The Necessity of Family Rituals

There is a gaping void in the modern West: A profound lack of moral education. This void was created when church attendance was ripped out of the culture and replaced with nothing at all. This is a dangerous void: a civilization cannot continue without a moral core. For better or worse (and there was plenty of both), church attendance is what kept the people of the West in touch with moral concerns, and it did so for more than a thousand years.

This gap needs to be filled, and the family is the best choice for doing so. Even for families that still go to church, I am convinced that family rituals are necessary. And the reason is simple:

Children must be intimately familiar with the deepest of moral issues, and must be able to express themselves about them.

The first thoughts formed by children, of course, will be childish. Nonetheless, they need to speak those thoughts, and to have them corrected… improved… without being shamed. The right setting for this is in the comfort of their home, in the presence of their loving parents.

If you want your children to grow up strong and good, I can’t think of a better model for you to follow.

How, Exactly?

This could be done in infinite ways, of course, but the essential components are these:

  1. This must be done regularly, and once per week is probably the best and most practical model.
  2. This must be time set apart. Somehow, you need to separate this time from normal time: These moments need to be different.
  3. The clamor of the everyday – work, current affairs, gossip and so on – must remain outside.
  4. You must discuss things of enduring importance. The children must see actual, careful reasoning. They must become familiar with analysis and expression.
  5. The children must voice their opinions. The adults must keep them safe and help them clarify their ideas very, very gently.

Creating such a ritual isn’t particularly hard, except for the first few times you do it. After that it takes a life of its own. And It will make your children into better people. It will make parents into better people as well.

The Essential Family Ritual

The oldest and best family ritual I know is the Jewish Sabbath dinner, called shabbos (SHA-bas) or shabbot (sha-BOT); it has been practiced for well over two thousand years running. It’s even one of the Ten Commandments.

I’ll describe shabbos dinner here briefly, and I’d like you to keep in mind that after two or three thousand years of actual use, the model has been pretty well honed. Adapt as you see fit, but do keep the model in mind. (You can find deeper coverage in Parallel Society #22.) You don’t need to convert to Judaism; just adopt what is useful.

Shabbos is a family event, held at the family dinner table every Friday night, and it is a time apart from normal time. Jewish families prepare for shabbos during the week, have all the necessities in place by mid-day Friday, and then shut everything else down and “make shabbos.”

Once everything is set, everyone sits, and the mother (not the father, except in necessity) performs the opening ritual and prayer. Further prayers follow, but the point of it all – and this is the part that you need to retain – is that everyone understands, on a visceral level, that this is a time set apart

At Shabbos dinner, important things are discussed. The conversation is traditionally started by reading a passage of scripture, but anything that transcends the mundane can work.

Even children are expected to express some independent thought about the topic being discussed. They are helped along only as much as is necessary. The parents and grandparents make sure that everyone feels safe expressing their thoughts. (No ridicule is permitted, etc.)

It is typical for the family making Shabbos to invite friends, relatives and neighbors, including the friends of children.

The Effects

Shabbos, and regular rituals like them, are powerful. Children are trained not only to listen, think and express themselves, but that the hustle of daily life is interruptible and should be interrupted.

The people partaking in the ritual also form strong bonds with one another. It is, after all, far more intimate to express one’s opinions on spirituality and morality than it is on whatever trivialities or outrages are running across the Internet.


Paul Rosenberg