The New Sabbath Project: Much more than just a dinner party
There is no one magical formula for starting a New Sabbath Project but we usually include these elements:
– Perfect strangers, acquaintances, and friends (and we ask them all to bring people they know)
– Wine (or a substitute)
– Food (contributed by all)
– Blessings/Acknowledgments/Words of Gratitude/Prayers from each table guest/Something personal to share
– An open mind and an open heart
(More details below)
We will say that it is important to be flexible and open; to take some risks and venture outside your comfort zone while staying true to your fundamental values; to keep your sense of humour; and, to do it with the intention of connecting with others on a meaningful as opposed to superficial level. Perhaps most importantly, stop thinking about it or worrying about how it might go, and just do it!!! Then tell us about it. Send us a blog or comment about your experience or post on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #newsabbathproject and/or @ralphbenmergui and @cpasternak. Tell us how it went. We do believe there are many reasons why you should try hosting a New Sabbath Project or help someone else host one — perhaps most importantly to build a sacred space around a weekly sabbatical. For some this means unplugging for 26 hours, for others it means stopping work. Whatever you choose, the New Sabbath Project can at least provide a moment of pause — a break from the routine of non-stop doing to a place of just being, with others. Remember that celebration and congregation are real human needs and they allow us to cultivate ritual, build community and conquer the feeling of separateness. Celebrating a “sabbath” allows us to at the very least, to acknowledge the common need to build a fence around the sacred. Then, if you can, keep it going — even once a month. Swap hosting duties if it is easier and have everyone contribute something so it is sustainable.
We see this congregating ritual of as a way to create opportunities to express gratitude, for reflection and conscious and compassionate (and passionate) connection. In doing so, we also open ourselves up to discuss matters that are of real importance around community, culture and citizenship. Author Mark Buchanan who writes from a religious standpoint but one we argue crosses cultural and non-religious lines — writes that restoring the Sabbath restores the soul. He writes that it provides “Liberation-to heal, to feed, to rescue, to celebrate, to lavish and relish life abundant.” He also writes that without a sabbath – as a time to be instead of do – “our dustiness consumes us, becomes us and we end up able to hold exactly nothing.” Particularly true he writes “In a culture where busyness is a fetish and stillness is laziness, rest is sloth.” “Sabbath” he writes “is both a day and an attitude to nurture. It is both a time on a calendar and a disposition of the heart.” We take that even further with our New Sabbath Project and add as a wise Sage once said “Open your house to everyone; Treat the poor as family; And do not disrespect women with idle chatter.”
Here are some ideas based on some of the things we do (almost) every Friday. In our home we often break the ice with guests by having something to drink and appetizers of sorts away from the dinner table first and at times engage in actual gentle ice breaking exercises. Our dinner is usually in the oven cooking and when it’s ready (about an hour or more in) guests have gotten to know one another and then move to the table forblessings to be followed by food.
This is the order we follow:
We incorporate Hebrew blessings for candles in our home. This is not necessary but blessing or acknowledging the symbolism of candles as a reflection of the human spirit, warmth and light crosses many cultural, spiritual and religious (or non-religious) lines.
Candle blessings may be blessings of peace and light in the world. In Humanistic Judaism for instance, lighting candles help connect us with the past, with each other and with ourselves. Candles across faiths and non-faiths may communicate strength, vitality and warmth and light. As they burn down, they demonstrate the fragility of life. You might want to say something to this effect as you light candles.
Blessings or Acknowledgements or Words of Gratitude Around the Table
Why do we do blessings or share words of acknowledgement or gratitude?
We are attempting to create a space for reflection and gratitude. To paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver: It is a gesture that allows us to honour life. These blessings or words can apply to absolutely anything. You can send a blessing or good wishes or acknowledgement to your ailing friend or family member, a person you passed on the street, your children, your cat, your love of your partner, world peace – or all of the above. This is your time to share. We find it to be the great equalizer and connecting component of the evening. No one is forced to say something but we find once they know they are invited to do so, they jump at the opportunity, only wishing they had had more time to prepare!
Wine blessings are familiar across many cultures and a grape juice or anything else really works as a substitute for wine if you prefer. Wine however is the fruit of the vine and the symbol of earth’s bounty. While the more religious may prefer to praise divine power in a blessing over wine, agnostics, humanists, Atheists or other non-believers may simply use a wine blessing to bless peace, show gratitude for all we have and acknowledge the accomplishments or struggles of human beings.
