Although our family began a formal practice of Shabbat and Sabbath four years ago, we had struggled with it for the two years previous, wanting to make it a family practice yet not understanding how in the wake of our family’s needs and lack of time. At that time (six years ago), after an unexpected financial collapse, we were struggling to make ends meet. We sold nearly everything we owned, including our house and my car, reducing spending to a minimum and picking up work anywhere we could. We moved in with my sister and her family for a year, testing out co-habitation to help relieve financial pressure on both of our families. Mark worked out of the home six days a week as an educator, also working part-time online in other hours. Both of us were committed to homeschooling, which at that time fell more to me during the weekdays since Mark worked outside of the home. A few evenings a week, we swapped roles, and I tutored university students in writing. In other odd hours, especially the early morning and afternoon rest time, I began blogging again, learning photography and writing editorials, both as a way to work creatively toward something of my own and also to help add income to our family home. Mark and I worked all the time in one capacity or another, tossing roles back and forth, trying to preserve our children’s childhood and honor our family values while also moving forward financially again. Sundays became a day for us to catch up on home projects and to prepare for the week ahead. How did a practice of Sabbath fit into it all?
There are deeper layers to that personal story, but it feels important to write some context to this conversation. In my perspective, Sabbath was something I had to wedge into our life. In the beginning and without realizing it, I treated it as something else to do, another task or a time to relax when all the work was done. Yet Sabbath is not only for the wealthy or the privileged to enjoy; it is not something we earn as a reward, like retirement or annual vacation. It is a gift for all of humanity, a rhythm established in creation for everyone’s benefit. Sabbath reminds us, regardless of our circumstance, that we are human. We are not machines enslaved to our work.
In the ancient creation story of Genesis, rest was the first thing given to humanity. Rest was given before work. In Exodus 20, when Sabbath was first given to Israel through Moses, it was given to everyone in the household, including the men, women, children, servants, and any animals. No one worked, meaning for this agrarian culture, even the earth itself rested. There are so many more layers here, but the short point: the practice of Sabbath in our home is based in freedom, not law. It is not a practice of “can’t” or “no” but instead a day set apart to honor God and one another. It is a day we do not discuss or think about work or the mortgage or car repair or braces or unfinished school work or clothing needs, so that we can enjoy one another and enjoy what we already have. And while that discipline of letting go has been learned and practiced, the fruit of setting aside the thinking of those things for the day has been a salvation for us. On Sunday (our family’s first day after Sabbath), all of those normal life stresses are waiting for us, but our hearts and minds are restored to face them again.
I know this practice will nuance based on circumstance. But I hope this inspires you to remember: the practice is foremost a gift of freedom in time. Below you’ll find some more answers to recent questions from readers.
What does this look like with young children and babies? This question came in a variety of forms so I’ll try to answer here concisely. My youngest was four when we first began, and I wish now we had started sooner. My brief encouragement: do not wait. The nuances of this practice will evolve with you and your family. Adapt it to make it work for where you are now, but make time for this practice. It is a rare gift of time. Like many things in parenting, with the practice of Sabbath, you are setting an expectation for your children about what is important, inside and outside of your home. It isn’t a stuffy, prosaic practice, it is a life-giving rhythm for every stage of life. I encourage anyone––single, married, families with young or adult children––to practice Sabbath but have flexibility for the nuances to shift in different times.
For the Shabbat meal (the tradtional meal beginning the Sabbath) with young children, keep the mealtime blessings brief and the table simple: a special candle, some flowers/greenery, and if available, a tablecloth. If need be: use paper plates. Wink. Other ideas to include children ages 2 and up:
- beginning the meal with a simple song they can learn and sing each week
- setting the table
- painting placemats or name cards
- gathering flowers or greens for the table
- helping to prepare the food
The Sabbath day might take more intentional juggling between parents or grandparents, if available, to accommodate babies or toddlers. In our current stage with older children and teens, we are moving away from screens on Sabbath, since they are becoming more a part of our daily living. But with young children or toddlers, putting on a movie or favorite TV show so that parents can sleep/nap or enjoy a quiet restful activity for that hour may be exactly what’s needed. I still encourage parents to tuck away personal devices, if possible. Having a day free of texting, email, phone calls, etc. is a rare gift in modern culture. Other restful activities to consider regardless of age:
- take a family walk
- play a game
- read a book together
- rotate who wakes up with the kids in the morning
- take a nap
What ages do you think is the best for your kids to join? Any age. Sabbath is for everyone.
How do you keep it from being a source of stress and obligation? The most stressful day is the one preparing for Shabbat/Sabbath. On this day, we are very busy cleaning the house, wrapping up work, preparing food. But at dinner, it stops. All of it. No phone. No work. No school. No cleaning. It is never an obligation; it is true freedom. And it’s highly motivating for all of us.
