Chicken Soup for the Shabbat Table
Improving Jewish Family Learning & Dynamics

Joel Guberman

While there are many literary sources emphasizing the institution of the family in Judaism, it is helpful to see how it is highlighted in the Tanakh. The family relationships and terminology strongly imbedded in the Tanakh form the core of the development of the Jewish people - the "Children of Israel." More than a nationality formed around a specific location and culture, the Tanakh strongly emphasizes the development of the Jewish people as a family - a people sharing not only a similar mission and message, but stemming from the same familial roots.

Using a frame of reference from research on family rituals described by Barbar Fiese, the Friday night Shabbat meal is of unique character. This family mealtime has a double significance. It is at the same time a patterned routine of weekly dinnertime, as well as a family celebration heavily weighted with specific religious rituals. The patterned routine with its familiarity and frequency supplies the family a sense of continuation by knowing what to expect and joining together on a regular basis, providing a strong sense of security and comfort. The family celebration on the other hand, acts as a source whose special rituals and set procedures create great anticipation.

One study of the positive effects of rituals focuses on the relationship of ritual to adolescent identity. This study conducted by Fiese ( 1992), indicates a strong relationship between the family's association of symbolic significance in family rituals to the adolescents general self-esteem, identity integration, and feelings of belonging with others. Interestingly, if a great disparity exists between the parent's perception of the family rituals and that of the adolescent then the adolescent is more likely to feel greater distance from other family members.

Besides the emotional and general health benefits that have been discussed regarding family rituals, there has been growing documentation of the cognitive and social benefits of family rituals. Various studies have looked into the benefits of improved vocabulary, socialization skills and the imparting of values. Perhaps the most striking piece of research, which ties all of these benefits together, is that of Bowden and Zeisz (1997). Based on this research," the Greater New Milford (Ct.) community 2000 task force on Teen and Adolescent Issues determined that the single most effective intervention for the widest variety of teen and adolescent problems was also the easiest, speediest and least expensive: The implementation of Family mealtimes." Although clearly simplistic, they showed a great deal of benefits related to the family meal. As mentioned before, besides the tremendous emotional benefits gained by family mealtime, it was shown that the single factor common to the best readers from elementary through high school, is that their families eat together at the home. These children develop more extensive vocabularies at an earlier age, are better equipped to articulate, and score two to three grade levels higher on standardized reading and language tests. The research found that the family mealtime created a sense of belonging and allowed parents to keep aware of what was going on with their children. This fact brought psychologist Michael Schwarzchild (2000) of Brookfield, Connecticut, to suggest implementing a homeroom period in the school system that would help to reduce anonymity at an attempt in trying to copy some of the benefits of family mealtime.

With this knowledge of the benefits of rituals and mealtime, we may approach the Shabbat meal with a renewed respect. Reflection on these points will hopefully increase the effort we put into the Shabbat meal while realizing the tremendous benefits that can be gained.


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