves putting oneself out. Furniture may have to be shifted all around, family members may have to give up their beds and closets, children may have to sleep doubled up. After they get used to it, the children may well take all this in stride and even miss the commotion when a guestless Shabbat falls.[62] But, at least in the beginning, they may complain loudly.

For the adults, too, it can be inconvenient. If you need order in your home life, putting up guests frequently can be unsettling. The added expense can also be a worry. Even more daunting, you may be opening yourself up for much more involvement in other people's lives than you bargained for. As Chana Sharfstein writes, "One might become involved in the search for a suitable dwelling, roommate, decent job, even shidduch. The mitzvah of Hochnosos Orchim can be a demanding one extending into all areas of life."[63] You can give a person his first real taste of Shabbat, bring him closer to Judaism, even change his whole world around, but in the process a lot of beds may go unmade and dishes pile up in the corner.

How does one deal with such a sense of inconvenience? By being honest about one's capacity, by keeping one's priorities straight, and, finally, by building on experience.

Look honestly at what you can take now. You may have an ideal in your head of a home packed with sleepover guests every Shabbat, singing around a huge, laden table. It seems so beautiful, so true to Shabbat and the way Jews should be. But you've tried it once - or even just imagined doing it once - and it left you with incipient colitis. Or perhaps you've been excited about the thought of drawing young alienated Jews closer to their Judaism, only to find that you've been sucked into being a psychotherapist and your home, a youth hostel.

It's far better to be honest about your ability to extend hospitality at this point. After all, your limits of today are not engraved in stone; with experience, they may well expand. Consider inviting only one or two extra people to join you just for Seuda Shlishit, Melaveh Malka, or Shabbat lunch. Or maybe it would be helpful to set boundaries, such as, "the number I can feed without putting an extra leaf in my table," or "the number I can feed for $15 more," or "the amount of time I can hostess, say, 2-1/2 hours." Avoid talk which will result in your becoming "volunteered" to help with problems you just aren't willing to take on. After all, there's so much good conversation to make and singing to do that you'll hardly be neglecting your guests' pleasure.

Please remember, we are not saying that what you are comfortable with today is enough. The goal is to grow. Many baalot teshuva who never saw hospitality in their parents' home and who quaked at inviting even one guest for dinner have now reached the point where they can "put up another ten" without batting an eye. Involving themselves in helping uninformed Jews, moreover, has become a central purpose of their lives. But it took time, perhaps even years to reach that level, and it took a beginning, somewhere.

What keeps you pushing against your limits is, as always, setting your priorities straight. It's hard. We're inundated with photos of Architectural Digest dining-rooms, immaculate, pristinely orderly, with every twig of the Japanese flower arrangement in perfect alignment - and with never a person in sight. Who would bring an extra non-coordinated chair into a room like that? Especially one crowned by peanut butter globs and a wad of gum stuck under the seat.

Overcoming our expectations in this area takes lots of consciousness-raising and struggling with a part of ourselves. What does a guest really need? Many of us have been taught to believe that to have a guest requires a separate guest room with bed and closet, plenty of space, order, devoted attention, gourmet meals, and, of course, a matching chair at that elegant table. Ironically, the homes most exactingly equipped by architects for guests often have them the least.

By contrast, real Jewish hospitality is casual, often lacking in decorum or private space, yet wonderfully natural. Much better to have you at the table, it's believed, than another matching, but empty chair. You fit in as you want, you sleep wherever there's space, you're treated almost as part of the family, and nobody stands on ceremony. The experience is unique, usually indescribably comfortable and warm-hearted. It may take many tries at being a guest and later a host to learn how to do it, but to offer that kind of experience should be our first priority.

