Reclaiming the Shabbos Table

Q: We have a 19-year-old son who is working, living at home and very much “on the fringe.” He dropped out of yeshivah almost two years ago and his observance of Yiddishkeit leaves much to be desired. As he is not on drugs, is gainfully employed and still participates in our seudos on Shabbos, we certainly count our blessings and acknowledge that the situation could be much worse.

Our question has to do with this son’s behavior at the Shabbos table. Each week, he will pose a philosophical question which is more like a challenge than a sincere inquiry. For example, he might ask about the reason for a particular mitzvah (which he does not observe). Whatever answer I or my wife offer is never acceptable to him. He will disparage the explanation and say that it makes no sense to him. Then he will ask us to “prove” whatever we are saying.

Not only are my wife and I frustrated by these “debates,” but our other children are also very resentful. They feel — and rightly so — that this son is monopolizing the Shabbos table each week. As a result, they have little opportunity to participate in the conversation. This causes them to bentch and leave the table, sometimes even before the seudah is over.

We know how important it is to be patient with kids at risk. And we do not want to do anything to alienate our 19-year-old any further. But, at the same time, we do not want our other children to feel they are being deprived of their fair share of our attention. How would you recommend we resolve this dilemma?

A: First, I must applaud your positive attitude in the face of an extremely challenging nisayon. Most people would simply be unable to “count their blessings” if they were in your shoes. You and your wife truly personify the Mishnah, “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion” (Pirkei Avos 4:1). And, as Rabbeinu Yonah comments, “One who has a positive attitude and is satisfied with his portion [in life, finds that] all his days are [as] good as ‘one who is constantly feasting’”(Mishlei 15:15).

Now to your question. Your son is clearly manipulating you and your wife with his provocative behavior. This is a classic example of attention-seeking at its worst. And it is wreaking havoc on your entire family.

You are made to feel frustrated each week as your 19-year-old grabs all the attention at the Shabbos table. He smugly thwarts your attempts to answer his questions. And he leaves you feeling like failures, as your Shabbos table disintegrates before your very eyes.

Your other children are also being hurt because they are not getting the attention they need and deserve. Instead of a warm, congenial experience of bonding with their family, they are forced each week to be passive spectators at a verbal gladiator match with no clear victors.

Finally, your 19-year-old is also being damaged by these weekly debates. By successfully hijacking your Shabbos table, he is becoming accustomed to wielding too much power in your home. He is also excessively gratifying his insatiable need for attention. This, in turn, will only serve to make him even more selfish and self-centered than he is today.

What you must do immediately is to set appropriate limits for him and not allow him to commandeer the Shabbos table discussion. You simply cannot permit him to continue to suck up all the oxygen in the room, leaving nothing for anyone else.

How do you go about this? First, you must disabuse yourselves of the mistaken belief that you can bring him back on the derech by explaining things to him. Your son may yet come back. And I most sincerely hope and pray that he does. If he returns, however, it will be as a result of positive experiences with Yiddishkeit, not as a result of intellectual, rational or logical explanations.

The next thing you must do is deflect his provocations, as follows. The next time he tells you that your explanations make no sense, simply say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Or you can say, “Let’s just agree to disagree.” Of course, you can also recommend someone else, such as a Rav or Rebbe, for him to consult with his questions if he is truly seeking answers.

These comments should be made in a pleasant tone of voice without malice or resentment and preferably with a smile. And they should be immediately followed by your changing the subject. Ask him about his work. Turn to one of your other children. Or start singing a zemer. In this way, everyone gets the message that the floor is open to other topics of conversation.


The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.