ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Shabbat symbolism

200-seat empty Shabbat tables set for hostages held by Hamas

The installation, in Tel Aviv and other communities, joins the global ‘Kidnapped’ posters campaign as a symbol of the plight of those abducted by terrorists to Gaza two weeks ago

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza set a symbolic Shabbat table with more than 200 empty seats for the hostages, at 'Hostage Square,' outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 20, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza set a symbolic Shabbat table with more than 200 empty seats for the hostages, at 'Hostage Square,' outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 20, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The installation stretches across the entire plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art — a table for 200, pristinely set for Shabbat yet conspicuously empty.

The high chairs at a handful of seats, the children’s cups in other settings and the white roses alongside some of the plates make the symbolism painfully clear: This table is for the over 200 hostages that Hamas is holding in Gaza.

Hamas took the hostages on Oct. 7, when it attacked Israel, killing over 1,400 people and wounding thousands. Since then, their families and supporters have quickly snapped into an organized protest movement, applying tactic after tactic to keep the world’s attention on their loved ones amid Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and a global fight over how it should respond to the massacre.

Among the most prominent and widespread tactic employed by families of the hostages has been the distribution of “Kidnapped” posters all around the world, in dozens of languages, showcasing the faces and stories of each of the known captives. Now, the empty Shabbat table is poised to join those posters as a symbol of the captives’ plight.

Setting an empty seat for prisoners has been part of the global Jewish protest lexicon since the 1960s, when the movement to free Soviet Jews made it a hallmark of its symbolism. Earlier this year, some Jews committed to leaving an empty seat at their Passover seders for Evan Gershkovich, a Jewish-American journalist imprisoned in Russia.

The tables for the hostages are vastly larger in scope. In addition to the Tel Aviv table, tables for hostages were set up in advance of Shabbat in the Jewish Quarter of Rome and on Australia’s famous Bondi Beach.

Another initiative on the second weekend since the atrocities is marking this Shabbat worldwide as a Sabbath of solidarity and unity for the Jewish people, to support and strengthen the residents of southern Israel, security forces defending Israel’s borders and prayers for the safety of the abducted and missing people.

The organizers of the initiative, Mosaic United, the World Zionist Organization and other Jewish and Israeli organizations, produced a special booklet that includes traditional texts for the kiddush blessing over wine, the Shalom Aleichem song welcoming the Sabbath, alongside Israeli songs and testimonies from people who survived the October 7 massacre in southern Israel.

The initiative was joined by more than 30 organizations from Israel and the Jewish community, including the European Jewish Association, the Boy Scouts of America, the women’s organization Momentum, Nefesh B’Nefesh, the World Jewish Congress and others.

The project includes a printable placemat, designed with 199 Stars of David on it, matching the number of captives and missing persons, that people can print at home and place on their tables next to a symbolic empty chair, reserved for the captives and those who are missing.

“The initiative to hold a worldwide Kabbalat Shabbat is to connect all parts of the Jewish people and create a strong human tapestry,” said Gusti Yehoshua Braverman, Head of the Department for Organization and Connection with Israelis Abroad in the World Zionist Organization.

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