Finally, one overcomes the feeling of being inconvenienced by building on experience. You streamline your routine as the months pass. Then, after experimenting a few times, you may feel up to adding to the complexity of your preparations, or, conversely, you may find many things you can just as well drop. As Sarah says,

I used to spend hours baking for Shabbat, but then my oven broke down and couldn't be fixed for weeks. I discovered that everybody was quite content with bought cookies or cake. I also used to spend a lot of time cutting up fresh fruit into pretty little pieces for a compot. Now I just put a bowl of whole fresh fruit on the table, same thing with fresh salads. Now that I have guests every single Shabbat, I open lots of cans of assorted pickles, olives, etc. And you know what? I've noticed that nobody misses anything. The atmosphere and the Shabbat feeling is what they come for and, please G-d, come away with.
The important thing, then, is the spirit of your welcome. As Rabbi Nathan says, "Lavish hospitality accompanied by a sour disposition means far less than modest hospitality extended cheerfully."[64]

The sense of being inconvenienced should lessen with practice. If it doesn't, maybe you're trying too hard. Temporarily limiting the number of guests you invite or the amount of time they stay may help. Or you could go back temporarily to inviting guests for a less demanding Shabbat meal, Seuda Shlishit "tea" or Melaveh Malka with snacks only. Having a pot-luck Shabbat dinner with your guests supplying some of the dishes also lessens the load. Just be sure everything is kosher and bought before Shabbat. Or, if you're uneasy about cooking in general, buy several take-out dishes from a kosher deli or restaurant. Few will notice or mind.

If you feel inconvenienced because of the people themselves, maybe you need to revise your guest list. For now forget about people you "ought to invite." Ask only the people you really want, those who can contribute something. Later on when you're more experienced and can generate much of the Shabbat atmosphere yourselves, you may not feel inconvenienced by hosting guests you know less well. In the end you come to see that much of the "inconvenience" of Shabbat hosting arises from the exaggerated expectations and false priorities instilled in us by a non-Jewish culture.

All-Shabbat (Sleepover) Guests

Certainly the thought of entertaining guests in one's home for over 25 hours gives one pause. Especially so if one has no resort to TV, shopping, or going for a drive as back-up relief. For many people it sounds like a real-life scenario of No Exit. Yet this is a condition of hospitality which Torah-observant hosts often face, since their guests frequently don't live within comfortable walking distance of their home. How is it that observant hosts can actually view this demanding situation with equanimity, and even with pleasure?

Part of the solution, according to our resource women, lies in rejecting the very concept of "entertaining" guests. Of course, the host and hostess are "on call" throughout Shabbat, particularly at meal times, and feel a certain responsibility for their guests' pleasure and comfort. Nevertheless, the traditional Jewish outlook on hospitality is, as we have said, quite different from that of the non-Jewish world. In that world, the host has many duties. He is supposed to do everything possible to provide his guests with "a good time." In this sense, the verb "entertain," with all its connotations of a performer on one side and a spectator on the other, is apt. The host is supposed to exhibit a lot of invested consideration and planning, if not necessarily expense. It's his obligation to "keep things going," to seat the compatible people together, to try to ensure a lively conversation for everyone, and to ply his guests with plenty of good food and drink. By contrast, the guest is relatively passive. He must only appear to be enjoying himself so as not to embarrass his host. It's a heavy burden for the host. No wonder many hesitate to take it on even six times a year, let alone for 25 hours almost every week.

According to the Jewish outlook, however, the host is providing not so much an entertainment as a venue. It's not that one drums up the pleasure and the other enjoys it. Both host and guest have the same duties to perform, the same mitzvot to carry out. They are both obligated to create the joy and holiness of Shabbat to the same extent, and they are together because they have a shared mission. With this in mind, the observant host and hostess can be more relaxed about all-day guests. They must only provide the basic conditions for Shabbat to be celebrated; the guests have the responsibility to do as much to create Shabbat as they would at home.

Then, too, large blocks of time out of the 25 hours are already allocated for certain purposes - for leisurely meals, for bentching, for singing, for davening at shul and at home, for learning Torah - even for napping. With the day so structured by tradition, the hosts don't have much of a burden of entertaining left to them and can manage comfortably even within the Shabbat prohibitions.

Let us look at some specific ways in which our individual resource women cope with frequent all-day hosting. Some, of course, do it rather sparingly. In fact, there is one category of Jews which is seldom expected to host others. Our resource women strongly support the traditional practice that newlyweds should not invite guests often during their first year or two of marriage, and especially not for the whole Shabbat day. They will have many years to welcome guests to their Shabbat table. Now is the time to build their life together, and for that they need their privacy.

