Growing up in LA, a gorgeous oval cherry wood table graced our dining room. The style and quality of the table was more European than California, and it held up so well that after 20 years it was coveted by several friends and family members when my parents decided to part with it when they moved up to Portland.
I remember that vintage Queen Anne table well because I was tasked with fetching the leaves from the hallway closet whenever guests were expected, taking great pains to avoid the slightest scratch.
During the week we always kept protective pads on the table. They were fitted to the oval table perfectly. The bottom of the pads was covered with felt and the top was a textured rubbery material that was easy to clean.
The transition from weekday to Shabbos night, especially when we had guests, was quite ceremonial. Since the only kids in the house were me and my pipsqueak sister, who was almost 10 years my junior, I was the chief steward of the dining room, which meant polishing the candlesticks and silverware (does anyone still polish silverware?), spreading the tablecloth, taking out the stacks of china and setting the table. I honed my skills, acquiring a certain degree of expertise in napkin folding that I passed on to my own children some twenty years later.
Way back then, hardly anyone in the West San Fernando Valley kept Shabbos, and so, too, our adherence to the laws of Shabbos was minimal. Yet the transformation from weekday to Shabbos decor was a dramatic change.
The lighting in our dining room was soft (we had a dimmer switch when that was considered an innovation) and the decor was subdued, so I will always recall the warmth of the Shabbos candles and the soft shine of the glazed challahs and heirloom silverware.
I never paid much attentions to such things as a kid, but now that I think of it, that living room, with all its accoutrements, was not cheap. The china, some of the table linens, the Old Country silverware and I think the china cabinet had all been handed down in the family, but had it been necessary to outfit the living room from top to bottom, I imagine it would have involved a lot of shopping and considerable expenditure.
So I got to thinking about newlyweds who have to get a Shabbos table fully equipped on their own. It could cost a small fortune to get fully set up for Shabbos. For example, I came across a Complete Shabbat Table Setting online for no less than $1,140 advertised by one of the veteran US Judaica manufacturers. Take a look at the ad. It includes all of the following:
- Kiddush Cup & Coaster
- Small Kiddush Cup (not sure why you'd need both -- stemmed one for Shabbos Night, and the small one for the morning?)
- Victorian Style Matchbox with Prayer
- Magnificent 8" Candlestick Set
- Glass & Silver Challah Tray
- Engraved Challah Knife
- Salt Dish with Cover & Spoon
It's kind of nice to have a well-matched set, but I don't know if it's so realistic for many people to go out and buy all of these items at once, whether for your own home or as a wedding gift.
Considering that there so many items you can buy to enhance your Shabbos table, some couples might even consider setting up a special gift registry just for these products. (Just an idea.) Certainly receiving two or three tablecloths and/or runners and two or three challah covers and kiddush cups does no harm.
Assuming you have to set up house on a limited budget, what should your priorities for the Shabbos table be? Obviously you can live without a fancy matchbox cover. And you can make do with simple, elegant glass candlesticks for a few dollars each. A decent tablecloth won't set you back much. Instead of an engraved challah knife, you could always go out and buy a standard bread knife. For the salt, use a small, elegant dish. So what's left? Really just a Kiddush cup and challah cover. Come to think of it, you can buy a decent wine glass for a few dollars. In fact, for a challah cover, you could even use a cloth napkin.
As you can see, if necessary you can pare that $1,140 Shabbat Table Setting to a makeshift setup for under $50.
Obviously everyone has to have a realistic household budget and stick to it, but keep in mind that embellishing your Shabbos table is not being frivolous. While you can fulfill mitzvahs down to the letter of the Law without a significant financial outlay, at the same time we must keep in mind that we are enjoined to beautiful our mitzvahs to the best of our ability -- zeh Keli v'anveiHu.