What makes Shabbat Shabbat? Does any Friday night dinner with friends and family qualify? Must prayers be recited or electronics turned off? As an American journalist exploring Israel, I’m fascinated by the ritual.

The way Jerusalem turns into a ghost town come sundown. The scramble of Tel Aviv socialites to avoid spending Shabbat alone, much as Americans might stress about a dateless Valentine’s Day.

More specifically I’m fascinated by the why of the ritual: Why do Israelis do this? What benefit do they get from it, and are all they all getting the same thing? To investigate, I determined to spend my first three Friday nights in Israel at dinners as divergent as possible.

First up was Shabbat in the Jaffa art studio of a Jewish mystic that would end with tarot cards and fortune-telling.

Next was a gay Shabbat with Tel Aviv’s fashion elite, followed by a religious Shabbat in the Jerusalem home of a Chabad rabbi.

“It’s all about the food,” says my Tel Aviv host, a striking German model, as she scoops me a second helping of lasagna.

The recipe, she explains, belongs to the mother of the Israeli boyfriend for whom she’s moved from Berlin. They’ve spent the day cooking it together, and before the meal is even served, she feels that much more connected to him and his family.

Their other guests, a gay couple working in high fashion, politely refuse a second helping. “We’re going as gladiators for Purim,” they tell me, “so we need abs.” Much like their model friends, the couple sees Shabbat food – or in this case, abstention from it – as a bonding activity.

There’s less talk of abs at the rabbi’s house. But just as in Tel Aviv, food at this dinner has a procedure, a purpose.

I’m chastised more than once for slowing down the line as plates are passed with almost military efficiency. And they need to be: In addition to the rabbi’s nine children, I’m seated with a dozen or so other friends, students and congregation members.

“I told my husband I was a bit worried when we only had three guests confirmed earlier this week,” the rabbi’s wife tells me. “‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘it’s only Wednesday.’” The plate-passing creates dialogue between strangers as we sample and evaluate and ask for more. I try everything, and by the time the plates come around again, I’m stuffed.

“Pace yourself,” the rabbi’s brother tells me with concern. “That was the salad course.”

Back in the Jaffa art studio, I’m surrounded by my host’s enormous oil paintings of Israeli beach scenes. Hundreds of thousands of brush strokes detail footprints in the sand going in every direction. The food here’s like that, too: grape leaves and meatballs and Israeli salads, a potluck of different cultures, eaten while we recline on couches and squeeze into corners for a dozen meandering side conversations.

That is, until, our host stops the sidebars and begins to moderate the main event: a structured conversation reflecting on each guest’s last week and their hopes for the week ahead.

And here is where I begin to see the real similarities underlying the Shabbat diversity. At each Shabbat, parts of the conversation are structured. Elevated.

In Jaffa, each guest speaks in turn around the circle while our wise old host nods, lending interpretation to last week’s events and encouragement for this week’s plans. In Jerusalem, the rabbi calls on guests like a high-school teacher quizzing his students. He asks them about the weekly Torah portion, or for any more general contribution (I’m thankful for the five-minute warning he gives me before asking me to tell the room about my Shabbat experiences).

Even in the free-flowing Tel Aviv dinner, moments are reserved for serious talk. One guest declares that “Tel Aviv is not only the gay capital of Israel, but of the world,” and we go around the table comparing the community’s experience to what we’ve seen in Berlin or New York.

The rituals continue after dinner in Jaffa, when our host, a self-proclaimed “witch,” spreads tarot cards across the table. We each pull a card, and again, our fortunes are told procedurally, in order around the table. The deck’s colorful drawings of jesters and devils are a far cry from Tel Aviv’s discussion of gay rights or Jerusalem’s kiddush, but the goal seems the same: to create a procedure. A structure that fosters serious thought and discussion.

“The wine, the candle-lighting,” explains another guest to me at the rabbi’s house, “it’s all part of creating that structure.” That’s the reason she’s here, she tells me. To distance herself from the week’s smallness and small talk. To engage in a conversation that has no choice but to be significant.

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