Even some of our long-married resource women seldom have all-day guests. "If possible," says Malka, "I prefer to have guests for just Friday night dinner or for Shabbat lunch, or even to have two different groups of guests for the two meals. I need private time on Shabbat, or at least the stimulation of a new group of faces. It's hard to have the same people for a whole day. Of course, there are times when you want to talk and talk with certain people, or when your guests live too far away to walk home. But in general, I like short-term guests." So Malka tends to invite just those families who live nearby and can walk home after the meal.

Other women will invite all-day guests, but only if certain conditions are met. "I don't invite people for all of Shabbat if I know they have noisy, active little kids," says Devorah, "at least not at this time in my life. You have to know yourself and your limits. I have noisy, active little kids of my own; I just can't take too much additional din. Shabbat is the day I rest up from all the strain of the week. I suffer if I don't get that rest. Maybe in a few years I'll be up to more little kids for a whole day, but not at this point." Tamar feels freer to invite guests for the whole day now that she has a private place for them. "When we lived in our one-bedroom apartment, I really felt reluctant to have guests all Shabbat. I need to get away for my private rest, and I think a guest does, too. Since we moved and have an extra room we can use for company, I invite people more often." Nevertheless, Tamar invites only good friends, relatives, or people she feels truly congenial with for the whole Shabbat. She is happy to welcome others, but just for a limited time.

Finally, there are those women who are truly baalot hamitzva and have sleep-over guests in their homes almost every Shabbat. What's their secret? In part, it's the Jewish attitude toward hosting mentioned earlier. These experienced Shabbat hostesses simply have a more relaxed, easygoing outlook on the matter. They focus on what they can provide, never trying to compete with a five-star hotel. They assume, too, that their guests will hold up their end of things, take initiative for their own enjoyment, and fit in as they will.

"When we had a tiny one-bedroom apartment," says Esther, "we sometimes even had people sleeping under the table. That's O.K. It doesn't kill anybody for one night. We gave them the experience of Shabbat. That's what they really came for." "I don't feel I have to be glued to my guests or 'make their Shabbat' for them," says Devorah. "I usually excuse myself for a nap after lunch and go out later for a walk with the kids in the afternoon. I think the only way I could invite guests for all Shabbat as often as I do is to let Shabbat and Hashem take some of the responsibility. It's not all up to me."

The other secret of these women's open-hearted hospitality lies in their attitude toward the guests themselves. As Nechoma says, "For me it's simply a way of life I'm used to, and a real pleasure. It's not something I have to 'cope with.' Guests bring us so much extra interest and joy over Shabbat. I realize that for Jews who didn't grow up as I did, it's hard to think of facing a lot of different 'strangers' over breakfast every Shabbat. But for us, they're not strangers, but family. It's an entirely different attitude. Of course, you have to know your limits. But keep trying it, building up gradually, and I think you'll begin to see things the same way. Sometimes 25 hours seems much too short a time...."

Notes on some practicalities of hosting overnight guests:

Even if you can't provide a V.I.P. suite, make sure your guests have as comfortable beds as possible, clean linen, and clean towels. Don't sleep guests with babies or children who wake up at night. It's unfair. Try, if you can, to give guests some private space. Nechoma usually gives her guests the children's room and sleeps the kids on the livingroom couch.

Could Ruin Your Shabbat

Who can ruin Shabbat for you? The answer, depending on the way you see things, ranges from "almost anybody" to "almost nobody." To exhausted people, perfectionists, nervous, shy, or highly "territorial" people, the idea of having even one guest ties their stomach up in Gordian knots. To those of us occupying the central 95% of the bell curve, certain types of people could do the job - bores, depressives, spoiled brats, princesses complaining of peas, hostile relatives. To those few at the highest extreme of the spectrum, almost nobody can detract from their Shabbat joy.

How do you overcome your own reluctance to invite problematic guests? Unfortunately, there is no easy way, especially for those with neurotic impediments. Devorah's husband, for example, is both shy and fiercely "territorial," as she puts it. He doesn't like other people invading his turf, sitting in his favorite place, making confusion around his house. Devorah, on the other hand, is more outgoing and wants to have guests over almost every Shabbat. The only answer is compromise, says Devorah. "We have to accept each other as we are. My husband has come a long way, but he'll probably never be a social animal. We started off inviting one or two guests for one meal, once every three weeks. Gradually we've built up to inviting more people, more often. I think knowing his 'ordeal' was limited helped my husband actually go ahead and invite guests. The big push, though, came from the mitzva. I'm sure that without it, and other mitzvot like it, we would never get the inner strength to overcome our inertia and fears and make progress working on our characters."

