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Vale: How to be a respectful guest on Shabbat

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Let’s say you’re not religious and are invited to a Shabbat meal by an Orthodox relative, neighbour or co-worker. You’re excited by the prospect of experiencing something different than you are used to. At the same time, however, you’re somewhat anxious, lest you mess up and do something inappropriate. What follows is a guide to assist you in feeling at home on Shabbat in the house of a religious person:

The gift – As a good guest, you might want to bring food for the meal. Rule number one is: don’t give anything homemade. People have different standards of kashrut. It’s best to avoid possibly embarrassing yourself or the host. A store-bought item is OK if you stick to widely accepted kosher symbols – COR, MK, OU, etc. – and avoid something unfamiliar, like the Chief Rabbinate of Eswatini (I made up the heksher, but the country, formerly known as Swaziland, is real). A bottle of wine is definitely a good idea, and it doesn’t have to be the syrupy, sickeningly sweet variety traditionally associated with Kiddush. In Toronto, select LCBO stores carry an extensive selection of kosher wines, and some kosher consumers are quite the connoisseurs.

The dress code – Your hosts don’t expect you to look like them. So, even if they’re ultra-Orthodox, there’s no need to run out and buy a black hat, white shirt and fake beard. Rather, putting on modest attire that covers up as much flesh as possible is recommended for both men and women. It’s also advisable for a man to bring his own kippah, in case the host doesn’t have any extras. Unlike you, who may have a collection of kippot picked up at weddings and bar mitzvahs, Orthodox men don’t usually take one, even if theirs doesn’t match the colour scheme of the simcha.

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Disconnect – Since Orthodox people don’t actively use electricity on Shabbat, cellphones, tablets and other devices are taboo. It’s best to leave them at home. It’s also generally a good rule to rid oneself of distractions when socializing.

A number of years ago, my wife and I spent a night at a rustic retreat. A frequent comment in the guest book was how wonderful it was to spend a day without a television and telephone. We felt fortunate that we experience this every week when we observe Shabbat. And it’s a lot cheaper!

The sound of silence – There are two times when you are not allowed to talk: from the moment Kiddush is said until after you drink some wine, and from the time of washing hands before the ha-Motzi (the blessing on bread) until you eat a bite of the challah. This is done so that the entire ritual is completed without interruption. This can be difficult for polite Canadians, whose natural instinct is to say “Thank you” when handed a cup of wine or piece of bread. Save your gratitude for later.

The bathroom – Shabbat meals usually last long enough that you can’t avoid taking a washroom break. Remember not to turn off the light when you’re finished or you’ll make it difficult for your hosts, who won’t be able to turn it back on. Also, forget about looking for the roll of toilet paper. Since ripping any kind of paper on Shabbat is not allowed, Orthodox people put out either pre-torn sheets or a box of tissues.

Most importantly – The family who invites you to their Shabbat table understand that you may not be familiar with all of the rituals and proper Shabbat etiquette. What they want most is for you to have a pleasurable experience and will overlook any faux pas. Relax and enjoy. You may find that you have much more in common with them than you think. If you want to reciprocate and invite them back … well, that’s a whole other column. 

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