Growing up, Shabbat was my favorite holiday—I loved the food, the music and the family time. Now that I have two children of my own (a two-and-a-half-year-old son and a five-month-old daughter), Shabbat has even greater meaning in our lives. We are so busy with classes, play dates, laundry and dishes, on top of my work as a photographer and my husband’s as a cinematographer, that having a built-in “break time” with Shabbat has become something we all look forward to. It’s our time to reconnect as a family and to reflect and relax.
We don’t follow all of the traditional Shabbat rules, but we’ve developed traditions that work for our family and bring the joy of Shabbat into our lives every week with a modern twist. Here are ten of my favorite modern Shabbat traditions for families with babies and young children:
1. Tech Shabbat
When we celebrate Shabbat, we try to incorporate some version of Tech Shabbat. We choose to turn off and unplug some (or all!) of our technology. Sometimes we unplug for the entire Shabbat, from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, and others just during Friday evening. A “full” Tech Shabbat includes turning off our cell phones, computers, iPads and televisions from Friday night to Saturday night. A “light” Tech Shabbat means that we turn off our cell phones on Friday evenings, but still use our laptop for music or Skype, for example. Whether you choose to turn off all of your devices, or just your cell phone and computer, it is a great way to help focus on family time and to make Shabbat feel special.
2. “Shabbatify” Playlists
When we don’t go completely tech-free, we love to listen to Shabbat-themed playlists on Spotify. My son has learned many Shabbat songs because we listen to them every week, and it’s a great way to help small children understand the Shabbat tradition. There is so much Jewish music on Spotify, YouTube, iTunes and more. We also love the PJ Library® album “Shabbat, Love and Music.”
3. Shabbat Toy Sets
One of the most beautiful parts of Shabbat is lighting the candles and watching their glow as the evening goes on. However, when you have a baby and a toddler who love to climb furniture, the idea of lighting candles every Friday night can be a scary proposition! In lieu of traditional Shabbat candles, we use the KidKraft 11 piece Wooden Shabbat play set, which includes challah, a challah cover, a play knife, a Kiddish cup and “wine,” a prayer book and Shabbat candles, and our two-and-a-half-year-old helps us “light” the candles on his toy set. He loves to set the table on Friday nights with his Shabbat set—and I don’t have to worry about anyone climbing on the table and knocking over real candles!
4. Last Week and Upcoming Week Review
We borrow this tradition from my aunt and uncle. At every Shabbat dinner, we go around the table, and each person shares two things: 1) their favorite part of the last week, and 2) something they are excited about in the coming week. It’s a great way to stay informed of what on everyone’s minds and is also a helpful exercise for language development in young children.
This is probably the most “traditional” part of our Shabbat dinners. The Y’simcha, which is said for each child at the Shabbat table, is such a beautiful prayer and a wonderful way to show your love. Even on Shabbat evenings that don’t involve anything “traditional,” I still say the Y’simcha over my children. If you’re not familiar with the blessing, you can learn it online here.
6. Skype Shabbat
Skype Shabbat is a fun way to stay connected with family members who live far away. In our case, we are based in Boston and New York City, but we have family all over the world, including my Bubby, aunts, uncle and cousins in Maryland. This summer, we chose a Shabbat evening to do a “Skype” Shabbat. At our house, my mom, husband, son and I (I was still pregnant with my daughter!) gathered for our Shabbat dinner, and in Maryland, my Bubby, great-aunt and cousin gathered for their Shabbat dinner. We put our laptops on the table and set up a Skype video call for the entire dinner. We said the Shabbat blessings together, sang songs and talked about our upcoming weeks. I wish we could always celebrate Shabbat together in person, but “Skype Shabbat” is a close second!
7. PJ Library® Books
Our PJ Library® book subscription is such a treat—we all love when a new PJ Library® book comes in the mail. We’ve been subscribing for long enough now that we have several Shabbat-themed books, all of which my son has memorized now! These are “special” books, and we only read them on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s great way to get a toddler to understand that Shabbat is a special and beloved part of our week. My son’s favorites are Bim! Sings the Baby and Braid the Challah.
8. Baby Prayer Book (A Shabbat Evening: Siddur for Young People)
This is the perfect Shabbat prayer book for babies and toddlers—it’s filled with beautiful, simple prayers, and it’s a board book, so it’s sturdy enough to withstand endless readings. We’ve had this since my son was a baby, and it’s one of his favorite books in the entire bookshelf.
9. Take-Out Shabbat
This is a favorite in our house. While we love a home-cooked Shabbat dinner, sometimes—okay, a lot of times—it’s just not possible with our schedules! On these nights, we order in from our favorite Thai place and sing our Shabbat songs over pad Thai and massaman curry.
10. Tot Shabbat
Many synagogues have special “Tot Shabbat” (also called Kidushat Shabbat, Mini-Minyan and more) services for babies and young children. We’ve been to children’s services at three different synagogues, and my children have loved them all. It’s a great way to introduce your children to the joy of Shabbat and to meet other young families in your area. You typically don’t need to be a member of a synagogue in order to attend. Plus, they have all sorts of new Jewish songs that we didn’t have growing up, so the parents might learn some new things, too (I had never heard “There’s a Dinosaur Knocking On My Door” until my son was born!).