By Rivki Silver
Two candlesticks stand atop a fresh tablecloth, their candles exuding a soft glow. Around the table, a family sits in expectant silence as the head of the household makes a bracha on two loaves of challah. Between bites of delicious meat and sips of wine, they listen to stories of the Baal Shem Tov and sing songs about Eliyahu HaNavi.
In a different home, a couple sits at the kitchen table. The house is quiet; the children are finally asleep. Still in their shabbos clothes (though the sheitel has been exchanged for a snood), they sip their hot tea and enjoy the chance to have an uninterrupted conversation.
While the details of these scenarios are quite different, in both households, the “fourth” meal, more commonly known as Melava Malka, is happening.
When I think of Melava Malka, I usually feel guilt because I am not very good at doing it. But now that the clocks have turned back and we once again have a gloriously (or tortuously, depending on your perspective) long Motzei Shabbos, it’s the perfect time to try to establish this habit if you still need to do so.
Why, you may ask, do we need to have yet another meal after the three meals we just had on Shabbos? And how do we go about doing this mitzvah?
You may have heard about the Midrash in Koheles Rabba that teaches the very esoteric concept of the luz bone, which, in the future, is the point from which resurrection happens. According to mystical teachings, this bone is “fed,” as it were, through the food we eat during Melava Malka. There are other mystical concepts, like the idea that our neshama yeseira, the extra soul we get on Shabbos, doesn’t leave until we eat Melava Malka. If you’re the mystical type, that may work for you, and I’m glad. I don’t connect to those reasons so much.
I appreciate the idea found in the Gemara and the Mishnah Brurah that just like we usher Shabbos in with respect, we can (and should) usher Shabbos out with respect. Typically, the Motzei Shabbos scene in our house involves whisking the dirty tablecloth off the Shabbos table and into the washing machine, setting up Havdalah, and then returning all the papers and mundane objects from their hiding spots back to the Shabbos table. Not exactly the most respectful exit for Shabbos. Okay. It’s always good to have what to work on!
There’s also a concept that eating Melava Malka ensures that all the meals we eat during the week are infused with holiness, like the meals we eat on Shabbos (okay, that’s also a mystical idea, but it speaks to me).
Those are some reasons why we do this mitzvah, but what about how to do it?
Ideally, the table should be set after Havdalah with a fresh tablecloth. Rav Moshe Sternbuch says that setting the table Motzei shabbos shows that we really want to extend Shabbos, and that we’re not happy it’s over. Our food should be made especially for the meal (aka no leftovers). Some people have the custom of lighting candles, and it’s recommended to make hamotzi on two loaves. Eating your favorite foods (hello, pizza) is also encouraged. It’s preferable to remain in your Shabbos clothes until the meal is finished, and some have the custom not to do any chores on Motzei Shabbos.
The idea of not lingering in Shabbos mode, not rushing to turn the wi-fi back on and checking our WhatsApp (spoiler alert, probably no one messaged you), but clinging to the kedusha just a bit longer, is appealing in theory. I love the idea, but I am definitely not quite there yet. Even as I type this, I am thinking of all the things that need to get done on Motzei Shabbos and feel some serious resistance to the idea of putting on a new tablecloth and making fresh food.
But there’s good news, there are also other opinions (no one is surprised by this, I’m sure) that even if you only eat a kezayis, that’s fine. Other even more lenient opinions say even a hot drink can suffice. As always, do what’s appropriate for you in your community, and ask your Rav if you don’t know.
And in case you’re panicking about not doing this mitzvah, fear not. While observing this mitzvah is undoubtedly meritorious and advantageous, it’s not strictly required. So consider it an opt-in. But it’s also a mitzvah that can be lost in the shuffle (cue my guilty feelings), which is not a new phenomenon. The Vilna Gaon was very strict about this mitzvah, and Rav Sternbuch explains that it was because he (the Gra) felt that it was something that was very neglected.
So while the ideal way to do Melava Malka may not be entirely within your (my) reach, don’t be intimidated by the “best” way to do it, but make this extraordinary mitzvah work for you!
Rivki Silver is co-host of the Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast, a Meaningful Minute Podcast. She is a regular contributor to Family First Magazine and also plays music for all the local day schools in Cleveland, where she lives with her family.