Keeping in mind both that "this too will pass" and the importance of the mitzva also gives others the necessary push. "Ninety-five per cent of my guests are a pleasure," says Mira, "but if I sometimes just have to invite somebody, I keep remembering, 'It's only one Shabbat. It's uncomfortable, but not dangerous. I can get through it.' " "I accept inviting such a guest like I do fasting," says Devorah, "It's hard, but having a difficult person gives me a chance to work on my middot. Whenever the guest provokes something in me, I know that's just the trait I have to work on."

For Leah, the vital importance of carrying out the mitzvot of hospitality and of observing Shabbat gives her both the incentive to invite a difficult guest and the ability not to be fazed by him or her. "We often invite a certain young woman," she says, "frankly just because we know she's lonely and has nowhere else to go. She's extremely depressed and just sits there silently throughout the meal. We've tried all sorts of things to cheer her up, but nothing seems to work. So what should we do? Let her ruin our Shabbat? We just go ahead and do what we always do, with her or without her joining in. And because we are able to do that, we can keep on inviting her."

Tiredness

Erev Shabbat exhaustion is a very real problem which should be combated whether you have guests or not. Nevertheless, avoiding tiredness at this time is much easier to advocate than to achieve. All the accumulated tension before candlelighting is normal and understandable. The pressures are there; nobody can deny it. Some even believe that shrieking, rushing, and working to fever pitch are an integral part of the subsequent Shabbat peace. As we state many times in this book, however, we reject this view. And frankly, if you are reading it, you may well be hoping to find a way to join us.....

Half of the solution lies in better organization, and earlier on we suggested several tactics to achieve that. The other half lies in a changed attitude. You deserve your Shabbat, too; you deserve to be relaxed, joyful, and alert on this day of all days. Remember, the Shabbat was created for wo/mankind, and not the other way around. Chana has taken to writing this thought on a card and taping it above her stove Friday mornings. Then, whenever Guilt seizes her, nagging in her ear, "You need another vegetable dish," she runs to read the card. With her last ounce of strength, she staggers to a chair and for fifteen minutes does nothing. Guilt is defeated.


Our resource women have a number of ways for tackling the tiredness problem. Some use inspirational pick-me-ups. Devorah says:

I used to get the "pre-Shabbat blues" when the kids were little and I had to deal with them and guests at the same time. I'd sit in the kitchen Friday morning not having any zest for anything. It was very hard to get started. Then when I found out that many other women felt the same way, I realized that my feelings were normal. What helped was to put on tapes of Rabbi Miller and other rabbis - (Rebbetzin Esther Leah Avner is also excellent) - or some Shabbat music, and that would get me going. I would take every step one at a time and tell myself that it was more important for me to be calm than to have an extra cake. When I was pregnant with my fourth and unable to walk during the last three months, that's when I learned to keep it simple. K.I.S.: Keep it simple!
Then there are those who just push on, counting on the exhilaration of Shabbat to refresh them in the end. There is, in fact, a natural moment for revival in the routine of Shabbat preparations. When, at last, after all the racing about, the time for candlelighting comes and the woman stands before those rising flames, she feels a great weight drop off her back. At that moment she experiences a deep sense of peace, satisfaction, and unity with all Jewish women. Chana claims she actually hears thousands of female voices all at the same second breathing, "aaah...." Blu Greenberg writes, "...I heave a sigh of relief, ... and feel the stress and strain of the week begin to drain out of my body. ... Once again, we've made it. ..."[65]

Because of the need for rest after such a busy day, almost all the married women we interviewed spoke unapologetically about not attending synagogue Friday night. With the men and some of the children away at shul, this was their time to finish dressing, unwind, perhaps pray at home, and chat with the women guests. "I was taught that maximum davening is not a 'must' for a young mother," says Nechoma, "or rather, that we can choose according to circumstances between 'local' and 'express' davening. I usually do the main prayers and then rest." Adds Blu Greenberg, "We should go more often, because the Friday-night shul davvening (prayer) is the most beautiful of all, with more communal singing than at any other time. But on Friday night I like to luxuriate in the sudden peacefulness of the house between candlelighting and dinner and in the prayer with my daughters, parts of which we sing together."[66] By the time the men return, the women feel revived.

