Picture the scene:
It’s a Saturday, late in the afternoon. The sun is beginning its descent toward the horizon. The metaphysical energy of Shabbat has reached its crescendo: God’s presence is palpable. The Day of Rest is coming to a close, as the new week gets ready to be ushered in.
Meanwhile, the situation at the kitchen table is not quite as glamorous. Tupperwares of tuna and egg salad, along with leftover challah rolls, potato kugel, miscellaneous dips, and perhaps some Sabra hummus, find themselves scattered along a crumb-lined tablecloth.
It’s not all about the food, anyway. Between handfuls of Snyder’s pretzels, or bites of crackers topped with a mix of tuna and mayonnaise, partakers may elect to share some words of Torah or engage in singing some zemirot — Jewish hymns.
A special name is used to designate this aforementioned meal: not lunch, nor dinner, but rather, “Seudah Shlisit” – which literally means “the third meal” in Hebrew. A staple of the Shabbat experience, it is traditionally done each Saturday between sunset and dark – in Hebrew, bein hashmashot.
Unfortunately, when I was growing up, Seudah Shlishit wasn’t really my cup of tea. After all the food consumed during the prior 24 or so hours, a challah roll filled with egg salad doesn’t sound too appetizing, nor does a cup of flat Fanta Orange. This is especially true during the winter months, when Seudah Shlishit can start as early as 4:30 in the afternoon.
I wasn’t able to really appreciate the zemirot, either. The same songs are chanted each week, often failing to inspire me. Meanwhile, instead of tapping into the spirituality of Shabbat, I’m likely to be counting down the minutes to Havdalah or, alternatively, mulling over the upcoming week: homework, tests, deadlines, and other upcoming obligations.
The result: whenever possible, I would take a pass on Seudah Shlishit. And if I did participate, it wasn’t out of my enthusiasm or any intrinsic motivation.
Until recently, that is.
Upon some reflection, coupled with a few positive Seudah Shlishi experiences, I am proud to say that I have brightened my perspective on it. I am now hopeful that it is indeed possible to make the most of Seudah Shlishit — in other words, to “optimize” it.
Where does the practice of doing Seudah Shlishit come from? According to the rabbinic tradition, the obligation to eat the third meal (or at least to eat bread and say a blessing over it) originates from the Torah. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim derives it from the iteration of the word “day” three times in Exodus 16:25, corresponding to the three meals eaten on Shabbat: Friday night dinner, Saturday lunch, and, of course, Seudah Shlishit.
So, there is indeed a legitimate halachic — Jewish legal — basis for the weekly eating, singing, and schmoozing — chatting. But shouldn’t there be something more than this? Beyond the typical rituals, what kind of meaning are we to extract from Seudah Shlishit and the conclusion of Shabbat?
Influenced by the recent High Holiday season, I began to draw parallels between Seudah Shlishit and the Neila service on Yom Kippur. Much like Neila – which literally translates to “locking” – on Yom Kippur, Seudah Shlishit possesses that same intensity and urgency, as it represents the final moments of a holy occasion.
I have always been inspired by Neila. The power and significance of Yom Kippur really emerge as I pray, tired and famished. It’s a last attempt to petition God before the gates of heaven and the book of judgment close. Indeed, Neila is the pinnacle of Yom Kippur and the experience of repentance.
I would argue that Seudah Shlishit shares the very same metaphysical attributes as Neila. The third meal is positioned at the most opportune juncture of the week, on the boundary between the holy and the profane. The Kabbalists similarly teach that, as the final meal of Shabbat, Seudah Shlishit is also the holiest, in keeping with the concept of the ascending power of spiritual matters.
A few weeks ago, during a Seudah Shlishit I spent on campus in the sukkah, I found myself contemplating the meaning of the words of Psalm 23, which is widely sung during Seudah Shlishit. I started to glean new insights that have served to transform how I view the third meal.
Psalm 23 begins: “A psalm of David, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack anything.” On Shabbat, the Day of Rest, we cease our work in order to emulate our Creator. Of course, this may come at the expense of our productivity and, in many cases, our livelihood. The Psalmist assures us that it will not.
King David continues in the Psalm: “He [God] restores my soul; He guides me in the right paths, as befits His name.” On Shabbat, we hope that God will replenish our souls and vest us spiritually in the days ahead. We also hope that, as we are able to resume work, He will guide our actions toward righteousness.
Next, the Psalmist declares, in one of my favorite lines: “Though I walk through the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” At Seudah Shlishit, as the sun sets, we have the opportunity to prepare mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for the week ahead. Yet, as much as we plan, we cannot be sure what the future holds in store for us. Thus, although we must metaphorically walk through darkness and uncertainty, we are told to fear not, as God’s omnipotent rod and staff support us.
To conclude the Psalm, the Psalmist describes the ideal of drawing close to God and being able to devote himself to a life of spirituality. This is his sonnom bonum — “highest good” — and his desire for connection with the Almighty is one that we can relate to on Shabbat as well.
These reflections have led me to the realization that the third meal serves as a most opportune time for reflection, developing inner peace, coming together as a community, building resilience, and cultivating faith.
Jewish leaders and thinkers have spoken about Seudah Shlishit’s potent nurturing and restorative qualities before. Ahad Ha’am, the father of Cultural Zionism, once said: “More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
This auspicious occasion – Seudah Shlishit – clearly deserves more than just deli salads, miscellaneous Shabbat leftovers, and rote singing. However, we cannot expect Seudah Shlishit to have these spiritual qualities unless we prepare it effectively.
A practical idea to optimize the Seudah Shlishit experience would be to make it a special meal once a month, with community and delicious food. Perhaps this could bolster the spiritual and religious output of a meal that is often seen as the countdown to the next week rather than the culmination of the previous day.
On the other weeks, it would be sufficient to simply fulfill the obligation of Seudah Shlishit the old-fashioned way: some potato kugel or fruit and, if feeling adventurous, a challah roll with tuna spread—and, of course, Psalm 23 to follow.
“The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or ASUCLA Communications Board.”