“The Shulchan–Much More Than Just a Table”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, the Children of Israel are asked to donate the necessary materials to be used for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, that was to be situated in the midst of the camp of Israel.

In Exodus 25:8, The Al-mighty tells Moses to inform Israel, וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ , וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם  and they shall make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

There were six basic furnishings of the Tabernacle: the אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת –-the Ark of Testimony, the שֻׁלְחָן–-the Table of Showbread, the  מְנֹרָה–the seven-branched Candelabra, the מִזְבֵּחַ הַזָּהָב–the Golden Altar for incense, the מִזְבֵּחַ הַנְּחוֹשֶׁת–the Brass Altar for sacrifice and the כִּיּוֹר–the Basin for washing the priests’ hands and feet.

In Exodus 25:23, G-d instructs Moses, וְעָשִׂיתָ שֻׁלְחָן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים  You shall make a table of acacia wood. The Torah then records the specific dimensions of the table: two cubits its length, a cubit its width, and a cubit and a half its height. The wooden table is to be covered with pure gold and a golden crown is to be placed around the frame. The table had shelves affixed to its sides to accommodate twelve special loaves of bread. The loaves, known as  לֶחֶם הַפָּנִיםShowbread, looked very much like matzah that were turned up on either side like a face.

The twelve loaves of לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים were baked fresh every Friday.  Every Shabbat, the new loaves replaced the previous week’s loaves that were eaten immediately by the Kohanim–the priests. The לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים were stacked, six loaves each on either side of the table. A space was left for air to flow through when the loaves were stacked on the shelves, to ensure that the bread would not spoil. Although the Midrash cited by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov states that the breads miraculously remained fresh for an entire week and that the old breads were always as warm and as fresh as the new breads. Nevertheless, the practice was not to rely on miracles.

The Table of Showbread in the Tabernacle and in the Temple represented the economic well-being of the people of Israel. Only at the time of creation, did the Al-mighty create ex nihilo, something out of nothing. After creation, creatio ex nihilo ceased. Therefore, it became necessary for people to work to earn a living. But, the original source of economic blessing always emanated from the Shulchan in the Tabernacle. It was for this reason that the Showbread was placed on the Table, serving as a symbol of G-d’s beneficence and bestowing an economic blessing upon all humanity.

The Torah, in Leviticus 24:5-9, describes how the Showbread is made, and is to be exchanged with fresh loaves every Shabbat. The Talmud, Menachot 99b, states that after the fresh Showbread was stacked on the Table, the old loaves were distributed among the priests who served on that particular rotation. The Midrash (again cited by Rabbi Eliyahu KiTov) maintains that even if a priest received a minuscule amount, a crumb the size of a bean, the priest was always, miraculously, satisfied. And when the priests are satisfied, the entire nation is blessed, and with them the entire world.

Rabbi KiTov notes how Tradition asserts that every home is capable of recreating the experience of the Tabernacle and the Temple. In every home and at every table where people gather to eat, an elevated sense of satisfaction and pleasure can be achieved, if those present at the meal discuss Torah, bless G-d for His generosity and make an effort to provide for the poor and the needy. Such a table is worthy of being called a table of G-d and a table of kings. Such a table becomes tantamount to an altar of forgiveness, and the bread is regarded as equivalent to a sacrifice on the ancient altar.

Rabbeinu Bachya writes that it was the custom of the righteous people in France to be buried in a coffin made from the wood taken from their home table, to demonstrate that a person cannot carry anything with him when he leaves the world. Only one’s acts of charity, performed during one’s lifetime, and acts of kindness that benefited others at one’s table, accompany a person on his/her final journey.

That is why the Talmud (Brachot 54b) maintains that one who prolongs his meals at his table is blessed with a prolonged life, because such a person provides an opportunity for one’s guests to benefit from his table. Such a person surely merits long life in this world and eternal life in the World to Come.

May you be blessed.