By Elchanan Poupko
Inviting people we don’t know to our Friday night Shabbat dinner leaves little room for us to be surprised. Getting ready for Shabbat, my wife and I rarely know who it is that will walk through our door.
And yet, when a Hindu family walked through our door a recent Friday night, we were surprised. Why? Because they came all the way from New Delhi, India, and wanted to see what a Shabbat meal is like. From the moment they entered our home to the moment they left, they wanted to know more about Shabbat.
Since our dinner was scheduled half an hour before sunset, the meal began with my wife striking a match, igniting the Shabbat candles. Resting peacefully on beautiful silver candlesticks, the lights radiated an aura of peace and holiness. We went on to learn that even in New Delhi, lighting candles for Shabbat was a known custom. Everyone at the table was learning new things.
After singing “Shalom Aleichem” with the classic Jewish tune, surrounding ourselves with serenity and a deep sense of spirituality, we went on to make Kiddush — not before learning that Hindus may not drink wine, but may drink grape juice. It turns out we can all take place in this ceremony and that Kedem grape juice can serve as a great middle ground for all.
Discussing the concept of Kiddush being a celebration of creation, remembering that the Almighty created the world and rested, resonated with our guests, who immediately connected to this sacred belief. It was as if the full cup of fruity grape juice reflected our beliefs right back at us.
Going on to wash our hands, we learned that in India it is common practice to ritually wash hands before eating. I later learned that this may have to do with the Indian tradition of using hands to eat. In fact, it may be considered impolite to insist on not doing so in Indian company. Somewhat different, yet somewhat like our own Jewish customs.
After making the HaMotzi and eating the challah, we went on to have a delicious meal full of taste, aroma, smiles and conversation. Our Jewish guests and Hindu guests loved hearing about our shared, yet different cultures.
We learned about a culture that has one of the most ancient traditions in the world and one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Jews have been living in India from the days of the Second Temple, or perhaps from the days of King Solomon — all without a hint of anti-Semitism, hate or discrimination.
We saw with our own eyes the remarkable admiration the people of India have for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. We spoke about the outstanding cooperation between Israel and India on water technology and irrigation, which to many in India is a lifesaving cooperation.
We spoke about the concept of rest, about the Torah, about creation. Perhaps the most appealing idea we shared with them is that we don’t use our phones, internet and other forms of electricity on Shabbat. We found the attractiveness of being able to hit the “off” button — just for one day a week — to be universal and very much shared by all of us.
So, there we were, sitting around the table on a Friday night at the pleasant light of the flickering Shabbat candles, a few Jews from New York and a few Hindus from New Delhi. There we were, enjoying delicious food, disconnecting from the hustle of the Big Apple and reconnecting to our shared humanity.
Seeing how universal the concept of Shabbat is — the idea of rest, time with family, disconnecting from the world of commerce — helped me, a Jew, better understand the meaning of Shabbat.
I was reminded of the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: “The Sabbath is not simply a day of rest. It is an anticipation of ‘the end of history,’ the Messianic age. On it, we recover the lost harmonies of the Garden of Eden. We do not strive to do; we are content to be. We are not permitted to manipulate the world; instead, we celebrate it as God’s supreme work of art. We are not allowed to exercise power or dominance over other human beings, nor even domestic animals. Rich and poor inhabit the Sabbath alike, with equal dignity and freedom. … The Sabbath is a full-dress rehearsal for an ideal society that has not yet come to pass, but will do because we know what we are aiming for — because we experienced it at the beginning.”
And so, as we said goodbye to our friends from New Delhi, my eyes teared up. I thought of the beauty of the Sabbath, its universality — possible only through its particularity and the Jewish people’s commitment to it — and of a world that can be. A world that, one day, will be.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher and writer. He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network, and lives with his wife in New York City.