It is customary to sing Shalom Aleichem on Friday nights when the head of household returns from shul. The song is intended to honor the angels that have accompanied a person from the synagogue to his or her home, to a vision of the Shabbos home: a table beautifully set with the family’s finest dishes and cutlery, two fresh loaves of challah resting beneath their cloth, the glitter of silver Shabbos candles and kiddush cups, people in their Shabbos clothing. Remember that these angels take their leave of the person after the stanza tzeischem l’shalom. According to tradition, for a walk back from shul and a brief stay, these angels whom we cannot see or hear deserve to be honored with the fanfare of song.
Many Jewish homes are open to guests for the meals on Shabbos evening and the following day. Kiruv professionals and regular families alike have integrated the mitzvah of hachnassas orchim (welcoming guests) and the concept of kiruv rechokim (outreach) into their homes. The children of these families have a shining example of hospitality and outer-directedness right in front of their eyes; both of these can be choice educational tools.
The question is: do we honor our children as much as we do angels? Are we as excited about their presence at our Shabbos tables as we are about people who are not members of our immediate family, nor our extended family—sometimes not even people we’ve met before? I have heard personal accounts from many people whose parents’ Shabbos tables were both a source of inspiration for countless people who went on to become shomer Shabbos, and a source of feelings of alienation and betrayal for the children who were given, at best, second-class status at the table. These people came to associate Shabbos with emotional pain.
Our children need our love and attention. If that is true during the week, it is especially true on Shabbos or Yom Tov. When you have a guest, or more than one, where do you seat them? Do you ask your children to move down a few seats to make room for the guests? Do you demand that the guests be served or acknowledged in conversation first?
Consider this: parents have specially designated places at the table; this fact derives from the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em, honoring one’s parents. A child is not allowed, without permission, to sit in his or her parents’ seats. While children cannot lay claim to their seats from the standpoint of Jewish law, they certainly do come to treasure their places next to Mommy and Daddy, or at certain places around the Shabbos table. What are we communicating to them when we ask them to move over for someone else?
Some kids fall asleep between the gefilte fish and the soup. Others seem to be full of energy and will want to entertain the visitors until they leave. Still others will want to have your attention and sing with you. Whatever your kids’ style, it pays to adjust to it. Talk to them, ask them about their week; teach them about Shabbos. Don’t worry that your guests will feel neglected. If they are true friends or family, they will be glad to see that you are raising healthy, happy children. If the guests are of the “kiruv” variety, you will be giving them the ultimate Jewish educational experience by showing them the importance of children in a Jewish home. Consider your children your most valued “guests”; like the angels who have accompanied you home, they are the angels who greet you there.