Thursday, March 22, 2007

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A Jewish Table

by Reb Gutman Locks of the Old City, Jerusalem, Israel at Mystical Paths

Since this week’s portion deals almost exclusively with Temple offerings, which do not take place today, what are we to learn from these sacrifices?

As we discussed in the portion Terumah, now that the Temple no longer exists, our prayers of thanks, blessings and the customs we perform at our dining room table now fill in for the altar and sacrifices. Many of our dining customs today are rooted in ancient Torah practices. To cite a few:

* 1. The meal-offering was an offering of flour and was usually mixed with oil. Offerings, including this one, were always offered with salt. “You shall salt your every meal-offering with salt; you may not discontinue the salt of your God’s covenant from upon your meal-offering . . ..”[i] Various reasons are given as to why an offering had to be salted. For instance, salt is a preservative, so we are showing that our sacrifice is sincere and lasting; salt is white, which is considered pure; and salt never loses its flavor. Actually, salt used to be a very valuable commodity. [ii]

This law is still maintained today, albeit as a custom and not as an actual law. We are accustomed to dipping our bread in salt before eating it. It also is the custom to dip the bread in salt three times. The reason given is that the gematria (numerical equivalent) of “Hashem” equals 26, and the gematria of bread and salt equals three times 26.

* 2. Another custom at the table that derives from our history is the way we cover the challah (Shabbat bread) when making Kiddush over wine. The reason given for covering it in the first place is so the bread will not become embarrassed. Do inanimate things become embarrassed? What this really means is that bread is the staple of a meal. If we put the wine before the bread, as we must do on Shabbat, it seems as if we are disdaining the bread, which we are not. So we cover it regally instead of “embarrassing” it. Then, after making Kiddush, we uncover the bread, giving it its proper place in full view before saying the blessing for bread.

A Torah-related method of covering the bread is to cover it with two cloths, one below the loaves and one above. The reason for this is that when the manna was given in the wilderness it was covered with dew both below and above.

Why are we strict to use two whole loaves when we eat bread on Shabbat? Some say because we are given the commands to guard and remember. But a more obvious reason is to recall the manna. The manna fell overnight and each morning we would gather just enough for that day. If we gathered too much it would invariably rot. We were not allowed to gather on Shabbat and in fact it did not fall on Shabbat. However, on Friday a double portion fell and it did not rot. The two loaves remind us of that double portion.

* 3. We also hold the Kiddush cup in an unusual manner. Why do we do this? First, we fill the cup until the wine overflows. This reflects the words in the Kiddush prayer, “my cup is full.” Overflowing the cup shows that our cup is indeed full. Wine symbolizes joy and the mystical aspects of Torah, and we are saying that our share in these is overflowing.

We hold the cup in the palm of our hand, with our fingers cupping the cup. Some have the custom of holding it in their fingertips. Why do we hold it this way only for Kiddush, and not any other time we drink? In the Kiddush prayer this meal is called ”the meal of the King,” and you are sitting in the King’s place. Imagine you are a real king and you wish to have a cup of wine. What would you do? Reach out and take the bottle? No way. Ask the servant for some wine? Never! Clap your hands so the wine steward would give you the cup? No. You would simply hold out your hand palm upward, and the wine steward would place the filled cup in your palm. Holding a cup like this shows that you did not pick it up, but like a king, some other hand put it there.

* 4. Before we can eat bread, we must wash our hands in a specific manner. The Torah reason why we wash the way we do before the meal will be discussed in the portion Metzora. The reason we wash after eating reminds us of the time when, after a meal, we would eat a bit of salt from Sodom because it was a strong digestive aid. But it was so strong that if it got into someone’s eye, it could cause blindness. So we wash to be sure it is gone.

* 5. Bentching: The after-dinner prayers are actually commanded from the Torah itself. “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you will bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.”[ iii]

So many of our customs today are rooted in thousands of years of having a Jewish table.

[i] Lev 2:13
[ii] Some places salt was used as money (salary.)
[iii] Deut 8:10

Don't forget Reb Nati's Kimcha d'Pischa - Moas Chitim campaign to Help the Poor in the Shomron (West Bank) and other parts of Israel for this Passover. Info Here. Thank you to those who have helped so far!!! May Hashem bless you to always be able to!


Anonymous said...

I found your information on dining customs very enlightening. I do have one question someone has told me that if the head of the house is finished eating he will place the napkin on top of his plate. If he is coming back he will fold it neatly and put up beside his plate is this true

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