November 16, 2018

Challah, wine, Torah … and Trump?

For the past few months, whenever we’ve hosted guests at our Shabbat table, I’ve repeated different versions of the same joke: “I’d like to thank everyone at our table for not saying the name Donald Trump once during the last hour. What a miracle.”

When I mentioned this last Sunday to Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills (where I moderated a Shalom Hartman Institute event with Yossi Klein Halevi), he immediately replied, “You should write a column about that! I never like to bring up politics on Shabbat. It’s not in the spirit of Shabbat vayinafash.”

So, to get a better understanding of what the rabbi meant, I did a little research on “Shabbat vayinafash,” which is included in the Shabbat lunch blessing over the wine (in the Sephardic tradition, we repeat “vayinafash”).

“The language that the Torah uses to describe the rest or cessation that is commanded on Shabbat is ‘Shabbat vayinafash,’ literally translated as your nefesh, your bodily soul, will cease,” Jerusalem author and teacher Elana Mizrahi writes on “On Shabbat, we gain a neshema yetera, an additional soul. While so much of Shabbat is about physical pleasures such as eating, wearing fine clothing, and sleeping, the pleasure and ‘rest’ that one derives from Shabbat is deeper than these things, for you could take part in them during the weekday and yet you wouldn’t be observing Shabbat.”

Reading Mizrahi’s words made me realize that a Shabbat meal can easily suck us into a weekday energy. After all, what do we usually do when we sit around a table over a meal? We talk about stuff that’s on our minds. And, more often than not, what’s on our minds is current events. So, if the world is abuzz about a presidential candidate who spews vulgarities during a televised debate, it’s not surprising that we would bring it up during a meal’s conversation.

The problem is that it’s hard for us to see conversation itself as a Shabbat ritual.

We have no problem observing rituals such as lighting the candles, blessing the wine, washing our hands and blessing the challah, but after that, when conversation starts, freedom of speech takes over. We may observe basic rules of courtesy, but as far as content goes, often all bets are off. A presidential candidate acting like a vulgar buffoon? Why not talk about it?

In fact, this topic may lead to interesting discussions about the unraveling of American political culture, the dumbing down of the media and the electorate, or the undue influence of big money on politics. But is this in the spirit of “Shabbat vayinafash”? I don’t think so, especially if it leads to unpleasant arguments when people just want to prove that they’re right.

I have no doubt that everyone has meaningful stories waiting to be shared. At its best, a Shabbat table should elicit these kinds of moments.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good argument; it’s simply that I can have those arguments during the week (as I often do). When Shabbat comes along, however, I’m looking for something more — something elevating, something spiritually nourishing.

The usual custom of discussing the weekly Torah portion is fine, but it’s not enough. Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking people around the table to share meaningful stories.

Last Friday night, I asked my friend Edna Weiss to share a story about her late husband, Mickey Weiss. She recounted how he came up with the idea of collecting and distributing perishable food to the needy. It started one day in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse about 30 years ago, when Mickey saw a batch of fresh, unsold strawberries about to be thrown out. He had just seen homeless people not far away and figured they could use this free food. Within a few months, Mickey had set up an operation to feed the needy that eventually became a national movement.

Weiss took her time telling the story. It was a deeply personal story that brought joy to the storyteller as well as to those hearing it. 

I have no doubt that everyone has meaningful stories waiting to be shared. At its best, a Shabbat table should elicit these kinds of moments.

Torah rituals are not an end in themselves — they have spiritual components. The ritual of blessing the wine, for example, is useless if the wine makes us drunk and obnoxious. The whole purpose of blessing the wine is to make it holy, to remind us that it should bring us deep joy rather than just pleasure.

The Shabbat meal is itself a ritual with a spiritual component. We don’t simply gather to eat and schmooze as we do during the week. This weekly meal — one of the gems of the Jewish tradition — is our opportunity to elevate our conversation in a way that elevates our neshema yetera, our additional Shabbat soul.

The Donald can always wait until Monday.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at