If you’ve ever hosted or been hosted at an “Orthodox” Shabbat dinner, this one’s for you.
At our last JFX Shabbaton, we had a skit called “Friday night live.”  We played out the incredible misunderstandings and confusion that can arise when Jews for whom Friday night might mean Chinese and a movie are invited to experience an “Orthodox” Shabbat dinner.  It was hilarious.

Help!  I’m invited to an Orthodox Shabbat.  Now what??

For those of you that are not familiar, Shabbat-observant folks do not activate electricity or cook or a host of other creative activities, many of which may be surprising to you, on Shabbat.  They have dinner that also involves singing (not kumbaya), “washing” (not with soap), “benching” (that doesn’t involve a bench) and some other quasi-freaky stuff.  To be sure, the dinner is usually delicious, the atmosphere divine (assuming the kids don’t fight too much and the guests don’t radically disagree about politics and you haven’t mistakenly seated a doctor and attorney directly across the table from one another), the guests and hosts well-meaning, etc.  Nevertheless some clarity is in order, as expectations and assumptions on either side may well be…. insanely divergent.

Here are 10 things I’d like MY Shabbos guests to know:

(As an aside: I use the terms Shabbat and Shabbos interchangeably; both refer to the Jewish Sabbath as it is observed according to Jewish law from sundown on Friday or even a bit earlier, to nightfall on Saturday night.)

1.  I know you may have driven to my home.    It’s a little awkward, because I don’t drive on Shabbos, and you do.  The question of whether a Shabbat-observant Jew is allowed to invite a fellow Jew over on Shabbat, when it’s obvious that he will drive, is actually the subject of intense halachic debate.  On the one hand, better to drive to celebrate Shabbat than to drive to the mall – no?  On the other hand, may I be the instrument of the drive?  So “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the way we deal with it.  Because even if I follow the opinion that I can invite you despite the drive, it’s much better if I don’t have to give explicit permission.  Which is why I try to avoid the topic!

2.  I really appreciate the fact that you didn’t park in my driveway.  When you parked around the block and walked, you may have felt like an imposter but I viewed it as a respectful act of not wishing to disturb the Shabbat atmosphere that exists in the neighborhood.  Thank you!  And if you really did walk all the way – double thank you!  You’ve honored your hosts and Shabbat, all in one.

3. So the flowers you brought to dinner, and I kinda left them hanging out on the counter?  You’re so sweet to bring them… but I can’t put flowers into water on Shabbos.  It’s part of the creative process of growing plants.  I felt uncomfortable, but didn’t want to make you feel worse about not knowing, so I just decided to hope you didn’t notice. (More suggestions here for what guests can bring.)

4. It’s really OK with me that your kids are coloring and playing piano, activities that are not allowed on Shabbat.  I know you don’t observe Shabbos the way I do.  They’re only kids.  My kids do that too, and I overlook it because they’re only kids, even though mine ARE brought up with Shabbos.  Don’t worry.

5.  Yes, you’re allowed to flush the toilet on Shabbos.

6.  I’m a little hesitant to ask you if you’d like help with lighting candles or “washing” hands before challah.  See, if these customs are familiar to you, I don’t want it to seem like I think you’re ignorant.  But if they’re not, I don’t want to be a bad host and not offer you info and help.  It’s hard for me to know how to strike the balance.  I’m not clairvoyant, so I don’t know how much you know.  I hope you’ll be OK with my mistakes.

7. If anything seems unusual, please ask!  It’s not rude or disrespectful and it makes me so happy that you are asking so the lines of communication can be open.  I don’t want my life to be inscrutable to you.  Please feel free to ask.  Really.

8. It’s great when you involve my kids in the conversation.  See, I’m trying to strike the balance between paying attention to them and paying attention to you, so if you pay attention to them, it’s win-win-win.

9. It’s so sweet when you offer to bring something.  I know you don’t keep kosher so please don’t feel bad if I just ask you to bring flowers or dessert from a kosher bakery.  You might want to check with me which bakery is kosher because “Farbstein’s Kosher Rugeleh Shop” may not, in fact, be kosher.  Also, many people serve meat or chicken at Shabbos dinner and therefore would not serve dairy at dessert, even if it’s not together.  Just good to know.

10.  What we really want is for you to have a nice time.  Relax, don’t worry so much about the rules, and just try to have fun.  We know you may not be familiar with the customs and that’s OK!  We like you and that’s what matters.

11. I know I said ten but I couldn’t resist.  If you’ve spent time avoiding my invitation, deleting my email, ignoring my voicemail, and pretending you didn’t check Facebook, please know that if you do, indeed, accept my invitation, you may actually have a very nice time.

What are some things you’d like your guests or hosts to know?