“Earning a Meaningful Living”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Terumah is the first of the five concluding parashiot of the book of Exodus that describe the building of the Tabernacle, the portable Temple that the Jews used for worship in the wilderness. Both the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the vestments of the priests are filled with much symbolic meaning that we have discussed at length in previous analyses of the parasha.

The Shulchan, the Table of Showbread, was the only furnishing located inside the Tabernacle itself, upon which food, in limited quantity, was permitted. The Lechem Ha’panim (showbread) were eaten by the priests every Shabbat when the previous week’s breads were exchanged for fresh breads. In contrast, the Earthen Altar, which was outside the Tabernacle, served as a place of sacrifice, and the abundant meat offerings that were brought upon the altar were often eaten by the priests and, at times, by the individuals who brought the offerings.

The fact that the Table of Showbread is inside the Tabernacle itself reflects its special holiness, not only of the food that was placed on the Table, but also the holiness of the actual Table itself.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains at length the many symbolic meanings that are reflected in the Table and its ancillary utensils.

The Bible states in Exodus 25:23, “V’ah’see’tah shulchan ah’tzei shee’teem, ah’mah’tah’yim or’ko, v’amah rach’bo, v’amah va’chay’tzee ko’mah’to,” You shall make a Table of acacia wood, two cubits in length, a cubit in width and a cubit and a half in height. The Torah then states that the wood of the Table must be covered with pure gold and fitted with a golden crown around its perimeter. Rings of acacia wood covered with gold must be built into the Table structure for the placement of staves, again made of wood covered with gold, by which the Table is transported. Special utensils shall be prepared for the Table including spoons and shelving rods. Finally, in Exodus 25:30 we are told, “V’nah’tah’tah ahl ha’shulchan leh’chem pa’neem l’fah’nay tamid,” You shall place on the Table, showbread, to be before me at all times.

Rabbi Hirsch notes that the Table was made principally of wood that comes from a living tree that has the possibility of blossoming, representing ever-freshness and progressive development. Although the wooden parts of the Table were covered with gold, representing firmness and strength, the gold was not conspicuous and the essence of the Table’s character was basically wood.

The Table, says Rabbi Hirsch, represents “the development of the material aspect of the national life of the Jewish people.” How one earns a living, how one puts bread on the table, is of great importance to G-d in His concern for the character of the people. That is why a Zer zahav, a solid gold crown, was attached to the periphery of the Table. The way a Jew earns a living must be based on pure gold, reflecting a solid and sterling foundation.

The crown is intended to keep away anything unrefined and unholy from the activities and purposes of earning a living. Quite a challenge we must admit. After all, the material side of life is physical and seductive, and presents a great danger of lack of purity and holiness. The golden crown is an essential part of the Table, to ensure sanctity in all material endeavors.

No matter how much one prays, or worships, and or how many ritual acts one performs, the true test of a sincere religious person takes place not in the synagogue, but in the marketplace. The rabbis declare (Shabbat 31a) that the question that the soul of the deceased is first asked upon arriving in the world to come is, “Nah’sah’tah v’nah’tah’tah beh’emunah?” Were you honest in business? The Table of Showbread, thus, represents perhaps the most important ingredient in a Jew’s spiritual life. Spirituality, of course, is expected to be found in Temples and houses of worship. It is outside the synagogue, outside the house of worship, and outside the Temple, where one’s true spirituality is displayed.

The bread that is placed on this Table, is called Lechem ha’paneem, bread with a face. According to the rabbinic description, these breads were similar to “u” shaped matzahs. Six of the breads were piled one on top of the other on one side of the Table, the other six piled on the other side of the Table. The lower breads supported the upper breads. Rabbi Hirsch says that this mutual support is only possible if all selfishness is put aside, and one’s self is given up for the interest of the other. When looking for a comfortable standard of living, every person “acquires and holds as much for others as for himself, grants as much, or nearly as much, of the abundance of his table to his neighbor, as to his own table.”

As a further sign of the brotherliness represented by the Table, each loaf of bread was made of two esronim of flour, representing a double portion, enough for two people to eat. Similarly, the stacks of bread were laid out side-by-side in pairs.

It is rather odd, indeed unsettling, that most people today, myself included, identify themselves primarily through their jobs, through how they earn a living. “I’m a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker.” Few people instinctively respond, “I am a father, a mother, a child, a parent, a husband, or a wife.” It is as if being able to fill out someone’s tax return is somehow more important than being an effective parent or loving spouse! The Tabernacle and the Table of Showbread put the experience of earning a living into its proper perspective.

Not only do our prayers and our worship need to be sanctified. Our work, our labor and our means of earning a living need to be sanctified as well. That is what is reflected in the message of the Shulchan, the Table of Showbread.

May you be blessed.