How do you handle Saturday activities (birthday parties, sports, etc)? Case by case. We tend to look at the big picture or the month as a whole. Do we have three weekends of travel or event invitations? What is most restful for or family in this season? Sometimes a birthday party can be connecting and restful, and other times it can feel exhausting and disruptive. Be intentional about choosing restful, joyful, restorative activities for Sabbath. For example, maybe a two-hour birthday party for your son would be a blast for him but taxing for you. Can you drop him off or send him with a friend?
How do you protect this day/time? With intention (see more above). In the beginning, it was awkward and difficult. After years of practicing, I notice the gift of this day of rest, how it quiets my anxiety and sources my body, mind, and spirit for the following week.
Any set specific readings? Yes, I always open the meal with a blessing and prayer as we light the candles. The prayer is organic but the blessing is the same. Then we bless the children and mother, wash hands, take communion together, and bless the meal.
When do you find the time to do home projects? On Sunday or another day of the week.
How do you include the kids in blessing explanations without making your kids seem like know-it-alls? I am not quite sure if I am answering this questions correctly, but in our home acting as a know-it-all is treated more as a character lesson than a matter of information. We are eager learners in all of these things, but none of us knows everything. We are always learning in this practice, and as our kids grow older they are taking in new parts of it. Whether they decided to practice this
How is Shabbat different in different seasons? (Swimming and pizza in the summer?) Yes. It follows the seasons in the same way our family dinners do. In the winter, Shabbat feels quiet and cozy. We make hearty stews or roasted meats and vegetables. It is dark outside and glowing inside. In the summer, the light is bright and our table is often filled with grilled fish and vegetables. We eat outdoors in the in between seasons. We have picked up takeout for Shabbat on weeks we feel utterly exhausted or our prep day is full. There is freedom. The point for us is that it remains special, distinctive in some way. If we order takeout, we still set the table with candles and flowers.
How does it work with non-Christians? Of course, the nuances will be different. But there are still many people who practice a secular Sabbath.
Do you still do blessings at dinner? Yes, we have a brief scripted blessing for the boys, a blessing for the girls, and a blessing for the mothers. I am not sure why there is not a traditional blessing for the fathers, but sometimes we add our own.
When did you find time to plan and make food with little ones? Read more details in this blog post.
How do you handle questions about observing Saturdays instead of Sundays? With honesty. It’s the day that works best for our family rhythm, but Sabbath can be practiced in any 24 hour period during the week.
How often do you involve company? We celebrate our Shabbat meal with my sister and her family most weeks since they live down the street. It helps offset the meal prep and brings a fresh level of energy for both families each week. Other guests join once a month.
Do you make a large meal for leftovers the day after? Meals on Sabbath? Because we feed at least 11 each week, there’s rarely a significant amount of leftovers. Typically, my husband will make pancakes with one of the boys or it will be a simple breakfast and lunch, and we eat out on Saturday night.
How is practicing Shabbat/Sabbath similar or different before having kids? Sadly, we didn’t begin the practice until after having all of our children, so I’m not sure. Although it’s easy to think it would be easier because there would be less chaos to manage, I imagine in some ways it would feel harder to be disciplined about shutting off work or tech for a day or making a special meal. Either way, I think it’s worth doing! I loved this teaching from a single woman on her practice of Sabbath.
Do you go to Synagogue before or after for the shuir? We do not.
What days/hours do you celebrate? Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. It’s what works best for our family rhythm, since we have a weekday church meeting and Sunday is generally a prep day for the week.
What does a typical day look like leading up to dinner, prep, clean-up? The morning is often schoolwork. Some weeks we have math tutoring into the early afternoon, and those days are harder for prep and we do some on Thursday afternoons, too. Generally, we school then shift into deep cleaning mode: wash linens, clean bathrooms, floors, etc. We prep the meal––my sister and I usually plan ahead of time which parts each family will contribute. We aim to sit down to dinner around 6 pm. We clear the table, but are working toward not doing dishes afterward. It’s stretching!
How do you encourage this as a family routine, involve your children? For one, it isn’t optional. We do cast vision for the benefits of rest and play in our home, as well as their need for it when they leave our home. Everyone has roles and responsibilities and we have an ongoing conversation on the way individual parts serving and affect the whole. Every part matters, even the seemingly small ones.
Are any of your children not ok with it? How does everyone respond? All of our children love Shabbat and Sabbath. Although we spend a lot of time together during the week, we are busy with schoolwork and work and tech and friends. On Sabbath, we stop. The kids sleep in and we focus on a brief period of quiet solitude (a rare practice for children and teens). We play board games or go for a walk or hike when the weather is nice. Sometimes we take a day trip together, especially on weeks where Mark and I find it hard to part with an unfinished home project or work.
What are your favorite resources to learn more?
read / The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel / Sabbath: A Gift of Time by Bonnie Saul Wilks (We adapted the blessings we use from this one. ) / Garden City by John Mark Comer / Subversive Sabbath by AJ Swoboda
listen / Sabbath series from Bridgetown Church (faith-based)