Some women feel they can't make it without a Friday rest. They manage to get it by better organization (doing more on Thursday, for example), by simplifying their dinner menu, and by scheduling a nap as one of their necessities. Ilana lies down after lighting the candles, Rachel says, "I nap on Erev Shabbat. Otherwise the day is just too long. In summer I take my kids to the playground about 3:00. We get home at 4:00, I nap until 5:00, and I still have time to finish my preparations. The cooking was done Thursday night." Some women need even more recovery time. Sarah says, "Sometimes I ignore the house for two or three days and rest instead. Then I feel renewed energy for Shabbat."

Nearly all the married women count on the help of their husbands. "Thankfully, my husband gives the three small boys a bath Friday afternoon," says Devorah. "Husbands should help and not go off to their mothers at this time!" Their help continues to be vital during the Shabbat daytime hours. "I think every husband owes it to his wife to take the kids off her hands so that she can get a really good rest on Shabbat," Devorah continues. "He should take a walk with them, read to them, relate to them, get to know them." "I'm lucky I have a sensitive husband," Nechoma adds. "He's with the kids for breakfast and lets me sleep in. Then he takes the older boys with him to shul. He naps in the early afternoon and makes sure I get my reading and nap time later in the day by watching the kids. So we 'spell each other' with the children, and both of us get a Shabbat rest."

A closing observation from Devorah on the subject of tiredness: "Some women purposely exhaust themselves so that they're too tired to have to relate to anyone. Then they have an excuse to explode or withdraw from human contact."

"Just The Family"

Sometimes the desire just to be alone with the family prevents our inviting guests. Paradoxically, this is seldom a problem for those who one would expect should feel it the most. We who were brought up in comparatively closed homes imagine that Jews regularly practicing hachnasat orchim must always be feeling anxious and overloaded. "How can they survive without any privacy, even on Shabbat?" we ask ourselves. But in fact, all our resource women told us that they rarely tire of having guests and don't feel their privacy invaded. On the contrary, they feel a Shabbat with just the family is lacking something for them.

Of course, there are limits. Every one of our resource women admitted to occasionally feeling "over-guested" and having to take a short vacation from hostessing. One young mother says she was told to take off one Shabbat a month. But all our respondents maintain that they return to welcoming guests as soon as they can, and with renewed zest.

The desire just to be alone with the family, then, seems to be an issue mainly for those of us who are in some sense struggling with the mitzva. What really lies behind this reluctance?

In fact, if you listen to people say "I just want to be alone with my family," what you often hear is tiredness and the fear of being judged. We feel a special effort is required, we don't want to push ourselves again, we want to "let go" - and it's only within the family circle that we feel we can. If this is indeed the case, it bears a closer look. What is putting so much pressure on us? How could we change our priorities so that we would be less tired and have more time for our family? And why do we find it so necessary to perform? We discuss these issues in the sections on "Tiredness" and "The Fear of Being Judged"; here, let us look at the family schedule itself.

Some families in fact see very little of each other during the week. Dinner time, the only natural meeting hour, is often a gobble-and-bolt affair. Children from about age six always have some better place to be, whether it is with friends, homework, or the TV screen. Their parents, too, have phone calls to make and more work to do. Teenagers have been known to disappear for weeks on end. So Shabbat (if a family like this manages to observe it) takes on the aura of a nature preserve, in which the herd huddle together away from the outside world. This is a legitimate response at times. But if it becomes habitual, it chokes off social life.

Try to find creative solutions. Maybe you could spend a brown-bag lunch hour together at someone's work place. Maybe you could get up earlier and have a leisurely breakfast, davening session, and chat together. Set appointments with family members as conscientiously as you set work appointments - and keep them.

