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The Holy Table 6-June-12

The Holy Table

As you may know, I have taught a Talmud class on Friday mornings for over 20 years. Recently, we looked at some teachings about what prolongs life (which include some dubious medical advice, but that’s another story). One of them that remains timely is this (with the translation and running commentary from the brand-new Steinsaltz English edition), “

“Prolonging one’s mealtime at the table:” Perhaps a poor person will come during the meal and the host will be in a position to give him food immediately, without forcing the poor person to wait.…Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for his transgressions.

People lived less insulated lives back then. The poor would go from house to house seeking food. By lingering at the table, one increased the chances that a hungry pauper would come by and thereby be fed. This is one way in which the family table is a mikdash m’at, a small sanctuary. Notice that what makes the dining table holy is not saying blessings over the food or any other ritual practice — but giving from it to the poor. In this way not only our tables, but also our homes become holy places.

There is another teaching that dramatizes this concept. It is from the Kav Hayashar, an 18th century work of ethical teachings by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Koidanover. He describes a burial custom in Poland of his time: “There are some whose custom it was to be buried in coffins made from the tables on which they studied or from which they fed the poor or on which they worked faithfully.”

What do these three tables have in common? Each represents a kind of love: the Torah table represents love of God’s word and of fulfilling it; the tzedakah table, love of others, expressed through active concern; the work table, love of conducting our business with integrity and consideration for the customer. Each represents a way of transforming something physical into something spiritual: books into wisdom; money into compassion; work into tikkun olam (bettering the world). This is the genius of Judaism: we don’t find holiness by separating from the world. We create holiness by bringing God’s influence into the world.

How do we make our table a holy place today when the likelihood of someone in need knocking on our door today is very small? Here are some ideas:

Whenever you shop for groceries, buy something for the food bank barrel in Beth David’s lobby.

Help the Faith in Action Shelter (located this month at Beth David), by making a meal or donating for food: To find out about the larger organization, look at

One interesting link: Avi West writes about the difference between saying “My home is my castle,” and My home is my sanctuary:”

Shameless plug: one thing you might serve for dinner is duck, so don’t forget to buy some ducks for the Silicon Valley Duck Race: