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A Family Tradition for a Sweet Shabbat

Some religious rituals are handed down to us by tradition, and others emerge anew in response to specific needs in our lives.

Image by  juliannafunk/ Getty Images

Some religious rituals are handed down to us by tradition, and others emerge anew in response to specific needs in our lives. The Shabbat Tray of Treats falls into the second category: a sweet ritual of family connection and carb consumption. During this quiet time at home on Saturday mornings, my family will munch, play games, and take a breath after the hectic pace of our school and work weeks. As our family has grown over the last several years, the Tray of Treats ritual has transformed as well. However, at its heart, “Tray” (as it has come to be known) has stayed the same: a much-needed chance for relaxation and family bonding, aided by cinnamon, sugar, and lots of cream cheese frosting.

Shabbat has been a comforting constant wherever my partner and I have lived. The weekly ritual featured prominently in both of our childhood homes in Tennessee and Virginia. As a newly married couple in New York, we made a special dinner or went out to friends’ apartments for dinner every Friday night. We also attended Saturday morning services, first with a grassroots minyan that met in a church basement on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and later at a synagogue in Seattle. Hitting the pause button to spend time with community, eat good food, reflect, and relax—simply put, Shabbat is one of Judaism’s best inventions, the original detox from our overconnected lives.

When my first son was born in 2009, I was excited to introduce him to the various Jewish holidays. Each has its own set of unusual things to eat and do: the Passover seder with its crunchy matzah crackers and songs about frogs; building a sukkah (booth) and decorating its walls for Sukkot; lighting candles and spinning dreidels during Hanukkah. These vivid celebrations punctuate the Jewish calendar with kid-friendly activities.

Shabbat is a different beast. Through its sheer regularity as a weekly holiday, it is potentially less memorable in the mind’s eye. As a new parent, I found myself wondering how we could instill in our child the special feeling we grown-ups associated with Shabbat. When would a rambunctious toddler be old enough to appreciate the altered flow of time created by this weekly pause? What type of activity would teach a child that this day was different?

Thus, the Shabbat Tray of Treats ritual was born. On Saturday mornings we started bringing a tray laden with tea, milk, cookies, and the newspaper up to the small attic bedroom of our rental house. Under the sloping ceilings, as sunlight filtered in through the backyard pines, we would snuggle with our son, read, and chat. With Tray, we gave ourselves a chance to just be for a little while. Eventually, our son would demand to go outside and push his Radio Flyer wagon past the lavender bushes lining the sidewalk; and later in the day, we would head to the synagogue for services and lunch. However, for a good half-hour before those activities began, we were together peacefully—thanks to Tray.

At some point my son asked me, “Ima (mom), why are we having cookies this morning?” I thought for a moment and replied, “So that we will have a sweet Shabbat.” As soon as I said it aloud, I knew it was true. And I wonder, how many other Jewish traditions have been retroactively justified by a parent trying to explain something to a curious child?

Perhaps unconsciously, the Tray ritual tapped into a centuries-old tradition linking treats with the spiritual sweetness of Jewish life. As far back as medieval times, children studying the Torah would be given honey on their tongues or on a slate of Hebrew letters. This initiation rite was meant to start a sweet life of learning. The Jewish New Year, which arrives soon, includes the popular tradition of dipping apples into honey to signify that the upcoming year should be sweet. And Jewish newlyweds are encouraged, for the first year of their marriage, to drizzle their challah bread with honey to herald a sweet union (though I personally prefer my challah salted).

Tray has changed as my family has expanded over the last nine years. We welcomed a second son and, a few years later, a baby girl. Though we may start Tray time with all the kids on our bed, soon enough a wrestling match breaks out, or a game of Mancala begins in the playroom. Instead of reading the newspaper, now I listen as the boys read books to their little sister.

The contents of Tray have also evolved along with the contours of life in our adopted city. When we bought a house in the northern part of town a few years ago, we became loyal customers of the neighborhood bakery, which conveniently sells giant cinnamon rolls and fruit scones in addition to their amazing challah. My Friday morning call-ahead order for challah and treats is now a pre-Shabbat ritual, like cleaning last week’s wax out of the candlesticks. Our older son recently started cooking classes at a local grocery store, so it’s only a matter of time until his home-baked creations become part of the Tray experience.

In his famous book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel declared, “The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all.” Not far from the blue-gray waters of Lake Washington, our house turns into a palace for a day. On these slow Saturday mornings, it feels like our family is floating on a little island, rocking to a different rhythm than the rest of the week. I am grateful for this precious chance to savor something sweet—and each other’s company.

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