Above all, make opportunities for confidences. If you do that, you have provided for the crucial element in family closeness in the eyes of children. For little kids, just before bedtime is often a good moment. Instead of reading a goodnight story every evening, Chana sometimes asks her young son while they are cuddling on the sofa, "Anything you want to talk about tonight?" After the familiar catalog of "who-hit-whom-today," surprising confidences often emerge. For older kids and teenagers, the best moment might be later at night, maybe even after midnight. (Whoever said parenting was restful?!) For husband and wife, a half hour might be made after the children have left the table or gone to bed. Devorah and her husband find the opportunity right after their regular nightly fifteen minutes of Torah study. There is always a pocket of time somewhere.

If, then, you have made opportunities for confidences, you have also provided for the one thing you can't do with company about. Otherwise, it is entirely possible to be with your family in a close, authentic way in the presence of guests. Love doesn't require exclusive, one-to-one attention. A person can also love through others, as parents love each other through their children. In fact, sharing a good Shabbat experience with guests is one of the best ways for a Jewish family to be together.

A Fountain Of Yiddishkeit

"I sometimes get so tired of explaining," confesses Aviva, "that I just want to invite people on a higher level than we are - people who can explain to us!

Is it a problem for those who practice hachnasat orchim regularly always to be serving as fountains of Yiddishkeit for others? In fact, we discovered, Aviva's response is atypical. According to our other resource women, it is no problem at all.

"I never get tired of any of it," says Malka. "Maybe we are examples of Yiddishkeit for uninformed people; I hope we are. But we never work at it. We don't drum up anything. We certainly never put on a show, like singing when we don't usually do it. And I don't get tired of explaining or answering questions. They're different enough each time so that it doesn't get boring, and it helps me to have to formulate Judaism 'on one leg.' Also, it's the best kind of education for my kids. Often they answer the questions, and then I really kvell."

"For me," says Esther, "teaching is the main pleasure of having Shabbat guests. It can be so stimulating. We often talk until three or four in the morning. My husband just knows how to put things, how to reach people. And our great reward comes when our guests say, 'I never thought of it like that. I never in a million years thought Judaism was so deep.' "

There are those, however, who are not comfortable in the teaching role. In that case, they simply decide not to do it. "We tried 'educating' for a while," says Devorah, "but we soon felt it wasn't natural for us, so we gave it up. Of course, we answer any questions our guests ask. But we don't teach or 'missionize.' We feel the example of a happy family speaks for itself. So many non-observant Jews think that Judaism is all drabness and dutiful praying. We want to show them it's happiness and joy. We don't have to work at that."

Rachel sums it up: "I think that those who are real fountains of Yiddishkeit never run dry."

The Fear Of Being Judged:
Your Cooking & Your Ego

This, we suspect, is the big one. If a woman feels any psychological barrier to inviting guests, it is likely to be her fear of being judged and found wanting as a cook or housekeeper. When it comes to her domestic skills, almost no woman seems genuinely confident. It's amazing. We spoke with women in cheerfully disordered homes and in immaculate, whistle-clean homes. Not one could, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a slob. Yet virtually every one apologized at some point for "the mess - all the kids, you know."

It's not so much that a woman fears open criticism, though some have experienced that, too. "The worst Shabbat of my life," says Devorah, "was when I got stuck with a fanatical Shabbat guest. She sneered and snooped into every corner of my house, criticizing this and complaining about that. Nothing was kosher enough for her. She was really sick." This kind of attack is rare, however. What most women expect will happen is that their guests will be outwardly complimentary, but inwardly critical. Few expect to know what their guests really think about their orderliness or their menus, but many apparently anticipate the worst.

Behind most of our perfectionists stands a Supermom. Esther is a perfectionist and daughter of a perfectionist. "My mother didn't have many guests," she says. "It was always such a great burden for her. She was nervous for days beforehand. After I got married, I really had to work hard at first to reach the level of hospitality I wanted for us. I've made it, but I'm still critical of myself. My husband jokes that if I say something's 'ruined,' it's the best that ever was!"

Rivka's fears of being judged sometimes prevent her from inviting guests. She chastises herself,

Why do I let it be an obstacle? It's so silly! I never think that way when I'm a guest. I never pick over somebody's menu in my mind or blame her for a towel dropped on the floor. I guess I'm always comparing myself to my mother as a hostess. She was terrific at it, and she never made it seem the least bit of effort. The food was excellent and original, and she just made everything "flow." She was always so graceful, too. People loved coming to our home. I know I'm trying to provide something different, but I still can't get her out of my mind.
Aviva, who runs an extremely tasteful, immaculate home, still doesn't think she's grade A. "My mother used to wash the walls each week when she cleaned our house. Who could ever measure up to that?!" And so it goes, with woman after woman.

