When you hear that she is engaged, you immediately call to wish the family Mazal Tov. Before you have time to think, you hear yourself offering to host a sheva brachot for the young couple. As they gratefully accept your generous gesture, your head begins to spin and the mental planning begins.
I’ve been in this situation many times and over the years I’ve gained experience in how to make a Sheva Brachot that is a fun, relaxed and well-organized event that everyone enjoys.
Here are my top 13 tips for making Sheva Brachot:
- Make a Guest list - You’ll need ten men so a minimum of ten couples is standard, including the young couple. To lower the number you could some couples/men for dessert only as these still “count.” If you are short of men, there are usually boys from a local yeshiva who will be happy to help out. Consult with the couple about including family, out-of-town guests, or people who missed the wedding. Invite at least twelve men in case of cancellation, or be prepared to call on neighbors in a pinch. Except on Shabbat, Jewish law requires at least one guest to be a “new face” (panim chadashot); i.e. one who did not attend the wedding.
- Let guests know when you plan to sit down - The couple, or other guests, may arrive late, so don’t be afraid of letting early birds wash and start the first course. The people who come on time (and most latecomers, for that matter) will appreciate it!
- Plan the menu - Before planning the menu, ask about kashrut requirements, dietary restrictions or allergies. Keep the menu simple. With each item ask yourself: How long will it take to prepare and can it be done in stages? Do I have room to store it in the refrigerator or freezer (don’t hesitate to ask neighbors)? Have I made this before successfully? Is it easy to serve or does each portion require a lot of time and care (and will I have help in that area)? How will I heat it up? Do I really need it ? Do the colors and textures go together? Is this within my budget? Does the menu reflect the tastes of my guests? Try to have some items suitable for children, vegetarians, and those on low-fat diets.
- Quantities – Consult cookbooks or experienced cooks for specific quantities needed per head. Prepare extra without going overboard. Remember: the more items you have, the less you need of each one.
- Pot luck - A less formal pot luck sheva brachot works well in many communities with similar kashrut standards, and cuts down on work and costs for you. Coordinate the menu so that there aren’t three broccoli dishes. With pot luck you never know quite what to expect, so have someone reliable make the main course or do it yourself, and make an extra dish or two just in case. Let participants choose which item to prepare, since you want their specialties. Those who can’t cook can buy drinks, paper goods or rolls – which should all be delivered to your house in advance.
- Paper goods - Real china and flatware makes the simcha special (and are easier on the budget and environment). If you do use paper it doesn’t all have to be the most expensive kind—it will all go in the garbage afterward and you can add pizzazz with fancy napkins. Or go half-and-half: regular flatware, paper plates for the appetizer and dessert, and china for the main course. Consider purchasing a few serving bowls or vases to be reused at the next neighborhood simcha.
- Setting up - Plan how you will serve the food and manage last-minute details. A seating plan is worth the extra time because you may be too busy to help people find seats when they arrive—post it on the wall or make place cards. Prepare decorations and centerpieces in advance.
- Plan the program - A sheva brachot is an evening out with friends and family, but the focus should be on the couple. Find out which guests can speak well or deserve to be honored, and give a time limit for divrei Torah. For a more intimate crowd, an addition of a simple game can personalize the simcha. For a tried and true favorite, collect a bag of random household items. Let each guest choose one and give a bracha to the couple based on the item. Background music and singing add atmosphere, but allow for conversation too.
- Review in Advance – Review each step, from food-shopping, cooking preparations, utensil usage, storage, room and table setup, serving, program and clearing. You would hate to find out too late that you lack pots or serving pieces. But don’t panic if you get stuck—improvising can be part of the fun.
- Prepare Food in advance – Choose some dishes freeze well so you can start cooking well in advance. For the fresh dishes, choose ones that can be prepared and dished up earlier in day. For example, if you are serving melon as an appetizer, cut it early in the day. It only takes a few seconds to put the pieces on individual plates. Choose a cold appetizer that can sit on the plate for a while as the guests take their places, or put salads and rolls on the table so that everyone has something to eat right away. Less hot courses means less running back-and-forth to the kitchen for you. Placing serving bowls on trays also saves trips. Use a platta or keep the oven on low as this will allow you to keep food warm without burning if things are running behind schedule (and they probably will!)
- Open a bottle of wine and prepare several nice glasses or kiddush cups for the sheva brachot ceremony at the end, and at least one station for netilat yadayim. Make sure there are enough benchers for everyone.
- Serving - Allow one serving bowl or plate for 6-8 people. Heat up soup in two pots with two ladles for your helpers, so that serving will go quickly and you will also have a change to sit down and enjoy.
- Accept offers of help – Keep the needs of your own family in mind and don’t let your kids feel neglected because you are so busy preparing. Besides bringing a dish or a bottle of wine, others can help set or clean up, serve, decorate, take pictures, make phone calls, print up directions, lend equipment or freezer space, plan the program, give rides, occupy children, and more. When people make vague offers of help, be prepared to respond with a specific options of tasks that will genuinely lighten your load.
If you follow these 13 tips, you will find it much easier to create a successful and memorable sheva brachot that everyone enjoys, including you.
Hannah Katsman, a mother of six from Petach Tikva, Israel, is a breastfeeding counselor. She writes two websites: A Mother in Israel on aliyah, parenting, and Judaism. In 2009 she started CookingManager.Com to help home cooks, especially young parents, save time and money. For more hosting tips and recipes, read how Hannah planned her son’s Shabbat Bar Mitzvah.