As for Me and My House: Learning from a Jewish Model of Worship

A number of years ago I became a friend of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein through the Chicago area evangelical and Jewish dialogue. As our friendship developed, Rabbi Yechiel invited my colleague Morris Inch, myself, and our wives to celebrate Shabbat with them. Yechiel's lovely wife, Bonnie, greeted us with an embrace at the door, making us feel immediately at home. After a brief time of friendly conversation, the Ecksteins invited us to sit down at the table.

"This is a very special meal," Yechiel said, "not only because you are here but because this meal represents the beginning of our Jewish Shabbal." I listened intently as he continued. "It's a day of rest, a time to remember our Creator and Redeemer, a time to be with the family, a time to establish and deepen our relationships. Some of our table prayers will be said in Hebrew. Just relax and enter into the spirit of our thanksgiving."

As Yechiel began speaking in Hebrew, praising God for the fruit of the vine, he took a small loaf of freshly baked bread, broke it, and passed it around the table, bidding us to eat as a sign of our thanks to God. Again, pouring wine into a cup, he lifted it, repeating a Jewish prayer of thanks for the fruit of the vine and, passing it around the table, bade us drink as a sign of our thanks to God. After another prayer our meal began.

As we ate the delicious food that had been prepared before sundown and kept warm in the oven (no cooking is allowed after sundown), we engaged in conversation that was more than talk. It was communication about our lives, our families, our values, and our dreams.

After dessert Yechiel said, "In our tradition we conclude the Shabbat meal with more table prayers and psalms. All of this will be done in Hebrew, so simply join in the spirit of what we do." As we all bowed our heads, Yechiel and Bonnie took turns singing prayers and psalms, creating a softly sung litany. Although I could not understand the language, the sense of awe and reverence before the Lord came over me and raised my spirits to the praise of God. After the prayers ended, Yechiel looked at Bonnie and in English spoke of his love for her and of his good fortune in having her as his wife. Then, calling his children to his side, he placed his hands on their heads and, blessing them, sent them happily off to play.

During the meal, on the way home, for weeks afterward, and even to this day, I still frequently reflect on that event. What we were involved in was more than a meal. It was a ritual—a religious ritual that had the power to unite a family, recall history, create reverential awe, and shape values.

Through this experience I was reminded once again that the richness of the Jewish tradition is the heritage of the Christian family—a heritage that many of us have lost or allowed to fall into the background. I don't mean to suggest that most Christian families don't have prayer at meals or prayers for the children at bedtime or even regular family prayer. What I mean to say is that most of us do not have table prayers that consecrate time or set apart special occasions and turn them into spiritual festivals that communicate the sense of lifting the event into the very presence of God.

The meal prayers at Rabbi Yechiel's led us into Sabbath rest. This was no ordinary evening; it was an extraordinary event that turned a meal into a religious experience. As we were driving home that night, I told my wife that I wanted to develop meal services for our home that would consecrate time and give special occasions more of a genuine Christian significance. Consequently I developed meal services for the seasons of the church year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost—and several services for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.

Sanctifying Time

This approach to family prayer is rooted in the sanctifica-tion of time: time—my daily, weekly, and yearly time—is brought into a relationship with Jesus Christ when it is shaped by the experience of his birth, life, death, and resurrection.

The fact is that time orders our daily experience of life. Our day is ordered by the rising and setting of the sun; by breakfast, lunch, and dinner; by the act of getting up and going to bed; by the time we must be at work and the time we are free to leave.

Most of us are familiar with ways to consecrate our daily time. We converse with God on getting up and bedding down, we thank him for our food three times a day, and during special events of the day our thoughts may turn to our Creator and Redeemer. Our week is also consecrated by our Sunday experience—or at least it should be. On Sunday we celebrate both creation and the recreation of the world demonstrated in the resurrection. In these ways our daily and weekly time is brought into Jesus Christ. The daily rituals of prayer and weekly worship are external rites that order and organize our spiritual experience of time. But what ordering of time organizes our spiritual experience of the year? How can our pilgrimage from year to year be sanctified?

The church year, which was developed by our Christian predecessors hundreds of years ago, does just that. Consequently, family prayers for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost recall the pilgrimage of Jesus Christ and call us into a yearly cycle that is spiritually ordered and organized by God's saving events in Christ. Such meal services are not merely external rites but a means of building our personal and family faith in the person of Jesus Christ.

Leading Your Family in Prayer

How are these services best celebrated? I suggest you set aside one evening a week to celebrate the meal service. The idea is to make it a special evening: have dinner in the dining room with your best dishes and silverware, and good fare. It is also helpful to get every member of the family involved. This service is no monologue; it is dialogic, intended to bring everyone into participation. You can even assign one of the children to act as leader rather than always reserving that role for an adult.

Sometimes the service will go quickly. Other times it will involve lengthy discussions. The important thing is to tailor the service to the ages and needs of your family. Then worship together with sincerity and purposefulness.

Remember that you are building within your family a lasting spiritual tradition. Celebrating seasons of the church year as well as special occasions in a prayer context makes a family event extra special. It builds lasting traditions—not only for your family, but also for the families of your children.

Excerpt
On the Occasion of a Birthday
Leader:

My dear friends, today is a special day in the life of our family, for on this day we celebrate the birth of {name). Let us begin by giving thanks to God almighty.

Let us pray.

Father, we praise you for every perfect gift that comes from above. You have gifted us with the life of (name). Now we bless you for (his/her) presence in our family. Grant, we pray you, that your blessing may rest upon (him/her) all the days of (his/her) life. Amen.

The Scripture Readings
First Reader:

A Reading from Ecclesiastes
"To everything there is a season
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born,
And a time to die;
A time to plant,
And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill,
And a time to heal;
A time to break down,
And a time to build up;
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones,
And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace,
And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain,
And a time to lose;
A time to keep,
And a time to throw away;
A time to tear,
And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak;
A time to love,
And a time to hate;
A time of war,
And a time of peace."
Ecclesiastes 3:1—8

This is the word of the Lord.

Response:

Thanks be to God!

Second Reader:

A reading from the gospel according to John:
"There was a man of the Pharisees named Nic-odemus.arulerof the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.'Jesus answered and said to him, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Nicodemus said to him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?' Jesus answered, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again." The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit'" (John 3:1-8).

This is the word of the Lord.

Response:

Thanks be to God.

The Presentation of the Gifts

(The gifts may now be brought.)

Leader:

(

Name), these gifts are tokens of the love we have for you. Before you open them, we wish to express our love to you in words. Each of us has thought of something about you that we appreciate. We want to acknowledge you in this way. (Each person may now state a positive characteristic oj the person whose birth is being celebrated by saying:

I like__(name)_____or I appreciate______(name)________because_________________.)

The Prayer of Dedication
Leader:

Let us dedicate (name) to the Lord. Father, we dedicate (name) to your service. We ask that (his/her) life may bring glory to your name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Response:

Amen.

(The gifts may now be opened and the cake shared by all.)

This article and service were reprinted with permission from The Book of Family Prayer by Robert E. Webber. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1986. Available through Worship Resources, 219 West Franklin, Wheaton, Illinois 60187 for $17.95.

Robert Webber (rwebber@northern.seminary.edu) is Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and president of the Institute for Worship Studies, a distance education school in Jacksonville, Florida. He is author of many books, including the Ancient-Future series (Baker), Younger Evangelicals (Baker), and editor of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship. These resources and a monthly "Ancient-Future Talk" newsletter are available at www.ancientfutureworship.com.