Shabbat + Sabbath | Q+A on Our Family Practice


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.

Can you share you linen sources? White Linen and Natural Linen (both 108″+ for long tables); linen napkins

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)

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  1. Hi Bethany, this brought back so many memories for me. I grew up in a strict religion that kept a weekly Sabbath from Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown, and although my family left that church behind when I was in my mid-teens, that Sabbath practice has haunted me ever since in a very sweet way.

    It’s exactly as you say it is-rejuvenating, refreshing, and so full of rest. I remember the feeling of a stressful week and being excited for that deep rest the Sabbath would bring. Even now, so many years later, when I am no longer a Christian but lean Buddhist, this practice calls to me. It’s such a deeply-rooted practice that reaches far beyond a single religion. It feels almost elemental, and it is, if there is truth in religious myth.

    I have a daughter of my own now, just a little baby still, and she is prompting lots of thoughts in the rituals and traditions that I want our family to keep. The Sabbath keeps tapping me on the shoulder, although, like you described, it is awkward to start keeping for some reason. The best way is to just jump in, like with most everything else. Too much thought can be the death to good ideas. Ironic, but true.

    There’s a Sabbath manifesto somewhere online, and it simply encourages baking bread, turning off tech, sipping wine, communing with others, and taking a walk. There’s a couple other things I can’t remember, but those are the main ones. I love the Jewish tradition of lighting candles at sundown on Friday-what a lovely way to usher in a quiet and simple time.

    Oh goodness, thanks again, Bethany. Beautiful words, beautiful sentiment. It’s such a radical act in this modern world to set aside time consistently to slow down with our families.

  2. I’m glad you’ve found meaning in this ancient practice. Perhaps mentioning the cultural context would have been worthwhile in this instance – I’m Jewish and my people have been doing this (and have been persecuted for it) for millennia. I’m all for finding a day of rest and respite in our busy world, but also for a fuller recognition of the history of that practice.

    1. Author

      Thank you for this honest note, for taking the time to remind me and readers of the heritage and history of this practice. The context is always important, and I have read several accounts of Sabbath practiced in the darkest days history, namely during the Holocaust. It has moved me to tears. Thank you for reminding us all to be more mindful and respectful of the deep roots here.

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  5. This is the blessing I say over my dear husband every Friday evening

    Blessed is the man who reveres Ado-nai
    Who delights in G-d’s commandments.
    His descendants will be honored in the land,
    A generation of the upright, they will be blessed.
    Prosperity fills his household, his righteousness is enduring.
    Even in the darkness, light shines for the upright,
    For the one who is gracious, compassionate and just.
    All goes well with the man who is generous,
    Whose dealings are marked by integrity.
    He shall never be shaken,
    His kindness will always be remembered.
    Evil tidings do not frighten him;
    His mind is firm, trusting in the L-rd.
    His heart is steady, he will not be fearful,
    For his enemies are destined to be overcome.
    He has given freely to the poor;
    His goodness is an inspiration to others;
    His life is exalted in honor.

    Also, the Heschel book, Shabbat, is an all time favorite. Also highly recommend The Bride: One Woman’s Walk… by Hannah Bardan.
    Very personal, readable, informative. She is also a homeschool mom who discovered the blessings of keeping Shabbat and it’s deeper meaning in Yeshua.

  6. Beautiful! I always love reading your reflections on family life. We have a baby and a 3yo and we definitely still practice a weekly sabbath. It was harder when my husband did ministry work (ironically) on top of his everyday job but now that he works for the church (a gift!) we sabbath on Fridays. I love that it’s a day that most people are still working so we have fewer temptations to extra social events. I’m also finding I need a “mother’s sabbath” for a true rest from parenting, different than my husband who is refreshed to be with the kids. You may love the book “A Mother’s Rule of Life”. And I just read and LOVED LOVED “Liturgy of the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren, you have to read it. Thanks Bethany!

  7. It’s wonderful to read about your experience with Shabbat. My husband and I began this practice around the same time you did. We love our Sabbath day. It’s just the two of us, and we do pretty much what you described. We end our time with Communion.

    1. Author

      We have church during the week, so Sundays are typically our get-ready-for-the-week day. We have our family meeting, clean up after Sabbath, grocery shop, etc.

  8. Thank you for sharing this! I relate to what you said about previously feeling like sabbath was something to either earn or squeeze in. I know I definitely feel the need for a sabbath but haven’t seen it modeled much. Thank you for being a model for so many of us! Since your sabbath ends at sundown on Saturday, what does it look like before you go to bed? Or does the end coincide with you going to bed?

    1. Author

      I should have better-said dinner to dinner, especially during the summer. Sundown is more appropriate during the winter. We always begin with Shabbat at 6pm-ish on Friday and end dinnertime on Saturday. On Saturday, we usually order take out as a family or Mark and I have a date night. Either way, it’s leisure. We typically hold off any cleaning up until Sunday.

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