Orthodox for a weekend

Many of my readers don’t know that I grew up in an Orthodox, Jewish home. You might have Jewish friends, but if you don’t have Orthodox friends – it’s a whole different lifestyle. My father is also a Rabbi, so I grew up with a lot of religious rules to follow. I also went to Jewish Day School, so in addition to math and science (etc.) we learned Hebrew language, the bible in the original Hebrew, prayers, laws and customs… and more. This helped to explain a lot of the rules we had at home. (Notice I did not say ALL.)

Some people ask me if Orthodox is like those people they see in movies with the men in long, black coats and furry hats and curly sidelocks by their ears. That is Chassidic, and it is a sect of Orthodox Judaism. I have Chassidic cousins in Boro Park, NY, but we were not Chassidic. They have even MORE rules than I did.

Recently on a flight back from a Ragnar, someone mentioned a book they read in which the author and his family lived the lifestyle of Orthodox Jews for a year. I lived the lifestyle of an Orthodox Jew for 20 years. Then I became the black sheep and married “outside the tribe”. My parents were not at my wedding. Long story short, grandchildren may have helped to fix a broken relationship with my parents.

My mom mentioned recently that she was in need of some mother-daughter time. As a mom of 2 teen girls, I can easily relate to that, so I used the long President’s Day weekend to visit her. I frequently work at my kids’ school, and school was closed Friday and Monday, so it allowed us to spend some extra time together.

As I sat at the Sabbath table Friday night, I realized this is second nature to me, but if one of you were there I’d be stopping to explain each tradition to you. So I’m going to do that now.

RULE: There is not electricity used on the Sabbath – from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown. Thus I did not take photos of any of these things…

RULE: Jews were told, and I paraphrase from Exodus 20, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 6 days each week you will work, but the 7th day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the stranger who is within your gates.”

Most modern, Orthodox Jews keep the Sabbath day holy with special meals, clothes, and some special household items. Not “working” and not using electricity includes not cooking, so my mom often spends Friday morning and afternoon cooking for Friday night and Saturday meals. She did some cooking in advance of my trip. I asked for baked gefilte fish with lots of carrots, and she made that in advance. She also baked challah – traditional braided bread – in advance. My mom could sell her challah! Everyone who tastes it says it’s the best they’ve ever eaten. And this time she added cocoa and chocolate chips to her magical recipe of yeast dough. Basically, it’s cake-bread of loving goodness.

So… Friday morning we went to Macy’s for fun, and at around 1pm she said we better get home to finish cooking. We made lemon chicken in the oven, some zucchini succotash with tomatoes and breadcrumbs, and some quinoa from a box with added mushrooms. For  Saturday lunch we made a chulent, which is like stew. We cooked up chicken, barley, carrots, onion and vegetarian kishka (the Russian Jewish version of bratwurst) and put that in a crock pot.

Then everyone showered and got pretty. My father left for Friday night services at the synagogue. My mom and I lit the Sabbath candles.


Then we set the table with a while table cloth. The white is reminiscent of a bride, and the Sabbath is her groom.

When my father returned from synagogue, first he sang Shalom Aleichem, a song to welcome the Sabbath into the home.


Then we all gathered around the dinner table, where he sang Eishet Chayil (Woman of Valor) to my mother. A Jewish husband sings this to his wife every Friday night to describe what a wonderful woman he things she is. Eshet Chayil is a 22 verse poem with which King Solomon concludes the book of Proverbs (Proverbs 31). Each stanza starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet (acrostic).

Then my father blessed me. He stands facing me and places both palms on the top of my head and says the prayer: Ye’simech Elohim ke-Sarah, Rivka, Rachel ve-Leah. Ye’varech’echa Adonoy ve’yish’merecha. Ya’ir Adonoy panav eilecha viy-chuneka. Yisa Adonoy panav eilecha, ve’yasim lecha shalom.

Translation: May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face shine toward you and show you favor. May God look favorably upon you and grant you peace.

The Sabbath meal begins with a prayer over the wine. My father filled a silver goblet with wine and we all stood while he recited the prayer. He has smaller wine glasses waiting at his place setting for us. Because we are all supposed to drink from the cup that was blessed, he spills a little into each of our cups, and drinks half of what remains in the silver goblet himself. We can add more to our cups if we want to, as long as we’ve had some that the prayer was recited over. The guy in the video below drinks first, which my mom put a stop to because of the germ passing 🙂


Next we all went to the kitchen for a traditional washing of the hands before eating bread. RULE: A Jewish meal is only considered a “meal” and not a snack if there is bread. In addition to the prayer for the bread itself, there is a special way to wash your hands before eating the bread. A cup is used to pour water three times over each hand and a blessing is recited. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqIdLA_MkCI&list=UU_wU3XHt5uzx-w1BMKDYK0g) Once the blessing is said, there can be no speaking until bread is eaten. We returned silently to the table, where the challah bread was waiting with a fancy covering on top of it and a cutting board under it. My mother has a beautiful set from Israel that is custom painted including a cutting board, knife, cover, and salt shaker. It looks a little like this photo. My father said the prayer over the challah, cut everyone a slice, it was dipped lightly in salt, and then passed around the table.

Then the meal began. My mother and I went into the kitchen to get the gefilte fish, the appetizer. Each piece is placed on a plate with lettuce, carrots and roasted little tomatoes with a touch of olive oil. I brought that to each place setting while my mother prepared beverages (ice water, soda, white wine) and condiments for the fish (pink horseradish and wasabi sauce). Sometimes the first course is soup, but it was a hot weekend.

For dinner we had the chicken and zucchini and quinoa. And for dessert, mom’s homemade chocolate chip banana cake.

A meal with bread is finished with the Grace After Meals, a set of prayers that some families sing aloud together, but my father mumbles under his breath while trying to stay awake. He struggles with the late meal and wine fighting him to sleep, while having to wait 90 minutes after eating to take his thyroid pill. So the rest of the evening involved my father nodding off on the couch over and over while my mom and I caught up and read magazines.

Because electricity can’t be used on this day, my mom has a checklist on a magnet on the fridge with reminders. A bathroom light is left on. The fridge lightbulb is unscrewed. She has a special lamp next to her bed that has a covering that can be rotated to make the room dark without turning the lamp off. She also keeps a hot water pot plugged in for coffee and a hot plate plugged to use on Saturday to reheat the food she cooked for lunch. And one of the wackiest items – you can’t tear on the Sabbath so it was my job growing up to pre-tear a roll of toilet paper in sections of 4 squares each Friday afternoon. This was left sitting on the back of the toilet just for the Sabbath.

The Sabbath ends about an hour after sundown on Saturday, thus it changes every week. Jewish calendars keep everyone informed. I’m sure this 25 hour lack of electricity made the reader I am today. A special prayer is recited (Havdalah, which means separation)  with a candle and wine and spices to smell to close the Sabbath and welcome in the new week.

2 Replies to “Orthodox for a weekend”

  1. Jina says:

    This was really interesting, Raffi! I loved reading and learning.

  2. Very interested. Wow. I never knew how easy I had it not having to pre-tear toilet paper! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More by Topic