Roberta Rosenthal Kwall with her new grandson
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall with her new grandson

A new baby’s first Shabbat

Our first grandchild was born in the wee hours of a balmy Friday morning.

Shortly into our daughter’s difficult 25-hour labor, our son-in-law began a “baby text chain” so that he could keep all the grandparents and siblings informed of her progress, and we could cheer them on along the way. As the mom of the mommy to be, I was of course awake all night, checking for updates and waiting for the anticipated news. And after our grandson arrived, I couldn’t sleep a wink, so I kept busy by emailing and texting friends and taking a long walk with my husband after daybreak. We arrived at the hospital five minutes before visiting hours began, armed with the requested cups of Starbucks coffee for the new parents.

As any grandparent will attest, there is something quite special about seeing your first grandchild for the first time. Seeing a human being in its first day of life is especially miraculous. He pretty much slept the entire time we were with him, surely recovering from all the wear and tear that accompanied his arrival on this earth.

After we left, I prepared our Shabbat meal. Fortunately, the days at this time of year are long, and I had enough time to get everything cooked and ready before sundown. As the time for candle lighting arrived, I realized that not only was this our grandson’s first day, but it was also his first Shabbat. Before I clicked off my cell phone, I sent a text to the chain saying “Baby’s first Shabbat!”

I strongly believe that even if Shabbat is not observed to the letter of the law, its celebration on a weekly basis is low-hanging fruit that can help parents transmit Jewish tradition to their children. In a world of increasing secularization, having a consistent marker of Jewish tradition is so important.

Writer Ahad Ha’am once said that “more than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” His observation is a powerful testament to the wisdom of the rabbis who crafted the laws of Jewish tradition over a thousand years ago. It is important for people to understand that Judaism in general, and Shabbat in particular, does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.

Selecting specific aspects of holiday celebrations can go a long way toward instilling Jewish tradition in the next generation. Shabbat provides a ready-made opportunity to establish consistent patterns of celebrating Jewish ritual. Equally important, Shabbat entails rituals such as candle lighting and blessing the children that can easily be infused with a personal meaning that facilitates their observance. For example, lighting Shabbat candles provides a time for personal reflection and thanksgiving, and a feeling of being connected to the Jewish people over space and time.

The majority of Jews today may not feel they are commanded to observe Shabbat. But there are still important reasons to observe even a few Shabbat rituals. Shabbat promotes a way of marking special family time. It provides a reason to prepare a special meal that can be enjoyed in a more relaxed way. It coincides with the onset of the secular weekend, when everyone is more receptive to a more leisurely evening.

In short, Shabbat allows for a much-needed break by allowing people to hit the reset button so they can reconnect with their loved ones and recharge from the week. And consistently observing Shabbat in any way — no matter how small — is one of the best ways to instill a stronger Jewish identity and love of Jewish tradition in your children.

Grandparents of course have a particularly important role to play in modeling Jewish tradition. We can’t wait to host our new grandson and his parents at a Shabbat dinner in our home. My husband is eagerly looking forward to blessing his first male heir with the special Shabbat blessing. We are fortunate to live close by, and we anticipate spending many Shabbats with him and his parents. But I also hope he will grow up experiencing some of the sweetness of Shabbat every week. No matter how busy life gets, there’s always time for a blessing and a piece of challah!

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall with her new grandson
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press) and is currently working on a book about transmitting Jewish tradition in a diverse world.