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Shabbat is a Two-Person Job

Shabbat Candles from Wikimedia Commons.

In this fourth piece from our Reimagining ‘Rabbi’series, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz responds to this clip:


Five years ago, I wrote this article on keeping the Sabbath as a single clergywoman. It addressed the loneliness of making Shabbat for myself, and the sense of peace I’d attained when I let go of the ideal of a crowded Shabbat table. As an assistant rabbi, I'd found a rhythm: simple Friday night meals with friends; long, lazy Saturday afternoons to myself. Someday, I hoped to be partnered, and develop a new system, similar to my senior rabbi and his wife.

Now, I’m the solo rabbi of a small congregation, and those pockets of time I'd carved out for myself to prepare for, and celebrate, Shabbat have all but disappeared. I no longer have a standing invitation to my senior rabbi's house. I can no longer guarantee that I'll be able to come home early on Thursday, or go in later on Friday morning, in order to cook and clean. I've got twice as many sermons to write; twice as many Torah studies to prepare. My partner lives in another city and, since I’m still relatively new to town, my circle of “come as you are” friends is still small. Making Shabbat meals in the era of ever-increasing dietary restrictions and “foodie culture” has gotten more complicated. Honestly, most weeks, I'm too exhausted to think about it.

The Shabbat rhythm I had, as imperfect as it was, is gone.

Watching Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses’ video, I recognize that my struggle is different than hers. In spite of all its challenges, I’ve always wanted to serve on the pulpit. I’m not (currently) concerned with shirking my home duties in order to do so. But after years of priding myself on my independence, enjoying it even, I've had to face a harsh truth: Shabbat dinner is a two-person job.

Whenever I’ve seen a pulpit rabbi successfully host a Shabbat meal, there has been an extra pair of hands. This has nothing to do with gender roles, marital status, or even whether both partners work full-time, which in most cases they do. It helps to have one person cook and the other do the dishes; one can keep the conversation going while the other is plating food in the kitchen. If the rabbi is leading services, there needs to be someone willing to stay behind to clean before a late service, or to keep dinner warm during an early one (Yes, I have a slow cooker. I will gladly accept recommendations on how to make an entire meal in one).

I still attempt Shabbat meals occasionally, relying heavily on potlucks, prepared foods, and one pasta recipe that takes exactly eleven minutes. Once, I asked a guest to stay until I’d loaded the dishwasher, because I knew that the minute she left, I would fall asleep.

I don’t mention this to kvetch, but to suggest that this is a challenge for many rabbinic households. Though few congregations would say that they still expect their rabbi to come with a stay-at-home rebbetzin, there might be an unspoken expectation that the rabbi’s household be the site of Shabbat meals, holiday gatherings, and parlor meetings. This can put a great deal of pressure on the rabbi––and their family, if they have one––to be both rabbi and entertainer. Not every rabbi, or every rabbinic family, is cut out for this.

In an era where many rabbis are trying to practice “relational Judaism,” I’ve found that there is no better way to get to know people than by inviting them over for a meal. I’ve managed to pull this off a few times, but if I were to make it a regular part of my rabbinate, I’d need a considerable amount of help.

How can we accommodate rabbis for whom “doing it all” isn’t feasible? Congregations with greater resources could devote a budget line for whatever the rabbi requires: a server or cleaning crew, catering or meal delivery services. Smaller congregations, like mine, might provide volunteers to make a dish, help host, or lead services periodically so that the rabbi can stay home (mine does this in the summer).

Hearing Dianne’s story, I realize that my question has never been, “When do I make Shabbat for my family?” but “What does Shabbat look like for me in this place and time?” Last Shabbat, it looked like taking my parents out to a restaurant. Someday, I still hope for the haimish family table. But for now, it’s all about finding the right rhythm.

Love Leah's reflection? Want to stay up to date on our weekly Reimagining ‘Rabbi’ series? Let us know!

Topics: Rabbis
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How to cite this page

Berkowitz , Leah. "Shabbat is a Two-Person Job." 24 April 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/shabbat-is-two-person-job>.

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