Nevertheless, they refuse to be stymied by their fears. Again, what helps them overcome their reluctance is the mitzva. "It gets easier with practice, it really does," says Leah. "But I'm sure that without the mitzva in mind - its beauty, its vital importance, and the fact that it's a mitzva - I wouldn't have the incentive to push myself hard enough to overcome my hesitation." Says Batya,

I was always inwardly afraid of being judged. At first I worked on myself to invite people because I thought having lots of guests was beautiful. It was what I wanted. Now I do it more because of the mitzva, because I know it's what Hashem wants. If you have willpower or a spouse who really wants lots of guests, you can go quite far just working at it on your own. I'm not saying you can't. But keeping in mind that it's a mitzva forces you to keep trying, even when your willpower or your spouse wants to rest. In the end, you're grateful for the mitzva. I don't want to make it sound so heavy, either. It's a beautiful mitzva. When I reflect on it, I feel happy and excited about inviting guests.
From many of our women, too, one picks up a distinct note of defiance. It's as though they know they can't entirely rid themselves of their nervousness, so they've decided deliberately to put themselves into the very situation they fear. It seems a good, workable tactic.

"I used to compete," says Devorah, "and knocked myself out making spectacular dinners. But my difficult fourth pregnancy and my varicose veins ended all that. It's just not worth it. I've stopped worrying about whether people approve of me or not. Now I make simple Shabbat meals and invite more guests. It's a much richer experience for everyone." Says Rachel, "If you really work at it, you can get over that fear of being judged. Very few people come to pick you over, and those few aren't worth worrying about. They're just competitive and insecure."

Woman after woman reports a decision like Devorah's and Rachel's to be less demanding of herself, to make things simpler, and to bravely ignore the critics. But their very vehemence reveals how hard it was.

The reverse side of the fear of being judged, as our resource women have realized, is the polishing of one's ego. Vanity, ego, reputation, and competition are what all too often produce those showy meals. Genuine delight in cooking does exist, of course, but it's a rare gift. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that love of our guests and the desire to please them is not usually the main reason we knock ourselves out for three days before a dinner party. The real reasons are not measuring up and the need to impress.

Devorah, as usual, puts everything into the right perspectives:

It saddens me that there is so much emphasis on extravagant meals and super cleanliness. First of all, the heavy meals are not healthy, especially at night. No one needs to eat an eight course meal topped off with a rich dessert. So, if you're thinking of your physical health, it's best to have a simple meal with lean meat or chicken and a salad in the evening. And there's no law that says you have to have cake. A lot of people would be better off with fruit, nuts, and seeds for dessert. We don't need to add sugar and fat to our diets. It's no chesed to help people ruin their health.

And those who make Pesach every Friday usually have no time or energy left for the kids who need a calm, rested mother much more than they need a fancy cake. We need to get our priorities straight. Shabbat is for people - to relax and relate to each other, to elevate ourselves and those around us by sharing and caring. Sure, there's a certain amount of drudgery involved. Maybe 20-30% of a woman's Shabbat may not be on the positive side if she's overworked. But if she feels really depressed every Shabbat and the kids are not getting any special attention because she's too wiped out, she has to examine her priorities. At a certain point I stop and say, "This is it. Whatever didn't get done didn't get done." Condemnations are like a destructive fire. You shouldn't light a fire on Shabbat - even in your own mind.

Shabbat has been celebrated in concentration camps on a crust of bread, and it may have had more significance than our super-fancy Shabbatot that we celebrate in the midst of plenty.

Notes:

  1. (Back to text) Recommended for kids: 1000 Guests for Shabbat.
  2. (Back to text) "The Taker the Giver, the Giver the Taker," The Jewish Home (Di Yiddishe Heim), 17, No. 3 (Winter 5738, 1977), 20.
  3. (Back to text) Avot d'Rabbi Nathan, I.
  4. (Back to text) "Celebrating Shabbat," How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p 57.
  5. (Back to text) Ibid., p 63.
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