Illustration: Tablet Magazine
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Help! I Can’t Handle All Those Surprise Shabbos Guests

This week on Thou Shalt, our new advice column: inter-marriage blues, crowded tables, and the shanda of shellfish

Shira Telushkin
March 25, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Thou Shalt is a Jewish advice column for anyone navigating a Jewish situation about which they are unsure. Which is understandable: For thousands of years, Judaism has been rolling through time and space, picking up everything in its path. Which is awesome and beautiful and great, but also means that we’ve inherited a tradition with a complicated and often confusing mix of rituals, identity markers, red lines, and ways to practice. The peculiarities and particularities of the diverse Jewish world have tripped up many well-meaning Jews and non-Jews alike, and the goal of Thou Shalt is to create a space where we can all help decode our Judaism for one another, and the world.

Consider the lobster

Hey Shira,

I just got a new job at a think tank I love, which is very exciting. My first day at work, my boss took me out to lunch. My boss is a pretty religious Jew, and it’s a big part of his public identity. I’m also Jewish, and he knows this, but I’ve never been part of a Jewish community. I ordered the shrimp tacos. Was that a faux pas?


Happily Treiyf, but More Happily Employed


Dear Employed,

Mazel tov on the new gig!

I’d say you’re in the clear. It sounds like he is often in the public eye, and I’m sure he’s probably paid for the non-kosher choices of many a Jew before you. (For those wondering, shrimp, like all shellfish, is not kosher). If being around non-kosher food made him that uncomfortable, he would have chosen a kosher restaurant. It’s also easier to establish Jewish norms at the very start of your job. You don’t want to spend every work event or reception hereafter wondering if you need to avoid the shrimp cocktails in his presence.

Your question is reasonable, however. In personal life, such as when eating out with kosher family members or a group of friends who all keep kosher, the choice might be read as distancing. Meals are bonding experiences, and ordering a dish nobody else can eat can unduly distance you from the rest of the table. That’s especially true if you are not the one paying, or if your family is uncomfortable with your new eating choices. Not unlike if somebody went out to eat with a family of avid vegans, and ordered the beef bourguignon–the choice would register as intentional, and not aid in the intimacy of the evening.

But neither of those caveats apply here. Work is work, and friends are friends, and the rules of engagement are different. For now, enjoy the new job, and the welcoming boss.


Setting up my non-jewish friend

Hey Shira,

A friend of mine is very interested in dating Jewish men and she always asks me to be set up with my friends. I’m generally not so keen on intermarriage. How to proceed?


Reluctant Matchmaker


Dear Matchmaker,

I don’t think you even need to bring up your own stance on intermarriage. Your friend’s somewhat uncomfortable enthusiasm for Jewish guys has already given you an easy out. By stating her own preference for Jews so clearly, she has obviously decided to make dating decisions based on Jewish status; she shouldn’t be surprised if others do the same. Next time she bemoans her loneliness and asks you to set her up with your friend Gedaliah, you can say, “The truth is, most of my closest Jewish friends tend to date other Jews. What attracts you to Jewish guys? Let’s see if we can think of the right person.” Hopefully, this guides her away from her laser-focus on Jews, and towards more transferrable traits.


Unexpected Guests at Friday Night

Hey Shira,

Every now and then, I’ll invite a bunch of friends over for a Shabbat meal, when at the last-minute somebody will ask to bring an extra person (or even two!). This really throws me off. I love hosting, and I tend to plan far in advance, by planning new menus and inviting particular people I think will hit it off with one another. I look forward all week to relaxing with my friends, and I have no way of knowing how these random strangers will get on with everybody else. Also, usually the dishes are already prepped, with individual portions of certain dishes all set, and often I’ve already bought limited amounts of expensive ingredients, that now may be insufficient.

These last-minute requests really stress me out. Can I say no?


Grumpy Shabbos Abba


Dear Abba,

As somebody sympathetic to your plight, I say this with no pleasure: no.

A thoughtful host spends hours upon hours shopping, menu planning, thinking about which friends would enjoy meeting one another and how to seat everyone at the table. We go through all of this for the people we love, in anticipation of a wonderful evening together. The last-minute addition of extra guests inevitably throws off this plan, and its hard not to feel robbed of your idyllic evening.

But, as the Yiddish expression goes, man plans and God laughs.

The thing is, if somebody is coming to you at the last-minute, then that means they don’t have a place for Friday night. And how can you build a successful Shabbat dinner on the back of some sad, lonely Jew who is now sitting home alone? And just because you don’t want them at your meal? You are basically asking for your meal to be cursed.

And it’s never worth it. You don’t mention meals that were actually ruined by a terrible guest – you simply bemoan the stress of receiving such a request. In my experience, the extra people always turn out fine, and I bet that’s true for you too. (Of course, if you are truly stretched for food or space, then say that without any guilt. “Oh man, I’d love to, but we’re completely squeezed in as it is at my dining room table.”)

I wonder if the true problem is gratitude. Lots of Shabbos meals are much more casual affairs then what you’ve described, and your requesting friends might not appreciate the efforts you go to when hosting, meaning they don’t appreciate just how gracious you are being when you say yes. That would be really annoying. Next time this happens, be upfront about the efforts involved, and request your friend bring along extra wine, chocolate, flowers, or whatever else might enhance the meal. Don’t suffer in silence; let the person know that the addition of their friend is a meaningful ask, and not simply a matter of adding a plate to a potluck meal. And if they are asking last-minute about someone who could just come another week (as in, “oh hey, can I invite my cool new coworker? She seems great and I want you to meet her!”), then feel free to turn them down, or suggest they host their own intricately planned four-course meal and invite you along instead.

For people doing the asking: Always phrase the ask within the assumption that this is a heavy request. This way, if your host can say yes, they will feel generous and kind, and if it truly is impossible, they won’t feel like an ogre. Never be afraid to ask, though, if you know somebody in need of an invitation. If necessary, be a little pushy. No Jew should be unwillingly alone on Friday night.


How do I submit a question?

Questions can be sent to [email protected].

Are all questions anonymous?

Yes, no identifying information will ever be revealed or published about the letter-writer or their situation. Your email address will be seen by those monitoring the inbox, but won’t be published.

I’m not Jewish. Can I still submit a question?

Definitely. If your question touches on navigating a Jewish situation—be it attending a synagogue service for the first time or baking a welcome pie for your new Jewish neighbors—then this column is for you.

Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.