Going to a Shabbat table? Preparing for guests?
Here are some tips if the Shabbat experience is at all new to you, from either end of the table.

  Guests:
Hosts:

Establish contact. At least a few hours before Shabbat begins, find out what time you're expected. Confirm you're coming and say how much you appreciate the invitation and hospitality. Inform your host or hostess if you have any special needs, such as a vegetarian meal. Ask what you can bring (you'll usually be told, "Just bring yourself").

Dress nicely. Shabbat is considered a special occasion, the most important Jewish holiday of all. So for men, a suit and tie would not be out of place (though in Israel they are generally less formal than elsewhere). Don't forget your Kipa/Yarmulka!

For women, a long skirt and conservative top would be perfect. Not the best choice for this kind of atmosphere: exposed shoulders, a plunging neckline, or form-fitting slacks. (On Shabbat, the idea is to see each other as we really are, not just for how we look on the surface.)

Bring something. Even if they tell you not to bring anything, it's customary whenever you're a guest to show your hosts that you appreciate the trouble they went through to prepare a meal for you. A bottle of kosher wine, or some flowers sent to the host's home before Shabbat begins, are great choices. Or, if the family you're visiting has children, simple toys are often very welcome. If you aren't able to bring anything, don't be embarrassed, it's perfectly okay.

Relax. Have fun. Don't worry. The host and hostess will guide you through the meal and explain everything you could want to know. They'll also be very careful not to do or say anything that might embarrass you or make you feel uncomfortable. You're the guest!

Watch and learn. In Jewish thought, the person who speaks the least is often considered the smartest one in the room. That doesn't mean you shouldn't say anything, and certainly any question you have will be most welcome. But on Shabbat, it can be instructive to put yourself in listening mode more than talking mode. Notice the effect it has on you and those around you. Pay attention to what happens when you aren't doing anything to make things happen. It is customary on Shabbat not to talk about the day to day concerns spoken of during the week, but to focus instead on the spiritual.

Way to go. The most welcome guest is often the one who knows when to leave. After the final blessings, the host will often cue the guests as to his family's intentions and customs. Sometimes, everyone will stay around the table and sing or talk late into the night. Other times, it may be clear that they're ready to go to bed or want some private family time. Make your graceful exit accordingly.

Follow up. It's appropriate on Sunday or Monday to call your hosts or drop a gracious note of thanks and appreciation. Let them know if you'd like to be invited back! It's not at all considered rude to call and request a place at a family's Shabbat table; it's actually considered quite an honor, so don't be shy. If you could not get a gift for your hosts before Shabbat, now's a good time.

Be the giver. By welcoming Shabbat guests into your home, you're already exhibiting the extraordinary hospitality of Abraham and Sarah. Since we only get one chance to make that all-important first impression, make sure the house is as clean and neat as it can be. It will be a cue to the guests that yours is a household to emulate.

Be accommodating. A lot of people are vegetarian or have special dietary or other needs. Since it can be awkward for guests with special needs to broach the subject, do it for them. When you first make contact, ask if there's anything special that you might be able to do for them.

Assign seating. See a potential shidduch? Some people with common interests? A talkative pair that may need separating? Take it upon yourself as the host to arrange the table as you think best. Guests are often grateful to be relieved of the choice of where to sit.

Take note. Got a tricky spigot? A toilet that needs to be flushed just so? Be sure to leave printed notes in appropriate places to let your guests know what they need to know.

Be an explainer. Overview the evening for your guests so they know what to expect. It will put them at ease. Preview each element: "Next, we're going to..." This will put guests at ease even more. Provide insights about the meaning of Shabbat rituals where you think it might interest your guests. Get personal; say why it's important to YOU: "This is the part I really love..."

Let the kids shine. Ba'al teshuvot often say that the behavior, happiness, and knowledge of Orthodox Jewish children are what brought them back to their heritage. So celebrate your children. Let them share what they know about the parsha. Let them answer questions that you know they're likely to get right so they can feel good about themselves in front of guests. If they're not in the mood to participate, give them the freedom to exercise that choice.

Encourage guest participation. Give them things to do. For example, leave the table partially unset so that early arrivers will feel useful and not self-conscious. Later, encourage guests to serve each other and let them clear items from the table. For more experienced Shabbat guests, appoint one to guide the hand washing, one to choose the tune for Shir Hamaalos, another to lead the benching.

Start a discussion. Ask an open-ended question. If there are children present, asking about favorite things can be fun (favorite holiday, favorite toy, favorite sport). Other good questions might be: Who is your hero or heroine and why? What was the biggest coincidence of your life? Your most extraordinary childhood mishap? Go around the table, have each person introduce him or herself, and answer the question. Beware the long speech giver and gently intervene to move things along if necessary.

Talk Torah. Talk about the parsha, making it relevant to current events or tying it to something said at the table. Try to evoke your guests to think about what you have said by asking their opinion about something related to the parsha.

See your guests out. It's a great way to demonstrate your hospitality every moment your guests share your home.

Follow up. As they leave, let your guests know that they are always welcome and that calling to request a place at your table would be an honor for you and your family.