We bless the bread in the same spirit as the wine. It is a symbol of the fullness of the earth and the labor of humankind in bringing it to our tables. We are thankful that we are sitting with family, friends and members from the community, enjoying the peace and joy of our celebration. In our home, we bake a sweet egg bread (if that seems intimidating, keep in mind we make the dough in the breadmaker) every Friday (called a challah). We break apart the bread after we say the blessings, pass it around in order of age and then encourage people to continue breaking and eating the loaf through dinner.
From here, we usually serve the meal.
Additional Blessings and Things you Might Want to Know
Blessings for the Sick
These can be introduced throughout the evening – perhaps even just after the main course. Perhaps in the middle of the evening you can pause and give blessings to someone we know facing health challenges and when all around the table have and their say we can invoke the Buddhist blessing. “May you be filled with loving kindness, May you be blessed. May you be peaceful and at ease, May you be happy”.
Blessings for Forgiveness
Perhaps you can end the night with a blessing of forgiveness where we take a few moments to forgive someone in our life or maybe even ourselves for all that we try and for how often we fail.
We have never had a real problem with conversations at our New Sabbath dinner table and prefer not to have conversations particularly structured, but if you want to start a couple of threads at yours, you may want to follow an idea we got from someone else’s Sabbath table. It included a bowl in the middle of the table and in the bowl were small pieces of paper there were words such as “freedom”, “justice”, “beauty”, “truth”, “God”, “vegetarianism” — and so on. Throughout the evening at the table, you could have a guest pick a piece of paper out of the bowl and begin a conversation based on the word they selected.
How to Grow the New Sabbath Project in your Home
Ask your guests to bring one or two people you don’t know. This usually helps bring together groups with some similar interests. We have invited back guests who initially came through people we knew. Through word of mouth, welcome people you haven’t met before. Try to accommodate people with young children. If you can’t host regularly, get a rotation going.
While we use exotic spices to cook chicken or fish, or stew we try to make food that can be left on or in the stove and doesn’t require our constant attention. Slow cooking (not to be confused with Slow Food though the philosophy behind the Slow Food movement is totally compatible with the New Sabbath Project) and the sabbath work very well together. We often ask our guests to bring a dessert and/or a salad or side dish. Everyone generally brings wine. We do everything else. However, we fully encourage a full pot luck approach to make this a more sustainable idea. We always check for food allergies and aversions in advance.
We have had many guests over the years that bring small children. What we tell people when they ask whether they should bring their children is this: Do you want an evening with adults or with kids? Both work at different times and all kids are different. We’ve had many small kids come for years. They sit with us and then fall asleep on our couch. Some adults want their kids to see or “experience” what we do but most kids who haven’t been exposed to rituals like this don’t find it fun. Our two year old child is in bed by the time our guests arrive on a Friday but he already knows and adores the rituals which we do with him on his own before our guests arrive – including candle lighting and other blessings. Our six year old only started joining us in the last year or so and we generally set him up with a movie – or to play with other children – once the blessings are over. In those cases, they take care of each other. Our grown children or step-children are independent and are always welcome and have often become an important part of the evening. We have had many teenagers come over the years and have brought wonderful insight to our conversations.
The Friday night sabbath has always helped create a critical bond with families with children, young and old. In the end though, think about the kind of evening you want for you. We try to adjust based on whether kids are coming. But we also have nights without children – just the adults – and that’s wonderful. It’s nice to match up guests who have somewhat similar interests – to act as a bit of a connector. Kids sometimes make it difficult to have those conversations as we’ve noticed on the odd occasion when our small kids refuse to go to bed or cooperate.
Finally, remember that this is about connecting and celebrating. We play music, laugh, toast and encourage all kinds of conversations. This is not meant to be a super-serious, ultra-formal gathering. It is an exercise to support and grow citizenship, culture and community.
Q: Do we have people put their phones away?
A: We force nothing on our guests but they are usually pretty uncomfortable when they pull it out and check it throughout dinner. We do ask that nobody posts anything to social media during our evenings, particularly without permission.
Q: Do we assign seating?
A: No. We feel people should sit where they are comfortable. We do not want to force artificial talking groups. We prefer that they happen more naturally.