Nothing says "Jewish Mother" like the vision of someone's sweet bubbe plying her offspring with ladles of steaming hot chicken soup. It soothes a sore throat as well as the abrasions of a rough week. Chicken soup is the cornerstone of the Shabbat meal on Friday night.
Years before Shabbat observance became the axis of our lives, I found myself wanting to transition out of the workaday week and ease into a relaxing weekend. I decided it would benefit my family to capture the aura that the Friday night Shabbat meal brings in. I remembered this as a weekly rite of my youth: a family meal in the dining room with a white tablecloth, the good china, meat, wine...and chicken soup.
When I was a child, we had a Shabbat meal every Friday evening. I loved the rituals. My father recited the Kiddush over a cup of sweet as syrup wine that my parents allowed me to sip. We said hamotzi, the blessing over bread, on a basket of hot flaky rolls, the kind from the refrigerator section of the grocery. (You know, the ones that pop out of the can when you hit it on the counter.) My sister and I "helped" our mother in the kitchen, dotting the rolls with margarine before they went into the oven and licking the beaters and bowl from the cake she made each week in a heart shaped pan.
My mother lit the Shabbat candles throughout the year at 6 P.M. so that we could finish dinner in time to drive to the synagogue for 8:00 P.M. services. On those reliable routine family nights my sister and I basked in the extra attention our father, who worked long hours all week, gave us.
I thought a quiet, family, no-TV night would be good for all of us. Would my husband go for it? He was raised in a totally secular, but Jewish, home and had no such memories to draw from. David worked hard, traveled often and stressed about his business. De-stressing usually meant relaxing on the sofa, remote control in hand. But my daughters and I wanted what was then called "quality time." I thought a quiet, family, no-TV night was a great idea. He did not quite agree. The dining room, even lit with Shabbat candles, could not hold a flame to the remote control.
Seasoned With Bina
But God gave women an extra dose of bina, a special intelligence that is very handy when it comes to problem solving. It is insight sprinkled with discipline and patience. The word bina comes from banyan, to build. Building a Jewish home requires this special wisdom, and although I did not know what bina was then, I did know that my husband loved chicken soup.
So one Friday morning, I set a pot of stock on the stove to simmer. I made his Aunt Rose's family-famous matzoth balls. I strained the soup to make a clear broth, pulled the chicken off the bone and added it with fresh vegetables to the pot. It bubbled with my prayer. I bought a challah. A couple of hours in the kitchen; a salad, roast chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans later... finally, I had made our first complete Shabbat meal.
Dinnertime. Our daughters knew something was in the air and it was not only the homey kitchen smells, or our elegant little table with candles lit...it was tension. Between the drain of the week and the draw of the weekend stood Shabbat. It was a face off. David was minimally gracious and let me know what time his television show would begin. I had to be wise.
We quickly said the prayers over the wine and challah. Then I served the chicken soup. His teeth unclenched and melted into a warm grin. He looked lovingly at me as he inhaled the steam. He dipped his spoon into the golden broth, raised it -to his lips in anticipation..... It was delicious.
The Way to a Man's Heart
As I watched my husband enjoy his soup, slipping his spoon into almost perfect matzoh balls (it was, after all, my first attempt), the tension in the room melted away. We giggled at our daughters' antics; they were enjoying this change of scene and routine. The meal came out of the kitchen, we ate our fill and soon the girls disappeared to play.
David and I were left alone to talk about the week and visit together quietly without distraction. Then he said these words, which would forever change our lives, "If you make this chicken soup every week, we can make Friday night Shabbat every week."
So the very next week I began my Friday morning making the soup. And at the end of the day, at the end of the long week, we sat around the dining room table, together again, just the four of us. Those Friday nights became sanctuaries of time for our family. We ignored the phone for those hours, and the television remained a silent sentry, daring my husband to exit our quiet oasis for its promise of pleasure.
But he did not. In fact, he learned to say the Kiddush. And we decided to talk about the Torah portion of the week. We read The Children's Midrash a book of Torah stories for children, which taught us as well as our girls more about Judaism. Soon we were reading books on keeping kosher and the laws of Shabbat. Often we invited friends to join us for those dinners. They always shared something to enhance our appreciation and understanding.
Shabbat: a Time to Turn On
Along the way, in those months of chicken soup Shabbats, our approach shifted. Our move into making Friday night Shabbat began as a nice way to end the work filled week; a break from the day to day; a time to disconnect and relax. A day to recharge our batteries in order to enter the next week refreshed. A day off. We began to look forward to Shabbat, not because it was down time, but because it was a time to be truly on.
I recently heard it said that more than Shabbat is a day off -- it is a day on. And over time, this became true for us. Friday nights, David and I tuned in on each other. These nights and the rituals had a positive effect on our daughters. Every week the Torah had something to teach us that was right on, relevant to our lives. Shabbat gave us something elevating to hold on to and take with us into the new week.
As we appreciated more and more the richness those nights gave us, Shabbat extended her beauty into our Saturdays. Tennis and gardening, birthday parties and day trips fell by the wayside in deference to a day without distraction. On Shabbat we could focus on who we are and what our life's purpose ultimately is -- to connect to God.
I made that chicken soup every week for a year and a half. Now, we begin our Friday night meals with onion soup, Chicken Gumbo, refreshing Gazpacho and sometimes, the Chicken Soup. While the soup may vary, Shabbat faithfully arrives on schedule to soothe and strengthen us. Our home simmers all week with its warmth; its beauty continues to deepen with time. The aroma of each Shabbat wafts through our weekdays, and we yearn for it, as it gives purpose to our lives. (Story originally appeared on aish.com and in "Inspired Too.")